Pistols Clinch First-Ever Playoff Berth, Celebrate in Style

From the beginning of this season, the Hamilton Pistols have made it clear that they’re a force to be reckoned with.  They’ve led the Eastern Division wire-to-wire, and they haven’t faded as the season has gone on.

Keith Shields

But whenever a reporter has asked Pistols coach Keith Shields a question about the postseason, he as always balked.  “We haven’t clinched anything yet, and I’m not about to assume,” was his refrain.

Shields can officially let go of his refrain now.  On Tuesday, the Pistols defeated the Kansas City Smoke 4-2 to clinch their first-ever trip to the postseason.

As soon as the clocked ticked down to 0:00 at Heartland Telecom Center, the Pistols raced to center ice and formed a pig pile.  They whooped and hollered as they flung their gloves and helmets in the air.  “If we’d been at home, we’d have gone up into the stands to celebrate with the fans,” said Pistols C Calvin Frye.  Instead, they spotted a couple of fans in Hamilton sweaters behind the bench and invited them on the ice to join the celebration.

After they finished their on-ice celebration, they adjourned to the locker room to continue the party.  Songs like “My Shot” and “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” blasted over the stereo while the young Pistols showered each other with beer, champagne, barbecue sauce, and whatever else they could find.  They took turns making up impromptu raps to honor each other.  They smoked giant cigars.

“I know you’re supposed to be cool and act like you’ve been there before and save the big celebration for the Vandy,” said Shields.  “But you know what?  We’ve got a young bunch of guys, and they haven’t been here before.  It’s only your first time once, so why not enjoy it?  There’ll be plenty of time to be cool and mature later.”

Steven Alexander

The dynamic duo that powers the Pistols, LW Steven Alexander and RW Claude Lafayette, spent the evening hugging and toasting each other.  Alexander blinked back tears as he reflected on the journey that got him here.  “Claude is my brother,” Alexander said.  “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be playing hockey.  I might be dead in an alley somewhere.  But he got me here, and ever since then we’ve been working and dreaming for this moment.  Now we’re here, and we’re not throwing away our shot!”

Shields heaped praise on his team.  “Ever since the first couple of weeks, when we got off to such a good start, I’ve been warning them, ‘It’s not going to be this easy.  There’s a lot of good teams in the division, and they’ll make a run at us.  We can’t take anything for granted.’  And they haven’t!  They’ve worked hard and stayed strong.  I don’t think anyone’s going to want to face us.”

C Henry Constantine, who won the Vandy last season with Hershey and signed with the Pistols in the offseason, is impressed by this club.  “We had a good, talented club [in Hershey], but this team is scary,” he said.  “I don’t know how anybody keeps up with our top line, they’re so fast.  And we’ve got good depth, and more speed on the bottom line.  We’ve got a rough, hard-hitting bunch on defense.  This is a crew that can hang with clubs like Michigan and Anchorage and give them real trouble, now and for years to come.”

Before they can vie for the Vandy, though, the Pistols will need to win the Eastern playoff.  Their likely opponent, the Quebec Tigres, will do their best to frustrate and slow down Hamilton’s speedy forward lines.  “Quebec’s a tough team, and they’ll push us hard,” said Shields.  “I’m certainly not going to look past them.”

But the challenges of the playoffs are tomorrow’s problem.  For today, the young Pistols are happy just to celebrate how far they’ve come.  “History has its eyes on us,” said Alexander.  “But when our children tell our story, they’ll tell the story of tonight.  Let’s have another round tonight!”

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Foster Pokes Fun at Dakota, Corn Palace

Continuing their annual tradition, the Dakota Jackalopes hosted a game at Mitchell’s famous Corn Palace.  For this season’s “Corn Classic” on Tuesday, the Jackalopes faced off against the New York Night.  New York coach Nick Foster made waves by turning his pre-game press conference into a roast of Mitchell, the Corn Palace, and the Midwest generally.

Nick Foster

Foster made his speech in response to a reporter who asked him how he liked it in the Dakotas.  “I always enjoy our trips to flyover country,” the coach replied.  “It’s always nice to see how the other half lives.”

Foster then poked fun at the town of Mitchell, calling it “the actual middle of nowhere.  I mean, I thought that our usual games here [in Rapid City] were the middle of nowhere.  But this time, we flew in, then got on a bus for two hours just to get here.  It’s a nice clean little place, though.  I took a walk around downtown today.  Took me five minutes, but it was nice.”

