“If I had to put a timeline on when we’re going to compete, I’d say sometime between next year and the end of the universe.”
- Boston Badgers GM Jody Melchiorre
“If I had to put a timeline on when we’re going to compete, I’d say sometime between next year and the end of the universe.”
Back in 2016, defenseman Patrick Banks was riding high. He’d just won the Vandy with the Michigan Gray Wolves, and he headed into free agency with the chance to land a lucrative multi-year deal; he ultimately signed with the Washington Galaxy, where he was expected to be a rising two-way star on the blueline.
Since then, though, things have gone downhill. He had a dismal year in Washington, putting up only 2 goals and 15 assists and finding himself a frequent target of boos at the Constellation Center. The Galaxy were sufficiently discouraged by his poor performance and sizable price tag that they left him unprotected in the expansion draft, where he was claimed by the Boston Badgers. And now, in the middle of a decent but unspectacular season, Banks has suffered a major leg injury that will sideline him for the rest of the year.
“This is just heartbreaking,” said Badgers coach Cam Prince. “All of us feel awful for Banksy.”
Banks’ injury occurred in the third period of Sunday’s 3-0 win over the Saskatchewan Shockers. Banks was skating through center ice as he brought the puck up. He was looking to connect with LW Lix Darnholm and start and odd-man rush, but he didn’t see Shockers LW Tadeusz Adamczyk drawing a bead on him. Adamczyk seemed to duck a bit as he collided with Banks, and the Boston blueliner wound up cartwheeling in the air and landing in a heap near the red line.
“We knew there was an issue when he didn’t pop right back up,” said Badgers C Jens Bunyakin. “Banksy’s a tough customer; it seems like you could hit him with a freight train and he’d walk away without a scratch. But he stayed down.”
Trainer Jordan Klifford rushed out to tend to Banks, who was writhing in obvious pain. Klifford and Bunyakin had to help Banks off the ice; the blueliner wasn’t putting weight on his right leg. The crowd at Shawmut Arena fell dead silent, sensing that something was terribly wrong.
As it turned out, the fans were right to be concerned. Examination revealed that Banks had suffered a fractured tibia and a torn ACL. He will undergo surgery and will not play again in 2018. Prince said that the team is “cautiously optimistic” that he will be back in time for the beginning of the 2019 season, but that it’s too soon to be sure.
“This sucks,” said Banks about his injury. “There’s no better way to say it; it just sucks. I thought things were looking up for me, and now this happens. I’m just frustrated and pissed.”
The injury also ended any hope Banks might have had for getting traded to a contender. Though the Badgers were reportedly not shopping him, sources close to the defenseman say that he was hopeful that a deal might be worked out. Now he’ll stay in Boston, and try to get his once-promising career back on track next season… whenever he’s healthy enough to play.
Amid the flurry of activity at the trading deadline, with contenders making both small and large moves to load up for a playoff push, one deal wasn’t like the others. It was a trade between two non-contending teams that involved no big-name players. Arguably, there was only one reason that the deal was made: to satisfy Diego Garcia’s trade demand.
Garcia, a 26-year-old winger, has had a productive season with the New York Night’s minor-league affiliate in Utah; his 41 points this season led the team. But when it became clear that the Night had no intention of promoting him to the big club, Garcia grew disenchanted and demanded to be traded.
Three weeks later, New York accommodated Garcia’s demand, sending him to the Boston Badgers, an expansion club that is thirsty for offense.
“We took Diego’s demand seriously,” said Night coach Nick Foster. “I’ve always been straight with my guys about my plans for them.” After Garcia made his demand, Foster said that he called the disgruntled winger to talk about his place in the organization. “I told him my thinking and how I saw our forward situation, and what I thought he’d need to do to crack the lineup here,” the coach told reporters. “After we talked, Diego felt like he’d prefer to go somewhere that he would have an opportunity right away, and we looked for a chance to make that happen.”
In Garcia, Boston acquires an undeniably talented player, but one whose lackluster work habits and prickly personality have caused him to wear out his welcome in multiple cities. He posted 9 goals and 22 assists over pieces of three SHL seasons with Dakota, Hamilton, and New York. He has a reputation as a player who can contribute on offense, especially as a passer. However, he is considered weak on defense, which makes him an odd fit for a Badgers team that is supposedly built around defense and hard work.
