CHL Update: Inaugural Playoff Field Set

The first regular season of the Continental Hockey League, the SHL’s minor league, is now in the books.  (They finished a week ahead of the SHL due to the fact that they didn’t have an All-Star break.)  Now the league is looking forward to its first postseason.  The CHL will have a four-team playoff field, a setup that the SHL plans to adopt next season.  The division playoff will be a best-of-five matchup, with the winners facing off in a best-of-seven series for the league championship.  Here’s a preview of the first-round matchups:

Eastern Division

The Eastern playoff will feature a battle of contrasting styles.  The Virginia Rhinos got off to a strong start this season and never looked back on their way to claiming the division title.  The Rhinos built their success on the strength of a potent offense; their 223 goals were the most in the league by a considerable margin.  They had three of the league’s top 10 goal scorers in LW Yuri Laronov, D Blake Blacklett, and RW Colton Jabril.  Their high-octane offense is backed up by netminder Shawn Stickel, the league’s winningest goaltender, who went 30-16-1 with a 2.54 GAA and a .913 save percentage.  “We’ve got a mighty force here,” said Rhinos coach Jeffrey “Swampy” Marsh.  “Anyone who’s going to stop us is going to have to put up a hell of a fight.”

The Maine Moose might just be a team capable of giving them that fight.  The Moose are the best defensive team in the CHL, true to the spirit of their parent club, the Quebec Tigres.  They are well known for their slow-down style, which is focused on denying opponents offensive zone time.  Maine’s rigid defense allowed only 1551 shots, over 100 fewer than their nearest competitor.  They also have the leagues stingiest penalty kill, stopping 87.8% of power plays cold.  “We might not be the prettiest team out there,” said Moose coach Barney Flintridge, “but our style is darned effective.”   The Moose aren’t all about defense; they have scorers, too.  LW Aaron Knorr, who was the only player in the CHL to put up a four-goal game, scored 23 goals in the season; their top defensive pairing of Richard McKinley and Kirby Hanlon scored 18 apiece.  “Momentum’s been on our side,” said Knorr.  “If Virginia thinks we’re going to be an easy mark, they’re in for a shock.”

 

Western Division

Ever since they emerged from the pack in the West after the first quarter of the season, the Omaha Ashcats have been regarded as perhaps the CHL’s best team.  They’re not a team with a lot of flashy stars, but they’re a team with impressive strength and depth, as their league-leading +49 rating attests.  They have the league’s top three in plus/minus (LW Kendall Bannon, RW “Action” Asher Ravenbloom, and C Dale Wilcox), with D Duncan DeShantz close behind.  “This isn’t a team that relies on star power,” said coach Randy Bergner.  “We get our strength from the fact that we play as a unit.  All for one and one for all; it may sound corny, but we believe it.”  Goalie Gus Parrish provides some veteran experience to back up a young squad (24-12-1, 2.72 GAA).  Small wonder that Omaha is generally considered the favorite to win the CHL championship.

It’s certainly not a surprise that the Ashcats are a huge favorite over the Utah Owls, who slipped into the playoffs with a less-than-breathtaking 31-24-5 record and are probably best known around the league for their rambunctious antics on the road.  Even though the Owls saw a couple of their top prospects, LW Sylvester Catarino and D Rocky Winkle, called up to the parent New York Night early in the season, they still held their own.  Utah’s greatest strength is their goaltending.  Veteran “Jersey Mike” Ross was the starter for much of the season and he was excellent, but prospect Sherman Carter rejoined the team down the stretch, and his numbers (2.30 GAA and .929 save percentage) suggest a player who could give the Ashcats fits.  But the player who really puts the fear of God into opponents is D Donald Duckworth.  He’s a two-way threat, the only player in the league to be in the top 10 in both goals (25) and penalty minutes (108).  “That guy’s just plain crazy,” said Owls C Lloyd “Goofy” Banjax.  “You look at him the wrong way, and he’s liable to knock you into next week.  If you make him mad, God help you.”  Utah also finished the season hot, going 13-3-4 over the final month.  If the Owls can keep their penchant for on-the-road revelry (which have contributed to their 12-16-2 road record, the worst by far among playoff teams), they might give Omaha a run for their money.