Corn Palace

The coach then poked fun at the Corn Palace.  “I figured in a place this small, we’d be playing on a rink in someone’s backyard,” Foster said.  “But instead, we came here.  Somebody took a barn and slapped a bunch of corn on the outside and called it a ‘palace.’  Wow!  I guess it gives you guys something to do out here.  And I have to admit, it’s the nicest corn-based art I’ve ever seen.”

Predictably, Foster’s jibes inspired outrage among the Jackalopes and the Dakota fans.  “I’m sorry if our town and our arena aren’t fancy enough for him,” said Dakota LW “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston.  “But some of us like the life out here.  It might not be as glamorous as New York, where everyone lives on top of each other and the air smells like hot dogs and bus exhaust and the rats are as big as dogs.  But we love it.  We love our state, and our city, and our Corn Palace.”

Jackalopes coach Flim Dahlgren added, “I don’t want to get into this, because I know it’s all part of Nick’s act.  He likes to pretend he’s a wrestling heel, and he’s always trying to stir the pot.  But if you come here and make fun of the Corn Palace, we can’t let that stand.  We have to defend the corn.  Let’s go out there and win big!”

The sellout crowd of 3,200 greeted Foster with boos and signs bearing slogan like “Yankee Go Home” and “Shuck You, Foster.”  As the New York coach came down the tunnel to the bench, one irate fan dumped a can of creamed corn on his head.  Foster responded by tasting the corn and flashing a thumbs-up in response.

The Jackalopes delivered their best revenge to Foster on the ice, edging the Night 3-2 as D Matt Cherner scored a pair of goals.  “We may have a small crowd here, but it feels like they’re right on top of you,” said Cherner after the game.  “I think we have the best home-ice advantage in the league here.  And with [Foster’s] comments, that gave the whole thing a little extra juice.”

Dakota now joins the growing list of places where Foster has made himself persona non grata; earlier in the season, he infuriated the fans in Hamilton by calling their arena a “dump” and accusing Pistols star Steven Alexander of cheating.

“At this rate, I’ll have every other city in the league hating my guts by 2020,” Foster said.  “Dare to dream!”

Continue reading “Foster Pokes Fun at Dakota, Corn Palace”

Sailors’ Mango to Star in Reality TV Show

Seattle Sailors star Vince Mango has never conformed to the expectations of a typical hockey player.  He hails from South Florida, not Canada or the American rust belt.  He flouts old-school conventions with his theatrical goal celebrations, which one earned him a brutal retaliation from an angry opponent.  He freely admits that his real passion is food, not hockey.  He devotes almost as much time to curating his Instagram feed as he does to preparing for games.  In short, he’s a polarizing player; traditionalists think he’s a showboat who’s wasting his talent, while younger fans consider him a breath of fresh air.

Vince Mango

Mango’s latest announcement will only make him more controversial among SHL fans.  This week, he announced that he and his girlfriend are developing a reality television show, “Meet the Mangos,” which is expected to air this fall.

“My fans have been clamoring for a chance to know me better off the ice,” Mango explained during his press conference on Friday.  “Now, they’ll have a chance to peek into my home life, see how I live when I’m not at the rink.”

The stars of the show will be Mango and his girlfriend of 2 years, Linzee Gaines, an aspiring actress.  Most of the filming will take place at and around their bungalow in Los Angeles, where they live in the offseason.  Mango’s parents, now divorced, will also feature prominently in the show.  His father George is an advertising executive in New York.  His mother Bonnie Faluto is a yoga instructor who lives down the street from Mango in LA.

Given the Seattle star’s passion for cooking, it comes as no surprise that he plans to include a segment of each show in which he prepares a recipe that he loves.  “Food is such a big part of my life, and my show wouldn’t be complete without it,” Mango said.  “I want to introduce my fans to the dishes that I love and the stories of how I learned to make them.”

Mango said that he’d spoken with the Sailors and the league about filming himself in practices and at games for use in the show, but that the team turned him down.  “I can totally respect that,” Mango said.  “From a creative perspective, they kind of did us a favor.  Because everyone knows what I do on the ice.  This allows us to focus on the Vince you’d meet off the ice.”

Mango’s teammates were generally supportive of the idea.  “Congrats to Vince on making it happen,” said RW Elliott Pepper.  “It’s not, you know, something that I think I’d want to do myself; not my style.  But it’s something he clearly wants to do, and more power to him.”

Sailors coach Harold Engellund, on the other hand, was less enthusiastic.  “What am I supposed to say about it?  I’m a hockey coach, not a TV producer,” Engellund told reporters.  “He’s promised me that it won’t interfere with the team, and I’m going him hold him to that.  Beyond that, what Vince does off the ice is his business.  I have no comments.  If you have questions about the show, talk to his producer.”