On the other hand, Boston’s need for offense is so acute – they are last in the league in goals scored by a considerable margin – that they may be willing to explore unorthodox choices. Head coach Cam Prince was an assistant in New York during Garcia’s time there, and he likes what the winger brings to the table. “Diego is a talented guy who has the explosiveness to make things happen,” said Prince. “We could use a little extra pace and a spark on offense, and I think he can give us that.”
In exchange for Garcia and 19-year-old defenseman Horst Hasenkamp, the Badgers sent the Night a pair of players. The prime return for New York is 29-year-old defenseman Shane Gladchuk, who put up 2 goals and 10 assists in 40 games with Boston. Gladchuk, who is in his second tour of duty with New York, is expected to join Andy Ruger on the Night’s bottom defensive pairing.
In addition, the Night acquired Alvin Fawn, a 19-year-old prospect who scored 7 points over 36 games in the minors this season.
“Shane is one of those guys who doesn’t grab the headlines, but he does a good steady job,” said Foster. “We’re looking to tighten up in our own end, and Shane’s just the guy we need to help with that. If everything works out the way I think it will, I hope we’ll be able to lock him up long-term.”
It’s been a difficult season for Boston Badgers RW Cary Estabrook. The 23-year-old winger signed with Boston last year – the first player ever signed by the Badgers – while he was rehabbing from a major knee injury. He made the team out of training camp, but he has struggled badly this season. Estabrook’s injury seems to have robbed him of some explosiveness, and he has struggled to adjust to the speed of the professional game. He has yet to record a point this season.
An already difficult season got worse for Estabrook this week, as a couple of incidents got him in hot water with Badgers coach Cam Prince.
Prince has been trying to impose some discipline on his young and struggling team, holding additional practices and meetings. The coach called a team meeting on Monday morning to discuss the team’s work ethic, which he felt has been lacking. Estabrook overslept and missed the meeting, and didn’t show up until halfway through that day’s practice.
“I just forgot to set my alarm, I guess,” Estabrook told reporters. “I knew we had a meeting, and I was planning to go, but then I woke up and looked at the clock like, ‘Oh [expletive], I’m late.’”
Prince responded by fining Estabrook $500 and benching him for the next day’s game against the Hershey Bliss. “We’re all professionals here, and part of that is taking responsibility and getting where you need to be on time. If Cary had bothered to show up for the meeting, he would have heard me talk about that.”
Estabrook was back in the lineup for Wednesday’s game against the Michigan Gray Wolves, although he saw his minutes significantly limited. In the middle of the third period, the puck was flipped out of play and into the Badgers’ bench, where Estabrook was sitting. The winger decided to flip the puck over the glass to a fan sitting behind him. Unfortunately, the puck didn’t get the height that Estabrook intended, and it wound up failing to clear the glass… and striking his coach straight in the forehead.
Prince clutched his forehead and doubled over as the trainer and assistant coaches rushed to his aid. As Estabrook turned around and realized what he had done, his heart sank. “God, that’s the last thing I needed,” the winger said. “That’s how bad my year is going: I try to give a fan a souvenir and I wind up beaning my coach in the head. I just can’t keep the ball out of the gutter.”
Although the puck opened up a cut on Prince’s forehead that bled profusely, he was able to get things under control and did not require stitches. He was initially upset about the incident, but he softened after Estabrook apologized and explained what happened.
“There’s always a risk of flying pucks when you’re on the bench, but you don’t usually expect friendly fire,” Prince told reporters after the game. “I know Cary and I have been butting heads lately, but I believe he wasn’t out to get me. It’s just one of those unfortunate things that can happen to anybody.”
Estabrook now faces the tougher challenge of getting his lost season back on track. Rumors around the team suggest that the winger, a Rhode Island native whom the Badgers hoped would become a face of the franchise, is struggling with the weight of expectations and has been drinking and partying to excess to relieve some of the stress. According to those rumors, his “oversleeping” on Monday was actually the result of a hangover.
Estabrook denied that specific charge, although he was vague on the subject of his late-night habits. “It’s been a hard time for me all around,” he admitted. “I’m not going to respond to rumors or anonymous quotes. The bottom line is, I’ve got to buckle down and get myself straightened out. That’s all there is to it.”
The Boston Badgers are dedicated to providing their fans with “a game-day experience they can’t get just anywhere,” in the words of owner Paul Galette. In their first week of existence, they’ve managed to do just that thanks to a unique feature at Shawmut Arena: the Badger Emporium.
At first glance, the Emporium – located on the first floor of the arena – appears to be a typical team store, with a variety of Badger apparel and merchandise available for sale. But the middle of the Emporium contains something quite different from your average store.
