Hershey’s Kennedy Skates With the Kids

Gene Kennedy

Hershey Bliss F Gene Kennedy is one of the few SHL players who has yet to see any ice time this season.  Tired of waiting for a chance to skate, Kennedy decided to make his own opportunity in an unorthodox manner that raised some eyebrows in the Bliss clubhouse and around the league.

Between the first and second periods of Tuesday’s game against the Washington Galaxy at the Chocolate Center, the Bliss held their usual “Pee Wee Playtime” game.  The game is a scrimmage between two team of local youth hockey players, who relish the opportunity to spend a few minutes on the same ice and shooting at the same nets as their heroes.

Observers quickly noticed that one of the players seemed a little different than the rest.  It was Kennedy, who had decided to join the youngsters for their scrimmage.  At 6-foot-2, the 25-year-old Kennedy didn’t exactly blend in with the 7-to-8-year-olds who made up the rest of the players.

“He just came out of nowhere,” said Bliss PA announcer Steve Leadbetter, who posted pictures and narratives of the scene on his Twitter account.  “At first, the kids were just doing their regular thing.  Then all of a sudden, Kennedy just came out from the Zamboni tunnel and just started skating with them.  Nobody was really sure what to make of it.”

“I was just trying to get my work in,” Kennedy explained after the game.  “I mean, you’ve got to stay sharp.  Skating in practice is okay, but I really need to get some work in at game speed.  Practice isn’t the same.  And from what I could tell, this was my best opportunity to get some ice time in-game.”

With a significant speed and size advantage over his fellow players, Kennedy dominated the scrimmage.  He had no trouble skating by the pee wee players, muscling them off the puck on occasion.  Shooting at both nets, the reserve forward scored 3 goals.

Nibs

At first, the fans assumed it was a deliberate joke, and reacted to Kennedy’s antics with laughter and cheers.  But as play continued and Kennedy hip-checked 7-year-old Jaylen Crossley and sent the young man sprawling to the boards, the cheers turned to boos.  At that point the Bliss mascot, Nibs, corraled Kennedy and ushered him off the ice.

“I felt bad about that,” Kennedy said of the check on Crossley.  “Totally unintentional.  I didn’t see him, but I felt him bump up against me.”  The winger signed his jersey and gave it to Crossley to make up for it.

Asked about Kennedy’s stunt, Bliss coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber quipped, “Well, I didn’t see it.  How did he look out there?”  The coach then added, “Look, I understand Gene’s frustrated about not getting to play. But all out forwards have been playing great.  Who do you sit?”

Kennedy’s teammates were more critical of his actions.  “It’s pretty unprofessional, if you ask me,” said Bliss C Henry Constantine.  “You’re not happy ’cause you’re not playing, fine.  Take it up with the coach.  Don’t show up your team and run the kids’ fun.  I know Gene’s kind of flaky, but there’s a limit.”

Barber said that he does not plan to discipline Kennedy for the incident, and he will look to get Kennedy some playing time.  “I’m doing it for the kids,” the coach joked.  “I’m trying to protect them from Gene.”

Hershey’s Gromov Gets Physical, Gets Suspended

Hershey Bliss D Ruslan Gromov is an old-school, hard-hitting blueliner.  His aggressive, take-no-guff approach to the game has won him both admirers and detractors.  On Saturday, in an otherwise unremarkable 5-2 win over the New York Night, Gromov’s physical play went over the line and earned him a one-game suspension.

Ruslan Gromov

Gromov has been vocal about his lack of respect for New York’s speed-and-offense-based game.  In the past, he’s said of New York’s game, “That’s not hockey; it’s figure skating.”  Almost from the drop of the puck, Gromov sought to intimidate the Night with his physical play.  He targeted one of New York’s more physical players, D Tuomas Nurmi, with a series of slashes and rough checks.  About a minute into the game, a frustrated Nurmi shoved Gromov in the chest.  Gromov responded by punching Nurmi in the side of the head.  The two wound up dropping gloves and tussling for a couple minutes before being separated and assessed matching majors.

“I do not know what his problem is,” said Nurmi of Gromov.  “He seemed like he is a crazy man.”