SHL Playoff Field Nearly Set

With two weeks left in the SHL season, the playoff picture is coming into focus.  The expanded four-team field hasn’t been officially set quite yet, but it’s all but certain which teams will head to the postseason.

In the West, the matchup features a pair of old rivals and longtime powers.  The Michigan Gray Wolves officially punched their playoff ticket last week, which comes as no surprise; they’ve been the division all season by a wide margin. On Saturday, they clinched the division title with a 5-2 win over Boston.

“This is one step on our journey,” said Wolves coach Ron Wright.  “What we’ve accomplished is a testament to the hard work we’ve put in this season.  Obviously, our goals are larger than this.  If we win the division but don’t win the Vandy, we won’t consider the season a true success.  But we don’t expect this to be an easy road; we know we’ll have to fight for it.”

Meanwhile, the Anchorage Igloos have not been performing up to their usual high standards for much of the season, but they’ve gotten hot down the stretch, going 12-3-1 in their last 16 games.  The Igloos are now on the brink of clinching a playoff spot, and prepare to face Michigan for a chance to go to make their third trip to the SHL Finals in four seasons.

“They say it’s important to peak at the right time,” said Igloos C Jake Frost.  “Well, we believe we’re right where we need to be.  We’re playing our best hockey of the year going into the playoffs, and that’s perfect.  Michigan better not take us for granted.”

Meanwhile, the Eastern playoff is set to feature a pair of rising powers and playoff newcomers with very different styles.  The Hamilton Pistols were widely considered to be a strong contender in the making, but most observers figured that they were still a year or two away.  But with the defending champions Hershey Bliss stumbling out of the gate and the two-time division winner Washington Galaxy falling apart down the stretch, the Pistols are set to punch their first-ever playoff ticket.

Hamilton’s success has been built on a fast pace and a highly efficient offense, with LW Steven Alexander leading the way.  Second-year netminder Lasse Koskinen, nicknamed the “human goal eraser,” has taken care of business in the defensive end.

“We’ve got a frisky bunch of young pups here,” said Hamilton coach Keith Shields.  “We’ve got the talent and the desire to go all the way.  We’ll see what happens come playoff time, but I’m thrilled to pieces with how far we’ve come already.  I couldn’t be prouder of my boys.”

Meanwhile, the Quebec Tigres are also close to making their first-ever trip to the postseason.  Unlike the Pistols, who try to turn every game into a track meet, the Tigres succeed by slowing the pace, using their stout defense and goalie Riki Tiktuunen to keep opposing attacks muzzled.  The acquisition of free-agent LW Walt Camernitz has proved huge, as he has helped propel Quebec’s offense from awful to adequate, which has been enough to lift the Tigres from the basement to the penthouse.

When coach Martin Delorme left a powerhouse Michigan squad to coach his hometown team, some thought he’d made a huge mistake.  It’s been a sweet redemption for him, as three years of effort are starting to bear fruit.  “For those who thought I could never make the playoffs with this team,” the coach told reporters, “where are you now?  This season, the critics have suddenly lost their voices.”

What remains to be seen is which of the Canadian teams will have home-ice advantage in their matchup.  Hamilton has been out in front throughout the season, but they’ve cooled a bit lately, and Quebec has crept within 4 points of them.

“I don’t know if we’ll finish on top or if they’ll beat us out,” said Alexander.  “But I don’t think it really matters.  We’re both damn good teams, and I think it’ll come down to who can set the pace and dictate the game.  Should be a hell of a series.”

Announcer’s Joke Sparks Fish Incident in Michigan

The Anchorage Igloos have faced a lot of obstacles this season as they’ve attempted to defend their division title.  They’ve struggled to put together lengthy winning streaks.  They’ve lagged far behind their rivals, the Michigan Gray Wolves, in the standings.  Lately, as they’ve tried to nail down a playoff spot, they’ve been hit by a rash of injuries.

On Saturday, the Igloos came in to Cadillac Place to face the Wolves.  They expected a challenging game against their rivals, but they also had to contend with an unexpected challenge: a hail of rotting fish showered down on their bench.

“You figure you’ll have to dodge some tough checks in a game, and maybe a beer sometimes,” said Igloos LW Jerry Koons.  “You’re not really expecting to have to dodge fish.”

Michigan Gray Wolves color commentator Blackie Sprowl.
Blackie Sprowl

The whole thing was triggered by an offhand comment on the Wolves’ radio broadcast during last week’s 13-0 thrashing of Seattle.  In the third period, color commentator Blackie Sprowl was trying to find something to talk about, since the game was completely out of hand.  He wound up launching into a comic monologue about the challenges of the commentator’s life.