The highlight of the display is an enclosure that contains real live badgers, reportedly from the owner’s personal collection. The enclosure is home to nine badgers in all (as it is well known that nine is the ideal size for a group of badgers). The accommodations include beds, toys, and exercise equipment. Fans can watch the badgers at work, rest, and play. Not only that, they have a chance to feed the badgers (safely, behind a Plexiglas screen).
“The badger is more than just a mascot to us,” said Galette, “but it represents the kind of team we’re putting on the ice: fierce, industrious, and kind of terrifying. We want to give our fans a chance to see what that’s like.”
Next to the enclosure, there are a couple of video games that allow fans to enjoy a more immersive badger experience. One game, aimed at kids, features Boston’s mascot Scratch. The fans have the opportunity to dress up scratch in a variety of outfits, from hockey gear to police and fire uniforms to rock star costumes. Once they’ve got Scratch in an outfit they like, fans can send their creations to their devices or post them on social media.
“My favorite so far was when we had a Fall Out Boy concert just before the start of the season,” said Galette. “Somebody did three Scratches, which they dressed up like the band members and called them ‘Fall Out Badgers.’ That was fantastic!”
For older kids and adults, there are virtual reality helmets that give fans the chance to experience life as a badger (the animal) or a Badger (the hockey player). As the animal, they can dig burrows, hunt for food, or spend time with the other members of their clan. As the player, they get to be on the ice next to actual Boston players, trying to score the winning goal.
“The VR helmets have been a big hit!” said the Badgers owner. “We actually had to add a couple more because so many people wanted to use them. I love it because it brings the fans closer to the team and to the animals.”
The fans certainly seem to agree. 11-year-old Jacob Findlay of Peabody, who visited the Emporium between periods of Tuesda’s 4-3 win over Hershey, came away with an ear-to-ear grin. “I got to feed the badgers, then I scored the game-winning goal on a slapper from the blue line. It was awesome!”
Coming into last season, the Bliss had a reputation as a team with talent, but a persistent habit of coming up short in the clutch. Then they outlasted Washington to win the East, then stunned heavily-favored Anchorage in 7 games to win the Vandy. Now, the Bliss head into 2018 as favorites to repeat as division champs, and perhaps become the first SHL team to win back-to-back championships. The “Love Line” of LW Lance Sweet, C Justin Valentine, and RW Christopher Hart remains intact, as does their top defensive pairing of Reese Milton and Joel Baldwin. The second line (LW Russell Nahorniak, C Spencer Kirkpatrick, and RW Noah Daniels), which took a key step forward last year, is still in place. The only key contributor who isn’t back is veteran C Henry Constantine, a vocal clubhouse leader. Meanwhile, the team added several quality rookies (D Cedric Meloche, C Yegor Nestorov, F Anton Lapointe) along with a couple of key free agents (D Jean-Luc Aubin and LW Trevor Green). Put it all together, and it should be the same formula for victory that worked so well last season: a fast, high-scoring offense and a reliable defense. If there are any question marks here, they’re in net. Brandon Colt shocked the world in last season’s Finals and earned the MVP award. If he can approach that level during 2018, Hershey has a fine shot to be back-to-back champs; if he reverts to the solid-but-unspectacular form he’s displayed in the rest of his career, the Bliss could be vulnerable. Backup Milo Stafford defied the odds in 2017 with another great year, but he’s turning 36 and seems destined to decline eventually. If that happens this year, the Bliss might not have such a sweet finish.