 

CHL Update: Cleveland’s Cowan Charges Favoritism

The CHL’s Cleveland Centurions were officially eliminated from playoff contention this week.  There are a variety of reasons why the Centurions won’t make the playoffs.  The team’s generally stout defense was undermined by a mediocre offense (440 points, 7th in the league), a struggling penalty kill (76.9%, worst), and an inability to win on the road (8-15-3, third-worst).

Art Cowan

According to goaltender Art Cowan, though, there’s another key reason why Cleveland isn’t a playoff team: they didn’t play him often enough.

“I think the numbers speak for themselves,” Cowan told reporters on Friday after watching the Centurions’ 4-3 loss to Maine from the bench.  “I clearly demonstrated myself to be the #1 goalie here, but I didn’t get the ice time.  If I’d been the #1 starter, we’d be in the playoffs.  I have no doubt in my mind about that.”

Cowan charged that the only reason he wasn’t named the top starter was because coach Chad Grimes favored rookie Jonas Schemko over him.  “From the beginning, it was clear to me that Schemko was the coach’s pet,” said Cowan.  “Even in training camp, I could tell that Coach wanted Schemko to succeed and he didn’t care about me.  Even after the season started and it was clear I was the better netminder, the coach never wanted to admit he was wrong, so he kept giving Schemko chance after chance.  I don’t know if I pissed him off or what, but it was obvious that I’m never going to be top dog around here.”

Jonas Schemko

The statistics seem to validate Cowan’s argument.  He posted a 14-7-4 record with a 2.66 GAA and a .907 save percentage, while Schemko has gone 11-18-1 with a 3.02 GAA and a save percentage of .892.  Cowan’s .640 winning percentage, extrapolated over a full season, would indeed put Cleveland in the playoffs.  But Cowan has actually started fewer games than Schemko (25 vs. 30).

According to Grimes, this is not a case of favoritism; rather, it’s a player development issue.  “The plan all season long was to split the minutes between them,” said the Cleveland coach.  “I want to win games as much as the next guy.  But ultimately, our main goal here is to develop players for the big club [Michigan Gray Wolves].  From an organizational perspective, the big club wants to see both guys and find out what they can do.  And they know more about what Artie can do, because he was with them last year.  So they need to see a little more of Schemmer, to get a better picture.”

Cowan was not mollified by this explanation.  “Every other team in this league has a #1 goalie, even though they’re all supposed to be ‘developing players.’  The better goalie gets more ice time, just like on a normal team.  But not here, for some reason.  So I’m not buying a crap excuse like that.”

Cowan said that he had not yet demanded a trade, but he hoped that he will play elsewhere next season.  “I hope they let me go in the expansion draft, or that they deal me somewhere else.  Clearly they don’t think I can do the job, and they want Schemko.  Fine, then let me go somewhere else where I can get a shot.”

Wolves GM Tim Carrier denied that the organization has anything against Cowan.  “We really like what we’ve seen from Artie this season,” said Carrier.  “Obviously, up here we’re committed to The Bear [Dirk Lundquist] up here, but we consider Artie to be a major part of our future.”

For his part, Schemko said he was confused by the controversy.  “Artie is my friend,” Schemko said.  “I like that we both get to play together.  I’m sad that he’s not happy.  I hope we both get to stay and play again.”

CHL Update: Squirrels Host Bob Ross Night

The CHL’s Muncie Squirrels have made no secret of their connection to the late television painter Bob Ross.  Ross filmed his iconic “Joy of Painting” series in Muncie, and the team selected its name as a tribute to the painter’s fondness for raising baby squirrels.