Later in the first period, the Night established possession in the offensive zone and began peppering shots at the Hershey net.  New York F Elmer Sigurdson, Jr. tried to set up a screen in front of the crease.  Gromov responded by drilling him in the back and riding him down to the ice, and was whistled for interference.

Early in the second period, Sigurdson tried to get even by laying a hard open-ice hit on Gromov.  The Hershey defenseman popped up and flung Sigurdson into the boards, earning another two-minute penalty for roughing.  The two seemed destined to scrap, and six minutes later, Gromov jumped Sigurdson on a faceoff and the antagonists began trading blows, resulting in another pair of fighting majors.

Gromov finally crossed the line early in the third period, when he rammed Night C Phil Miller in the stomach with the butt end of his stick.  That earned the defenseman a double minor for spearing and a game misconduct from referee Brandon Fosse.

Gromov claimed that his spearing of Miller was unintentional, but showed no remorse for his actions.  “I play a physical game,” the Bliss blueliner said.  “If the other team cannot handle that, they should not be playing hockey.”

The league wasted no time slapping Gromov with a suspension.  “While we don’t object to physical play in this league,” said SHL Commissioner Perry Mitchell, “there’s a difference between hard play and assault.  Gromov’s actions were reckless, unprovoked, and dangerous.  He could easily have injured someone with that kind of play.  We don’t want to discourage him from playing hard, but he’s got to know where to draw the line.”

Gromov appeared undaunted by the discipline.  In his first game back from the suspension, he got into two fights and racked up 12 penalty minutes.  “I only know how to play one way,” said Gromov with a shrug. “I cannot change that.”

Eastern Division Wide Open Early

Just like last season, the SHL’s Eastern division appears to be anyone’s for the taking, at least through the first two weeks.  The top four teams in the division are separated by just three points.  Each of the potential contenders has a surprising strength, but also a weakness that might undermine their hopes of victory.

“If anyone tells you they know who’s gonna win the East,” said Hershey Bliss C Justin Valentine, “they’re either lying or drunk.”

Valentine and the Bliss are the current leaders in the East with a 6-3-1 record.  Thus far, they’ve thrived with impressive defense.  They’ve recorded the fewest shots allowed in the league, less even than famously stingy Michigan.  Hershey coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber praised his team’s eagerness to block shots and win the board battles.  “Our guys are willing to do the unglamorous work that wins games,” said Barber.  “You can’t make chocolate without grinding up a few beans, and our guys have been grinding.”

The Bliss have needed that lockdown defense, because their goaltending has been lackluster.  Free-agent signee Brandon Colt has posted a 3.09 GAA and an .897 save percentage.  “I know I’ve got to step it up,” said Colt.  “We’ve got a championship-caliber team here, and I need to get up to that level.”

The Bliss are also hamstrung by a pedestrian offense, as they continue to search for scoring beyond the “Love Line” of Valentine, LW Lance Sweet, and RW Christopher Hart.  Second-line LW Russ Nahorniak has six goals, but no one other than he and the Love Line has scored more than two.  The defense has been a particular black hole offensively; star Reese Milton has 12 points, but the other five have only combined for 8 points.  “We’ve been taking care of business in our own end,” said second-pairing blueliner Vitaly Dyomin, “but we need to be stronger both ways.”

The surprising second-place squad is the Hamilton Pistols, who have won their last four in a row to rise to 6-4-0.  The key to the Pistols’ surprising success has been their dominant top line; they are the runaway leaders in plus-minus rating, and four of them (LW Steven Alexander, C Calvin Frye, RW Claude Lafayette, and D Raymond Smyth) are among the league’s top 10 in points.  “All the smart folks thought we were still a couple seasons away,” said coach Keith Shields.  “But our first line is hotter than a firecracker, and it looks to me like we’re ready now.”

Aside from that top line, though, Hamilton is a young team that’s lacking in depth.  The team’s third line has been a particular black hole.  Shields has juggled players in and out to no apparent effect; they’ve combined for only two goals and a -6 rating.  “We’re just getting wiped out when we’re on the ice,” said C Jens Bunyakin, who has a lone assist to his credit two weeks in.  “That’s not good enough.”