“You know, this job is harder than the fans might think,” Sprowl said to play-by-play man Philip Shelton.  “It’s not all free food and fast women, you know.  We got to fly to Anchorage.”

“Yeah, that’s always a tough trip,” said Shelton.

“You go on a 30-hour flight, then you land in this snow-encrusted outpost in the middle of nowhere.  There’s more moose than people, and the whole place smells like rotting fish.  Then you’ve got to take another 30-hour flight back to civilization.  These are the kind of hardships that we put up with for you, fans.”

“Okay, Anchorage isn’t quite that bad,” Shelton interjected.

“Sure it is,” retorted Sprowl.  “Whole place smells like rotten fish.  You know, the next time the Igloos come here, we should put some rotten fish in their dressing room, just so they feel at home.”

“Rotten fish in the dressing room.  Okay,” said Shelton incredulously.  “Sorry, folks, this is what 10-0 does to you.”

“I think it’s great,” said Sprowl.  “They’ll smell those rotten fish and say, ‘Hey, smells like home in here.'”

Ordinarily, that would have been the end of it.  But when Anchorage arrived for Saturday’s game, a group of jokesters showed up with some day-old trout, and during breaks in the action, they began flinging it at the visiting bench.

The first salvo missed the mark, but the second hit Igloos D Ted Keefe flush on the front of his jersey.  The blueliner stared quizzically at the offending fish, then tossed it aside as the fans cheered.  As trout continued to rain down, though, the Igloos’ mood changed from confusion to frustration.  A couple players started checking the fish back at the fans, while others complained to the ushers.  Before long, the section behind the Anchorage bench was chanting “Fish! Fish! Fish!”

Eventually, the PA announcer warned the fans that “anyone throwing fish or other objects at the benches will be ejected.”  The fans booed, but the chucking of sea creatures came to a halt.

The Igloos wound up winning the game, 3-2.  During coach Sam Castor‘s postgame press conference, the first remark out of the coach’s mouth was, “What the hell was with the fish?”  A local reporter explained the story, whereupon Castor rolled his eyes and said, “Listen, my suit costs more than the monthly paycheck of those clowns.  The Wolves can expect a bill from my tailor.”

Igloos C Nile Bernard said that the team took the fish-flinging in stride.  “In fact, we’re packing the fish up and bringing it back home for Petey,” said Bernard, referring to mascot Petey the Polar Bear.  “We’re not going to let that stuff go to waste.”

Badgers Find No Escape on Bonding Trip

Cam Prince

As the Boston Badgers have struggled through their inaugural season, coach Cam Prince has looked for ways to encourage bonding among his players.  And with a number of new faces on the team after the recent trading deadline, Prince felt it was especially important to give his players a chance to get to know each other better.

With that in mind, on the Badgers’ trip to New York this week, Prince decided to take his players to an escape room.  In this increasingly popular form of entertainment, a group of players is locked in a room and must solve a series of riddles and puzzles in order to get out.  The Badgers’ trip to the room proved highly entertaining, but there were several surprises along the way that got in the way of the bonding aspect.

Since there are limits on the number of players that can share a single escape room, Prince divided his squad into four groups.  One group consisted of the top two forward lines; C Jens Bunyakin captained that group.  Another group included the third line and reserve forwards; F Randy O’Connor was in charge of that group.  The third group included the top two defensive pairings and starting goalie Dennis Wampler, with D Timothy “Cyclone” Winston as captain.  The final group included the bottom defensive pairing, reserve blueliner Horst Hasenkamp, and backup goalie Carson Wagner as captain.

The squabbles began as soon as the teams were announced.  Ds Jurgen Braun and Moose Baker argued over which of them was a second-pairing defender and thus belonged with Winston’s group; Prince ruled in favor of Braun.  Bunyakin asked to trade RW Gene Kennedy to Winston’s group for Wampler, a known puzzle enthusiast; Prince said that there would be no trades.  Wagner suggested scrapping the groups altogether and letting the captains pick teams; that request was also denied.

“If our guys don’t make it in hockey, they should all become lawyers,” said assistant coach Mark Morganhurst.  “They’re all great at arguing.”

Once the groups were locked away in their respective rooms, further hijinks ensued.  In Bunyakin’s group, RW Jorma Seppa and Kennedy were chained together, and had to find a key to free themselves.  Unfortunately, this confinement brought out a previously unknown claustrophobia in Kennedy, who suffered a panic attack and had to be calmed by Bunyakin until the key could be found.