The Squirrels were out of town on Thursday, but they opened up Ball Arena to host “Bob Ross Night.”  Over 3,000 Squirrel fans and Muncie residents turned out to celebrate the life of the famous painter, and Squirrels GM Clay Charles described the event as “a tremendous success.”

It’s not the first Ross-themed promotion that the Squirrels have held; previously, they have given away T-shirts with Ross’s face on them, as well as stuffed squirrels modeled after Peapod, the painter’s best-known companion.  This was the first time, however, that they had done an event that wasn’t tied to a game.

As fans entered the event, they received commemorative keychains shaped like Ross’s famous palette.  A continuous loop of “Joy of Painting” episodes ran on the arena’s Jumbotron throughout the event, and people were invited to “sit as long as you like and enjoy Bob’s tranquil voice and his happy little trees and paintings.”

Those who wanted a more active experience could paint along with a Certified Bob Ross Instructor, who showed fans how to create one of the painter’s signature landscapes.  In addition, several of Ross’s colleagues and former employees of WIPB-TV shared stories about the main and the experience of creating “Joy of Painting.”

“It was just a really wonderful, special experience,” said Muncie resident Jane Chivers, 38, who described herself as a lifelong fan of Ross.  “It was like for one night, Bob was still with us, helping us find peace and happiness through art.”

The Squirrels offered fans who attended the event discounted tickets to a future game.  Charles reported that “we’ve been flooded with calls” from people taking advantage of the offer.

The GM proclaimed himself “100% pleased” with how the event came out.  He said that he hopes to make Bob Ross Night an annual event.  He said that going forward, he planned to schedule the event on a day when the team was in Muncie so that the players could attend.

“I’d like to strengthen the links between Bob and the team,” said Charles.  “Maybe some of our players could paint along; I bet our fans would love to see Kyler White or Dylan Alizarin try to paint some happy little trees.”

CHL Update: Owls’ Hotel Hijinks Earn Ban from Muncie

The Utah Owls have had a number of challenges as they’ve sought to compete in the CHL’s Western division this season.  They are geographically remote from most of the other teams in the league, which means that they’ve had to travel more than any team other than Albuquerque.  They suffered a blow early in the season when their parent club, the New York Night, promoted several of their best players.

Now the Owls face a new challenge: finding a place to stay when they play the Muncie Squirrels.  The hotels in Muncie issued a joint statement today banning the Owls from staying at their establishments due to “a pattern of disruptive and inappropriate behavior that has left us unwilling to host them going forward.”

The statement, which was signed by the management of every hotel in Muncie, provided a lengthy list of the many, many hijinks the Owls had committed during their stays in the city. Some of the highlights included:

  • Placing wake-up calls at odd hours for guests in other rooms
  • Holding water-balloon fights in the halls
  • Stealing the maid’s carts and using them to hold drag races in the lobby
  • Making mass quantities of waffles and then using them to play Ultimate Frisbee in the dining room
  • Falling asleep on the front desk
  • Holding howling contests in the stairwells in the middle of the night

The statement noted that the managers of several hotels where the Owls stayed had attempted to work with the team to get their players to cool it, to no avail.  They also noted that the Owls had refused to pay bills for cleaning services or damage caused by some of their more adventurous escapades.

“While we would like to be able to welcome the Owls to our hotels, we have learned the hard way that housing them will only lead to chaos in the halls, angry guests, and a very real risk of serious property damage,” the statement continued.  “Therefore, we have no choice but to bar the Owls from staying with us.”

By all accounts, the Owls are a rowdy traveling crew, and they have reportedly been barred from individual hotels in other places.  However, this is the first time that a team has been banned from staying in an entire city.

“This is just crazy,” said Owls coach Wiley Kiyotie.  “I know our guys like to have fun, and sometimes it gets a little out of hand.  But come on, you can’t kick us out of the entire city!”

Utah C Lloyd “Goofy” Banjax shared his coach’s outrage at the move.  “It’s not like there’s anything to do in Muncie,” said Banjax.  “So yeah, we usually wind up hanging around the hotel and raising a little hell.  But it’s not like we’re throwing our beds out the window and into the pool or anything.  Okay, there was that one time.”