If the Pistols are going to contend, they’ll also need to rely on rookie Lasse Koskinen in the crease.  The Finnish prospect comes highly touted, but he’s shown his inexperience in his SHL debut (compiling a 4-3-0 record and a 3.26 GAA).  He has come up strong in his last couple of starts, though, stopping 32 in a 3-2 win over Saskatchewan and 35 in a 5-1 beatdown of Washington.

Sitting a point behind Hamilton is the Quebec Tigres.  As expected from a Martin Delorme team, the Tigres are making their name with defense and goaltending.  Second-year netminder Riki Tiktuunen has been one of the league’s best so far, going 5-2-1 with a 1.73 GAA and a .949 save percentage.  He’s been backed by a trapping, slow-down-oriented defense that makes Quebec’s games an exercise in patience at times.  “I don’t care if people think us boring,” said Delorme.  “Boring hockey can be winning hockey, and I am all about winning.”

What may keep the Tigres from winning, however, is their completely anemic offense.  Quebec has scored only 22 goals this year, last in the league; more disturbingly, they’ve managed only 237 shots, 75 fewer than the next-worst team, Seattle.  The Tigres had expected to draft top-prospect winger Rod “Money” Argent to address their lack of firepower, but were knocked for a loop after Seattle drafted Argent instead.  Their already-struggling attack took a further hit when RW Flint “Steel” Robinson went down with an injury.

Quebec’s one-dimensional and unattractive style of play has made them less than popular with other teams.  “I think we’re all agreed that we don’t care who wins as long as it’s not Quebec,” said Valentine.  “The other teams are trying to win with talent.  They’re trying to win by beating and bloodying the other team and hobbling their talent.  It’s not cheating, but it’s close.”

Sitting in fourth, a point back of Quebec at 5-5-0, is the two-time defending champion Washington Galaxy.  The good news for the champs is that they’re getting a career season out of goalie Roger Orion, who’s posted a 1.99 GAA and a .933 save percentage.  The Galaxy’s defense has also been strong, allowing only 336 shots, virtually tied with Quebec.

But Washington’s offense has kept the team mired in mediocrity.  Part of that has been attributable to bad luck; they’ve converted on only 7.5% of their shots, one of the worst marks in the league.  Anecdotally, Galaxy players say they’ve noticed an unusually high percentage of shanked shots and pucks pinging off of goalposts this season.  However, their usually-stout power play has disappointed them as well; they’ve scored on only 18.4% of their shots, good for only sixth in the league.

“I don’t need to do a deep dive on the numbers to see where our problem is,” said Washington coach Rodney Reagle.  “The numbers say we’ve been meh.  Our record says we’ve been meh.  Watching us play, I’ve seen a lot of meh.”

It was shortly after this point last season that the Galaxy caught fire and took control of the East, holding it the rest of the way and fending off a late challenge from Hershey to claim the crown.  Can Washington repeat the feat in 2017?  Or will Hershey wreak their revenge?  Or will Hamilton or Quebec play Cinderella and steal the title from the favorites?

“I’m not making any predictions two weeks in,” said Reagle.  “As Shakespeare once said, that’s why they play the games.  I think that was in Romeo and Juliet.”

SHL 2017 Season Preview – East

Washington Galaxy

The Galaxy look like the favorites to capture the Eastern division title for a third straight season.  They navigated the offseason successfully, patching their few holes and not losing any key contributors.  Their biggest move was signing free-agent winger Piotr Soforenko to bolster the third line, which was a huge problem last season.  They upgraded their backup goalie, replacing Gus Parrish with veteran Ron Mason, who won the Vandy with Anchorage in 2015.  And while they unexpectedly lost D Rusty Anderson, they signed a replacement (Patrick Banks) who is an even stronger defender.  It’s hard to find any vulnerabilities with this squad.  But after two straight losses in the SHL Finals, Washington’s real goal this year is to capture the elusive Vandy.  Do they have the horses to take down whoever comes out of the West?  That’s far from clear, but they very likely do have more than enough to win the East again.