As long as there’s been an SHL, the Galaxy have been contenders for the title. They made back-to-back Finals trips in ’15 and ’16, then finished a close second to Hershey last season. This year, though, they’ll likely miss the playoffs and might not even reach the .500 mark. What went wrong? Primarily, how they’ve bungled free agency. Last season’s big signing was D Patrick Banks, who inked a three-year deal amid much fanfare. He flopped in DC, scoring only 2 goals while struggling to mesh with Grant Warriner on the second pairing. The Galaxy left him exposed in the expansion draft, where he was selected by Boston. Backup goalie Ron Mason, another big-money signing, put up a much better season (11-10-0, 2,78 GAA, .911 save percentage); unfortunately, Washington had only inked him to a one-year deal, and he bolted to rival Hamilton this offseason. Instead, the Galaxy will rely on rookie Darrell Bondurant, who didn’t wow anyone in the minors last year. Coming into this offseason, the Galaxy had two big names to re-sign: wingers Casey Thurman and Walt Camernitz. Washington made a priority of Thurman, and they inked him to a five-year, $20 million contract. However, they wound up alienating Camernitz; the gritty and underrated forward wound up in Quebec instead, blowing a huge hole in Washington’s second line. (C J.C. Marais, coming off of a bad year at age 33, is another concern.) Next, the Galaxy declined to tender an offer to rugged third-line RW Sindri Pentti, declaring that he was over the hill at age 35. Pentti ended up joining Camernitz in Quebec, while Washington filled his slot with Roman Bandikoff, who is just as old, put up similar numbers, and has a worse defensive reputation. The bottom line: the Galaxy will likely be worse on offense, defense, and in net. Meanwhile, Hamilton, Quebec, and even New York all improved, often at Washington’s expense. Making matters worse, Washington’s store of prospects is pretty thin. It seems unlikely that the Galaxy could tumble from second to fifth, but that’s arguably more likely than the chances of them winning the division again.
If there’s a team that can topple the Bliss atop the East, it’s most likely to be the Pistols. Hamilton has plenty of star-quality talent in its ranks; LW Steven Alexander may be the SHL’s best pure scorer, C Calvin Frye its finest young player, Raymond Smyth its finest blueliner. What’s held them back in the past is a lack of balance and depth. In particular, the Pistols’ third line was a disaster last season; they gave up tons of shot opportunities whenever they were on the ice. To fix the balance problem, Hamilton acquired several solid veterans: C Henry Constantine (who got a ring with Hershey last year), G Ron Mason (who won the Vandy with Anchorage in ’15), and D Craig Werner. Then they overhauled the third line and bottom defensive pairing, calling up a number of players who showed well with their affiliate in Oshawa last season. The new bunch is green and may take some time to mesh, but they should hold their own against the bottom-end units on other clubs. With the four-team playoff field this year, there’s a good shot that Hamilton makes the postseason for the first time. But the picture feels unfinished; the Pistols seem a piece or two away from becoming a truly elite team. Maybe they acquire the missing pieces at the trade deadline, or maybe they add them next season. Either way, this seems like a team on the rise; it seems likely we’ll be seeing Keith Shields‘ crew in the postseason for some time to come.
In their second season, the Tigres showed signs of growth and improvement; they finished out of the cellar, and the hard-nosed defensive ethic preached by coach Martin Delorme appeared to be taking root. But their upside potential was limited by a stagnant, impotent offense; by and large, Quebec seemed content to jam up the neutral zone and try to win ugly, 1-0 games. This approach worked all right when Riki Tiktuunen was between the pipes, but not at all when the fragile netminder was absent. (The Tigres went 17-14-7 in Tiktuunen’s starts, and 3-19-0 with anyone else in the crease.) GM Pete Gondret made aggressive moves to shore up the Tigres’ weak spots; they may be the most improved team this season, and that’s not even including their sharp new uniforms. To bolster the attack, Gondret signed a pair of ex-Washington teammates, LW Walt Camernitz and RW Sindri Pentti. Both are rugged two-way players that are well-suited to Quebec’s style of play, but they should also give the offense a much-needed shot in the arm. To shore up the goaltending situation, Gondret signed Riley Lattimore to back up Tiktuunen. Lattimore posted a respectable 2.96 GAA and .909 save percentage in Anchorage last season; he should ensure that the Tigres can compete on nights when Tiktuunen isn’t in net. So the Tigres will be better… but will they be a contender? That likely depends on two things: whether Tiktuunen can stay healthy, and whether Camernitz is able to take the scoring burden off of Stephane Mirac and help the latter bounce back from his sophomore slump. If those things pan out – and if Delorme can get his messy personal life under control – this is a team that could surprise.