“Fortunately, I have a 3-year-old at home,” said Bunyakin, “which equipped me perfectly to deal with Gene.”

In Winston’s room, there was a jigsaw puzzle that the team had to assemble in order to find a clue.  Wampler and D Brody “Bruiser” McCallan both wanted to be in charge of assembling the puzzle.  The disagreement became so heated that the two nearly came to blows and had to be separated by their groupmates.

“Wamp’s giving up at least 70 pounds to Bruiser in that fight,” said Winston, “so I knew we had to stop it.  I didn’t want to explain to Coach that we had to put our starting goalie on the DL because Bruiser broke him in the escape room.”

O’Connor’s group managed to figure out all of the clues well within the 60-minute time limit.  But when they tried to leave their room, they found that they couldn’t.  Escape room staff spent an additional half-hour just trying to free the trapped group.  As it turned out, the prank-loving Kennedy had jammed the lock to their room.  When O’Connor finally emerged, he had to be restrained from choking Kennedy.

“I hoped that this evening would bring us closer together,” said Prince.  “I’m not sure if we succeeded in that, or if we brought guys closer to killing each other.”

Wagner’s group wound up getting out first, despite being the smallest group of the four.  “Maybe we’ve just got a head for these things,” said Wagner.  “Or maybe it’s because we just focused on getting out instead of trying to fight each other.”

Prince said that he would continue to seek out bonding opportunities for his team.  He doesn’t plan to try another escape room, though.  “I’m pretty sure that once this story gets out,” said the Boston coach, “we’ll be banned from every escape room on the continent.”

Fairwood Gives Sailors A Hand, Gets In Trouble

On Sunday, the Saskatchewan Shockers and Seattle Sailors faced off in a virtual must-win situation for both squads’ flickering playoff hopes.  As a result, the game unfolded with a fierce intensity, as both teams did whatever they could to snag a victory.  As it turned out, one Sailors player went a bit too far over the line in helping his team score a key goal.

From the opening puck drop, the game moved at a breakneck pace, a style for which Seattle is well-suited.  But the Shockers hung tough, trading goals with the Sailors throughout the contest.

“It was almost like an All-Star Game, defense optional,” said Shockers D Wyatt Barnes.

By the middle of the third period, the score stood 5-5.  At that point, the offensive flow seemed to dry up.  Both teams had chances to go ahead, but pinged shots off of posts or pushed them just wide.

With less than two minutes left in the game, the puck got lost in a scrum in front of the Shockers’ goal, as a mass of players struggled for control.  Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, the puck wound up in the back of the net.  The goal horn blasted as the Sailors celebrated.  But Shockers netminder Zeke Zagurski protested vigorously that he’d been interfered with, prompting the referees took a close look at the replay.

At first, it was almost impossible to see what had happened, given the mass of humanity in and in front of the crease.  But eventually, matters became clear.

Woody Fairwood

Zagurski appeared to see the puck in the middle of the scrum and dove to cover it up, but missed.  Sailors D Woody Fairwood, seeing an opportunity, sat on top of Zagurski and pinned him to the ice.  With the Shockers goalie helpless, Fairwood spotted the puck, scooped it up, and flipped it into the net by hand.

Referee Darren St. James announced that the goal had been disallowed, and gave Fairwood a minor penalty for goaltender interference.  (After the game, St. James indicated that he wanted to give Fairwood an additional penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, but that his fellow referees disagreed.)

“I’m going to do whatever I can in that situation to get us a W,” said Fairwood after the game.  “Was it too far?  Well, I got caught, so yeah.  But you can’t blame me for trying.”

“It was obviously the right call,” said Shockers interim coach Caleb Ponder.  “You’re not allowed to sit on the goalie, and you’re not allowed to grab the puck and throw it in the net.  I don’t know what [Fairwood] was thinking.”

Sailors coach Harold Engellund, on the other hand, couldn’t suppress a smile when discussing the play.  “Yeah, okay, Woody shouldn’t have done it,” said Engellund.  “But honestly, I kind of like that hustle in a young player.  It’s do-or-die time for us, and Woody’s giving it the good fight.  The league isn’t going to give him a good-conduct medal for that, but if you’re going to win, you need to push it right up to the line.  And if you go a little over, that’s fine by me.”

Fortunately for Fairwood and the Sailors, they weathered the late penalty, and LW George Lane scored in overtime to give Seattle a 6-5 win.  Fairwood earned a beer shower from his teammates for the play.

“If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying,” said Sailors RW Vince Mango.  “Woody’s definitely trying!”

Continue reading “Fairwood Gives Sailors A Hand, Gets In Trouble”