Hershey Bliss

After their heartbreaking loss in last season’s final game, in which the Bliss blew a two-goal third-period lead to drop the division, Hershey’s very eager to get over the hump and take the division this season.  But given their lofty goals, it’s surprising that Hershey had such a ho-hum offseason, failing to get significantly better and possibly taking a half-step back.  Last season’s big deadline deal for netminder Jesse Clarkson turned out to be a bust, and one that could prove very costly down the road.  Hershey didn’t win the division, and they gave away a couple major assets (their first-round pick and goalie prospect Buzz Carson) that could have helped them land a major upgrade for this season.  Compounding the pain, the Bliss lost Clarkson in free agency; ex-Hamilton Pistol Brandon Colt will tend the twine instead.  Hershey GM Scott Lawrence seems to be banking once again on the high-powered Love Line of Christopher Hart, Justin Valentine, and Lance Sweet to lead the team to victory.  And indeed, the trio is talented enough to have a shot at pulling it off.  But Washington has more depth and a better goalie.  Can the Bliss overcome all that to make their first Final?  They’ll go as far as their top line can take them.

New York Night

Last season was a grim one for the Night, as their season imploded in a storm of finger-pointing, bad press, and locker-room infighting.  In the wake of that fiasco, New York fired coach Preston Rivers and set about cleaning house in order to build a championship-caliber club.  New head man Nick Foster is a well-regarded hire, and he and GM Royce McCormick have made some bold moves this offseason.  They started by making a major push to improve the team’s netminding, signing Clarkson in free agency and drafting top prospect Sherman Carter.  The Night also looked to shake their well-earned reputation as an all-offense/no-defense team.  They shipped out C Mike Rivera and let winger Ben Summers depart in free agency; both were poor defensively.  They added C Phil Miller, LW Misha Petronov, and F Andrei Volodin, all of whom should improve the team’s balance.  Will that be enough?  Maybe not; the Night still lack any shut-down blueliners and will likely still need to prevail in high-scoring shootouts.  Also, apart from Rivers, all the players in last season’s clubhouse drama are still around.  The bad juju of 2016 might spill over to this season.  But Foster seems like the right man for the job, and the Night are definitely a team to watch going forward.

Hamilton Pistols

The Pistols’ careful rebuild continued this offseason, as they traded up in the draft to land star goalie prospect Lasse Koskinen and added hard-nosed D Jack “Hercules” Mulligan.  Koskinen should help Pistols fans forget the departed Colt, and Mulligan steps into the second-pairing slot vacated by Dmitri Kalashnikov, who was dealt so that the Pistols could move up in the draft.  If the two hot rookies play up to their potential and the veteran top line continues to produce, Hamilton could be a dark-horse contender in the East.  More than likely, though, it will be another season of slow but steady growth under coach Keith Shields.  The Pistols seem to be moving toward embracing a hard-nosed, defense-first identity, which is at odds with the fast-paced, high-scoring style exemplified by star LW Steven Alexander.  If Shields can balance the team’s competing styles, this could be a team to be reckoned with in a couple years.  If not, though, their rebuilding may reach a crossroads sooner than expected.  Is Shields up to the task?  Can the Pistols take the next step and become contenders?  Stay tuned.

Quebec Tigres

The Tigres’ offseason plans were thrown into disarray during the draft.  Holding the second selection, Quebec was set on picking LW Rod “Money” Argent, a Quebec native with 25-to-30-goal scoring potential, who could have paired with Stephane Mirac to give the team the scoring threat it so desperately needs.  But Seattle foiled those plans by taking Argent with the top pick, and the Tigres were seemingly left at a loss.  Rather than give themselves a potential league-leading goaltending tandem by picking Koskinen or strengthening their ferocious defense by taking Mulligan or addressing their void at center by grabbing Titus Jameson, Quebec instead moved down in a deal with Hamilton.  They wound up with quantity over quality, receiving Kalashnikov and a pair of lesser picks (which they used on winger Rupert MacDiamid and D Hal Pugliese).  It was a solid return, but not the home-run pick that Argent would have been.  As such, it’s hard to see Quebec making noise in a strengthening division.  Just like last year, they’ll hope that star netminder Riki Tiktuunen and their hustling, swarming defense can overcome their abysmal offensive attack.  Apart from Mirac, there are no serious scoring threats in this lineup.  Coach Martin Delorme will continue to preach his hard-working, hard-hitting, selfless style, but Quebec’s punchless offense will almost certainly doom them to the basement for another season.