Last season, new coach Nick Foster came in determined to shake up a struggling club. He was determined to fix the sour team chemistry and improve the team’s leaky defense while maintaining their usual offensive pop. Foster certainly shook things up; he called out his team publicly, juggled lines freely, and didn’t hesitate to bench, demote, or trade players who didn’t get with the program. After all the upheaval, though, things didn’t work out as Foster hoped; instead, the offense dropped back to the middle of the pack, while the defense remained as porous as ever. The one bright spot was the goaltending, with Jesse Clarkson and rookie Sherman Carter both turning in solid seasons, but they were under constant siege. And while there are some new faces, most of the changes were lateral moves. And with many teams in the East making serious upgrades, it’s tough to picture New York moving up. If the Night are going to contend, they’ll need to see improvement from their existing players. Last year, almost everyone on the team had a down year. RW Ivan “Trainwreck” Trujwirnek and D Rocky Winkle were two of the only exceptions; the rest of the squad would do well to copy their energetic two-way play. Perhaps the biggest key to New York’s success is RW Rick “The Stick” Nelson. The enigmatic star had a dismal season, clashing repeatedly with Foster and scoring only 20 goals while showing the same disinterest in passing and defense that he always has. The most notable “highlight” of his year was getting beaten up in a bar fight. Foster reportedly pushed to get rid of Nelson in the offseason, but owner Marvin Kingman blocked the move. If Nelson can swallow his pride and step up his game, he could be the difference maker that pushes the Night to a playoff spot. If he can’t, it could be another long year in the Big Apple… and Foster might wind up paying with his job.
The big victory in Boston this season already happened, when the Badgers were chosen as one of the SHL’s new expansion teams. GM Jody Melchiorre, who came up with the Igloos organization, has emphasized the desire to build a “blue-collar team.” He’s done well at that, assembling a youthful collection of muckers and grinders through the expansion draft. This is a scrappy team that should be good at wall work and winning puck battles in the corners; they won’t be a fun opponent, to say the least. But it’s best not to expect too much from this bunch, because of the missing ingredient: offense. LW Lix Darnholm, a Swedish prospect who was the first overall pick in the draft, is the only legitimate scoring threat Boston has. Opposing defenses will stack up to stop him, as there’s no one else on the team who can make them pay. They’re likely to try the Quebec route of slowing the pace and trying to win low-scoring games on fluke goals. But the Tigres had a secret weapon to make that strategy work: Tiktuunen, one of the league’s best young netminders. Neither of the Badgers’ goalies, Dennis Wampler or rookie Carson Wagner, is anywhere near Tiktuunen’s class. This should be a hard-working and reasonably entertaining team that will endear itself to the fans in Beantown, but don’t expect a lot of victories. Not yet, anyway.
SHL Digest: This week, the Boston Badgers named their first-ever coach, Cam Prince. And we have the honor of being the first to interview him. Cam, thanks for speaking with us.
Cam Prince: I’m glad to be here! This is an exciting day for me.
SHLD: This is your first head coaching job. How does it feel to be getting your first shot with a brand-new team?
CP: It’s a very cool opportunity, to tell you the truth. It’s a total blank canvas here. I’m so excited to be working with [GM] Jody Melchiorre to build this team from the ground up.
SHLD: What convinced you to take this job?
CP: A number of things. I really like the opportunity to grow together with the team. And I think Boston is just a tremendous hockey team. So many diehard fans here. Finding a way to win them over to the Badgers is going to be a lot of fun.
SHLD: Jody has said that he wants to build a scrappy, hard-working, defense-first team. Meanwhile, you were an assistant coach for New York, which is a very offense-oriented team. Are you prepared to coach a team full of grinders?
CP: Oh, absolutely. My time with the Night definitely showed the limitations of an offense-only approach. And as an expansion team, it’s generally easier to put together a scrappy team rather than a squad of elite scorers.
SHLD: Speaking of your time with New York: Do you think that was a factor in your being selected as coach? Kind of trying to get started on the Boston-New York rivalry?
CP: I don’t think so. I mean, that might have been one reason they interviewed me. But it’s not like the Night fans have a lot of memories of me, or are going to have a grudge against me. I mean, Preston Rivers, sure. But I wasn’t as memorable as him.
SHLD: What about on your end? Do you have a personal rivalry with the Night?
CP: There’s no love lost there, I can promise that. I’ll definitely be fired up to coach against them. And if we can finish ahead of them in the standings, that will be a successful season in my book.
SHLD: So far, you have a grand total of one player: Cary Estabrook. Have you met him yet?
CP: (laughs) Not yet. I talked to him on the phone this morning. I told him I was looking forward to meeting the team. He said, “Well, you just did.”
SHLD: Care to make any predictions about how your first season will go?
CP: Before I even have players? Sure, we’re going to win the Vandy! (laughs) Seriously, with the [expansion draft] protection rules, I think we’ll have a chance to put together a solid team. Are we going to make the playoff right out of the box? I wouldn’t think so. But we should be able to re respectable, at least. And like I said, if we can beat New York, that will be a win for me.
SHLD: Well, we should let you get back to building your team. Congratulations, and good luck next season!
CP: Thanks! I can’t wait to get started.