Assuming the ban holds, the Owls have some lodging options, which Kiyotie said the team is considering.  They could stay in Indianapolis, which is about an hour away from Muncie.  They could rent a bus and have the team sleep there.  “And of course,” said the Utah coach, “there’s always Airbnb.”

CHL Update: Omaha Surges in West

A month ago, the CHL’s Western division was wide open.  No dominant team had emerged; the top four teams were within three points of each other, clustered around the .500 mark.  Now, though, one team has broken away from the pack.  The Omaha Ashcats have gone 15-4-1 over their last 20 games, and they are now tied with Virginia for the league’s best record.  They are 15 points ahead of their nearest competitor in the West.

How have the Ashcats done it?  “The talent’s been here all along,” said coach Randy Bergner.  “I think we’ve taken a while to gel as a team, but now that we’re all used to playing together and the guys are getting used to our offense, everything’s really clicking.  We’ve had the instruments, but it took us some time to write the symphony.”

Omaha’s offense has been the prime driver of their success.  They’ve been one of the CHL’s most prolific shooting teams, second only to the Rhinos in that department.  They lead the league in plus/minus rating at +30.  They have two of the league’s Top 10 goal scorers (LW Jarmann Fischer and D Bud Gatecliff, both with 19) and two of the Top 10 assist men (C Nikolai Valkov with 43 and RW Philippe Durien with 35).  Unlike Virginia, which relies heavily on its top line for its offense, the Ashcats spread the offensive load over their top two lines.  Omaha has seven of the league’s top 11 in plus/minus, with representatives from their top six and their top two defensive pairings.

“Our team isn’t about stars,” said Fischer.  “We are all about working together to make ourselves greater as a group.  The team is the star.”

The same team-first mentality applies to the team’s unselfish defense, which is among the league’s top units.  Similar to the Rhinos, it’s all backstopped by an SHL washout trying to rebuild his reputation in the minors.

Gus Parrish was the goofy, easy-going, well-liked backup in Washington for the last two seasons.  In the offseason, though, the Galaxy got an upgrade (signing veteran free agent Ron Mason) and shipped Parrish to the Seattle Sailors, Omaha’s parent club.  With a much more porous defense than he was used to in Washington, and thrust into an everyday role after an early injury to starter Rocky Goldmire, Parrish flopped.  He went 0-7-0 with a 6.55 GAA and an .848 save percentage before being demoted.  “The game was moving too fast for me, and I wasn’t used to it,” Parrish admits.

It took Parrish a bit to get over the blow to his pride, but in Omaha he found a welcome landing spot.  “Right away, it felt more like a college dorm than a locker room,” Parrish said.  “It was a fun environment with a bunch of young guys who took hockey seriously, but didn’t take themselves too seriously.”  The team regarded Parrish as an older brother, asking him about life in the majors.  He was able to forget about his disastrous experience in Seattle and just focus on the game.  His growing comfort has been reflected in his results, going 14-6-1 with a 2.84 GAA.

“I don’t have to do a lot of hand-holding with Gus,” said Bergner.  “He hasn’t been a prima donna or anything.  He’s down here having fun and doing a solid job.”

Bergner is already starting to look forward a bit to a possible championship series with Virginia.  Most of his players, though, have their eyes on a different prize: a callup to the struggling Sailors.  With the expansion draft looming, Seattle has been hesitant about calling up players, potentially showcasing them only to lose them later.  “We all love it here,” said Fischer, “but we don’t want to stay here.”

For now, though, the young Ashcats are happy to be playing well and looking forward to the future, whatever it may hold.  “I always tell the guys: enjoy the ride and don’t take anything for granted,” says Parrish.  “Don’t be in a hurry to get past right now, because right now can be pretty great.”