SHL Offseason Trade Summary

The following trades took place in the offseason before Season 3:

The Quebec Tigres made a huge deal at the top of the draft after their planned choice went awry.  The Tigres had planned to take scoring winger Rod “Money” Argent with the #2 pick, addressing their major shortcomings on offense.  But after the Seattle Sailors surprisingly drafted Argent with the first pick, Quebec found themselves with no obvious choice.  So they traded down, dealing the #2 pick to the Hamilton Pistols in exchange for the #5 pick, a second-round pick, and D Dmitri Kalashnikov. Hamilton sought the #2 pick in order to grab G Lasse Koskinen, who immediately became the team’s top netminder.  While Quebec did not wind up with an impact player of Argent’s caliber, they traded quality for quantity.  With the #5 pick, they plucked RW Rupert MacDiarmid, who put up 15 goals and 39 points in juniors last year.  In Kalashnikov, the Tigres added an elite and ferocious defender, whose 109 penalty minutes were the second-most in the SHL last season.  The Tigres used the second-round selection to nab D Hal Pugliese, who took Penn Tech to the NCAA tournament three times in his collegiate career.

The Dakota Jackalopes also dealt a first-round pick, sending the #6 selection to the New York Night along with C Phil Miller in exchange for C Mike Rivera.  The trade represents a bold gamble for both teams.  For Dakota, adding Rivera augments their high-flying offense, as the Jackalopes attempt to catch up with their division rivals in Michigan and Anchorage.  Last season, Rivera banged home 23 goals and collected 39 points with New York. He is expected to anchor Dakota’s second line this year.  For New York, the trade reflects new coach Nick Foster’s desire to build a more balanced club.  Although Rivera was a strong contributor on offense, he is widely considered a defensive liability.  Miller, who put up 18 goals and 30 points between Saskatchewan and Dakota in ’16, is regarded as more of a two-way player.  With the sixth pick, the Night grabbed goaltending prospect Sherman Carter, who recorded a 2.27 GAA and a .930 save percentage in juniors last season.  In addition to drafting Carter, New York signed the top free-agent netminder, Jesse Clarkson, to complete an overhaul of one of their weakest positions.

After the draft, the Night made a pair of deals aimed at improving their third line.  First, they swapped G Oliver Richardson to the Saskatchewan Shockers for the rights to G Hector Orinoco, then sent Orinoco’s rights along with F Dill Howlter to Hamilton for winger Andrei Volodin.  Richardson, who posted a 6-10-0 mark with a 4.37 GAA for New York last season, became expendable after the Night drafted Carter and signed Clarkson.  He represents an upgrade for the Shockers, who have struggled to find a solid backup for Zeke Zagurski since the league’s inception.  Orinoco played last season in the German league, where he record a 17-11-2 record with a 3.06 GAA.  He will likely spend the season in the minors for Hamilton, barring an injury.  The 25-year-old Volodin should bring a little extra scoring punch to New York’s third line.  He scored 18 goals and 34 points for Hamilton in the 2016 season.  The 20-year-old Howlter failed to record a point in 9 games for New York last season.

The Washington Galaxy sent longtime backup goalie Gus Parrish to the Seattle Sailors in exchange for F Yann Eberlein.  The deal was a bit disappointing for the fans, as Parrish was a beloved figure in Washington, adored for his boyish enthusiasm and flair for colorful quotes.  Last season, Parrish went 7-6-0 with a 3.21 GAA as the Galaxy defended their Eastern Division title.  But after Washington signed free agent Ron Mason in the offseason, Parrish found himself without a job.  Eberlein struggled in limited action with the Sailors last year, recording 2 goals and 7 points in 34 games.  Washington hopes that the 25-year-old Swiss forward can provide a solid presence off the bench.  The Galaxy suffered from poor third-line and bench production last season, as rookies Henry Van Alpin, Barry Sullivan, and Oliver Wallington all turned in disappointing campaigns.

The Jackalopes and the Hershey Bliss made a minor deal just before the start of the season, swapping bottom-pairing defensemen.  Dakota sent Pierre Chappelle to Hershey in exchange for Scott Hexton.  The Jackalopes were looking to strengthen their blueline corps a bit, and Hexton (3 goals, 12 points last season) grades out as an above-average defender.  On the other hand, the Bliss were looking to enhance their offensive production beyond their loaded top line.  Chappelle (5 goals, 20 points last year) provides an upgraded scoring threat relative to Hexton.  The 28-year-old Montreal native is on his third team in as many seasons; Dakota picked him up from Hamilton during last offseason.

