So far in the SHL’s minor league, the competitors have been pretty well matched. Most of the teams are within a game or two of the .500 mark. There are a couple of exceptions, however. In particular, there’s one team that stands head and shoulders above the rest: the Virginia Rhinos. The affiliate of the Saskatchewan Shockers is threatening to run away with the league.
The Rhinos’ record is an astounding 18-6-1. They are 7 points ahead of the next-best team in the league; in the East, they’re 9 points up on the second-place Maine Moose. “This must have been what it was like to race against Secretariat,” said Moose coach Barney Flintridge. “Right now, all we can see are the taillights.”
What’s been the secret to the Rhinos’ success? It starts with a turnaround season in net. Last year, Shawn Stickel was a newly-drafted goalie backing up Zeke Zagurski in Saskatchewan. Stickel’s rookie season was a disaster, going 1-12-0 with a 5.29 GAA. His most notable exploit was getting arrested after getting liquored up on a cross-country flight and joyriding a baggage cart. “I was on my own for the first time,” Stickel admitted, “so I was acting young and dumb.”
At risk of throwing away his career, Stickel devoted the offseason to getting himself back on track. He went to an alcohol treatment program and swore off drinking. He also spent countless hours refining his craft, studying tape to identify the flaws in his game and working with coaches and ex-teammates to correct them. The results have been evident: this season, Stickel has gone 14-4-1 with a 2.20 GAA and a .927 save percentage.
“Honestly, I’m glad I wound up in the minors,” said Stickel. “When you’re a backup in the pros, especially as a young guy, it’s hard to stay sharp and improve. And you wind up with a lot of time on your hands, which I filled with drinking and goofing around. Here, knowing my team’s counting on me almost every day, it’s easy to keep that mental edge. And it’s given me an opportunity to practice the things I worked on over the summer, and continue to get better.”
Stickel’s solid goaltending seals up the defensive end for the Rhinos. On the offensive end, they benefit from a potent and varied offense. Their top line features two of the CHL’s top scorers, LW Yuri Laronov (11 goals, 28 points) and RW Colton Jabril (12 goals, 29 points), flanking one of the best passers, C Tanner Brooks (24 assists). Coach Jeffrey “Swampy” Marsh likes to activate his defensemen on the attack, and the results have been evident. Blake Blacklett is the CHL’s premier offensive defenseman (12 goals, 26 points), and Virginia has a couple other strong two-way threats in Robby Rohrman (9 goals, 21 points) and Rennie Cox (8 goals, 19 points).
“I’m seeing a lot of guys here who are SHL-caliber already, to be honest,” said Marsh. “I don’t know if there’s going to be room in Saskatchewan next year for all the guys who deserve to be there.”
To be sure, the season’s not yet at the halfway point, and the Rhinos could easily cool off between now and the end of the year. But right now, it’s easy to look at the talent on the ice in Virginia every night and imagine them powering a future contender in Saskatchewan. “All the guys we have are happy to be here,” said Marsh, “but I know none of them really wants to be here. They want to be in the majors. And it’s my job to help them get there. I can’t wait to see how their careers unfold.”