CHL Update: Oshawa’s Mayhem Causes Havoc In Stands

The CHL has a few rough customers in its ranks.  Cedric Meloche of Albuquerque is one.  Valeri Nistrumov of Virginia is another.  But according to most league observers, D Colt Mayhem of the Oshawa Drive is hands-down the league’s most pugnacious player.  “Colt is just plain crazy,” said teammate Pat “Stoner” Collistone.  “Look at him cross-eyed, and he’ll lay you out.  I wouldn’t want to run into him in a dark alley.  Or even in an alley in broad daylight.”

Colt Mayhem

This week, Mayhem’s ferocious attitude crossed the line, as he went into the stands to attack some obnoxious fans.  His actions earned him a five-game suspension, and may have landed him in legal trouble as well.

On Friday, Mayhem and the Drive were at Wasatch Arena to take on the Utah Owls.  The scrappy defenseman got into trouble in the first period by hauling down Owls RW Jon Garfield hard, resulting in a minor penalty for hooking.  That set the stage for a chippy period in which the teams combined for 16 minutes in penalties.

The game settled down in the second period, but Mayhem riled up the opponents at the crowd midway through the third when he rammed Utah C Lloyd “Goofy” Banjax in the solar plexus with the butt end of his stick, causing him to crumple to the ice.  Mayhem was hit with a four-minute penalty for spearing, but Owls coach Wiley Kiyotie (as well as the fans) felt that he should have been ejected.  Banjax did not return to the game.

The crowd’s mood turned even more sour after the Drive scored two goals in the last 35 seconds of regulation to erase a 4-2 Utah lead.  On the tying goal, Mayhem fed a pass to LW Alvin Fawn, then opened a path to the net with what the Owls felt was an illegal cross-check.  The referees reviewed the goal, but ultimately upheld it.  The arena echoed with boos as the fans expressed their displeasure.

The fans behind the Oshawa bench started heckling Mayhem, banging on the glass and hollering insults.  Mayhem turned around and yelled back.  When Drive LW Jamie Campbell scored the winning goal three and a half minutes into overtime, one of the fans boiled over and tossed a cup of root beer over the Plexiglas, dousing Mayhem.  The irate defenseman attempted to climb the glass to get at his tormentors, only to see the panel bend and give way.

With no glass to restrain him, Mayhem jumped into the stands and began punching one of the fans.  The people surrounding him frantically tried to tell Mayhem that he was attacking the wrong person.  Eventually, the defenseman realized his mistake and asked where the perpetrator had gone.  The fans pointed toward the aisle, where 27-year-old David Glazer of Orem was attempting to escape.  Mayhem caught up with him in the concourse and slammed him against the wall.  Four other fans attempted to hold Mayhem back, to no apparent effect.  “He was just flinging people off like they were flies,” said one observer.

The fracas was finally interrupted by security guards and Salt Lake City police, who finally managed to pull Mayhem off of Glazer.  They had to taser the Oshawa blueliner to subdue him, then they handcuffed him and took him away.  Mayhem remained behind in prison while the Drive left town, although the team was attempting to free him at press time.

Speaking to reporters from his cell, Mayhem was defiant.  “They got no right to treat me like that,” the defenseman said.  “Next time we come to Utah, I’m bringing my buddy Snake.  Me and Snake could take out a hundred fans if we had to.”

Drive coach Peter James acknowledged that Mayhem’s actions were uncalled for.  “The fans behind our bench were behaving reprehensibly,” said James.  “It certainly was inappropriate of them  to throw a drink on our players.  They should have been ejected from the arena.  But none of that justifies what Colt did.  In a time so filled with hostility and anger, the last thing we need is for a situation to tip over into physical violence.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to call our front office to see if they will bail Colt out of jail.”

The suspension was announced the next morning, and the team confirmed that Mayhem will not appeal.  It is not yet certain whether he will face legal charges as a result of the incident.

CHL Update: Virginia’s Rhinos Rolling

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.”

Shawn Stickel

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.”