Hershey Grabs Lead In East

Hershey SmallWashington SmallThe Washington Galaxy thought they had things well in hand.  After a blip early in the season when a couple unlikely contenders got off to hot starts, the Galaxy quickly established order.  Just like last season, Washington maintained a steady lead in the mid-to-high single digits as none of the other teams seemed poised to contend.  But the defending champs have hit a skid at the worst possible time, and with two weeks left now find themselves looking up at the Hershey Bliss.

“I don’t think any of expected to wind up here,” said Galaxy LW Casey Thurman.  “It’s crunch time for us now.”

Washington’s perplexing swan dive started at the trade deadline.  The Galaxy raised some eyebrows by deciding to stand pat at the deadline despite obvious weaknesses on the third line, where LW Henry Van Alpin has struggled to stay in the lineup and C Barry Sullivan has underperformed.  GM Garnet “Ace” Adams defended his team’s inaction, claiming that the asking price for upgrades was too high.  “We’re not going to mortgage our future just to get a bit better,” said Adams.  “Besides, we got this far with the team we’ve got.  I trust our guys.”

Since then, though, Adams’ guys have lost 8 of 11 games.  Washington’s formerly high-flying offense, which had averaged 3.6 goals a game, has produced only 2.5 goals on average during the skid.  “It hasn’t been clicking for us lately for whatever reason,” said Thurman.  “Our passes seem sloppier, our shots are pushing a little wide, whatever the reason.”

Meanwhile, the then-second-place Bliss made a big move at the deadline, landing an experienced veteran goaltender in Jesse Clarkson from Dakota, shoring up their biggest weakness.  Clarkson didn’t come cheap – the Bliss had to surrender prospect Buzz Carson and their first-round pick – but Hershey GM Scott Lawrence didn’t hesitate to pull the trigger.  “We’re in it to win it,” Lawrence said.  “Getting the Vandy is what we’re about.”

The Bliss finally took advantage of the move this week, beginning with a Saturday tussle with the Galaxy in DC.  In that game, Washington blew a 3-1 lead and suffered a surprising 5-3 defeat.  Hershey’s Love Line swamped Galaxy goalie Roger Orion, with LW Lance Sweet potting a pair of goals and C Justin Valentine adding another.  That win kicked off a 5-0-0 week for the Bliss, while the Galaxy stumbled to a 1-4-0 mark.  Washington officially slid into second place on Friday, after dropping a 5-4 decision in New York while Hershey rallied for a 3-2 win over Hamilton.

“It’s really kind of a kick in the gut,” said Thurman.  “We’ve done so well all year, and now the finish line is in sight and we’re staggering.”

Adams continues to stand by his deadline decision.  “I’m confident in the team we have,” said the Galaxy GM.  “We’re in a rough patch right now, but I’m confident we’ll get right and finish strong the last couple of weeks.”

Meanwhile, in Hershey, the Bliss are feeling optimistic about their chances.  “We’re peaking at the right time,” said Valentine.  “We’re playing strong on both ends of the ice, and we’re not scared of [the Galaxy] now.  If they want to repeat, they’re going to have to take it away from us.”

SHL Player of the Week – Week 8

Christopher Hart
Christopher Hart

Hershey SmallThe SHL selected Hershey Bliss RW Christopher Hart as its Player of the Week.   Hart is the second straight member of Hershey’s “Love Line” to capture the award, as teammate Justin Valentine was honored last week.  Hart put up 3 goals and 6 assists this week, helping the Bliss post a 4-1-0 mark and narrow the gap atop the East.

On Saturday, Hart scored a goal and added two assists in Hershey’s 7-2 shellacking of Dakota.  On Wednesday, he came through again with a goal and a pair of assists as the Bliss sank Seattle by a 4-1 margin.

“We’re coming together at the right time,” said Hershey coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber.  “We haven’t mounted much of a challenge yet, but we’re about to.  And if we can pull it off, it will be as sweet as a one-pound Krackel bar.”