Igloos’ Kennedy Skips Game to Play Shinny

Gene Kennedy has been a fan favorite in most of the cities where he’s played.  Even though the 2y-year-old forward has generally been a lightly-used depth guy throughout his career, his quick wit and his penchant for pranks and colorful quotes have won him fans in Washington, Hershey, and Boston.

Like most players, Kennedy wants as much ice time as possible.  Unlike most players, when Kennedy doesn’t get the opportunities he wants, he doesn’t hesitate to go public with his protests.  It’s a quirk that’s either endearing or infuriating, depending on your perspective.

Gene Kennedy

Back in 2017, Kennedy wasn’t getting into games with the Bliss, so he crashed a between-periods “Pee Wee Playtime” youth hockey scrimmage, claiming that he was “just trying to get my work in.”  This season, Kennedy signed with the Anchorage Igloos.  As in Hershey, he’s at the bottom of the forward depth chart, and he’s appeared in only a handful of games so far.  This week, he once again decided to skate with the kids – but in a slightly different way.

On Sunday afternoon, Kennedy was a healthy scratch as usual.  Typically, healthy scratches on the Igloos will spend the first period in the weight room or on an exercise bike, and then will watch the rest of the game from the press box.  Kennedy spent the first period riding the bike, but then did not join his fellow healthy scratches in the press box at the start of the second.  This led to a brief period of concern, as the Igloos wondered if something bad had happened to him.

The Igloos checked with their clubhouse staff, who said that Kennedy had grabbed his uniform and equipment bag and left the arena.  A couple staffers then set out to look for him.  Within 45 minutes, they’d located him at an outdoor rink about a mile from Arctic Circle Arena, playing shinny with a group of local teenagers.

“It’s been a while since I got in a game, so I just got the itch,” said Kennedy.  “Afternoon bag skates just aren’t the same thing.  Sometimes, it take a game to really get the blood pumping.  You can’t experience the thrill of competition from up in the press box, you know?”

While the Bliss largely laughed off Kennedy’s 2017 stunt, Igloos coach Sam Castor reacted to this incident with annoyance.  “Everyone knows Gene’s a flake, and I think this was mostly Gene being flaky,” Castor told reporters.  “But if this stunt was about embarrassing me into giving him more playing time, I’m not impressed.”

“If he’s not happy that he’s not getting a sweater, he should come to my office and we can talk about it like men,” the coach continued.  “My door’s always open, and I’d be happy to talk about what he needs to do to earn more ice time.  But we’re in a tight playoff race, and you have to earn a sweater.  In the meantime, he should pay attention to the guys who do play and try to learn something, instead of playing hooky to play shinny with a bunch of kids.  I’d expect a little more professionalism.”

Kennedy apologized and said that he was not trying to embarrass Castor or the organization.  “Honestly, I didn’t think anyone was going to miss me or notice I was gone,” Kennedy said.  “From now on, I’ll only play shinny on my off days.”

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Sailors Surrender Six in Third, Miss Sole Division Lead

The Seattle Sailors had a golden opportunity to seize the lead in the tumultuous Western division on Saturday.  With the Michigan Gray Wolves and Anchorage Igloos both suffering losses, the Sailors only needed a win over the struggling Washington Galaxy to claim sole possession of first place.

Through the game’s first two periods, Seattle appeared to be on a glide path to victory, claiming a 6-1 lead.  But then came a nightmarish third period in which the Sailors collapsed, lost their lead, and had to settle for a tie and a share of the lead with Michigan.  It felt like a golden opportunity wasted for the team in green.

“A game like this, it’s just a total shot in the gut,” said Sailors LW Rod Argent.  “It’s just devastating.”

When the puck dropped for the start of the third period, the Sailors were appropriately confident.  They’d rocked Galaxy netminder Darrell Bondurant for a half-dozen goals already.  The primary question seemed to be whether they’d keep pushing to run up a signature win, or if they’d ease up and focus on grinding the clock.

Just 30 seconds into the period, Seattle RW Elliott Pepper was sent to the penalty box for elbowing.  Eight seconds into the ensuing power play, Galaxy winger Jefferson McNeely fired home a slapper on the short side.  No big deal; it was still a 6-2 game.

Three minutes later, though, Galaxy LW Casey Thurman scored on an odd-man rush to make it 6-3.  A bit of a nervous rumble passed through the crowd; was Washington going to make this a game?  Sailors star Vince Mango quickly calmed the fans’ nerves, marching down the ice from the following faceoff and beat Bondurant top shelf to make it 7-3.  Back to cruising time again.

But the plucky Galaxy refused to give up, and they slowly chipped away at Seattle’s lead.  At just past the seven-minute mark, C Harvey Bellmore deflected a shot over the blocker of Sailors goalie “Jersey Mike” Ross to cut the deficit back to three.  Then just before the mid-point of the period, Sailors D Woody Fairwood coughed up the puck in the neutral zone.  Washington stormed down the ice, and C Tucker Barnhill – centering a line of SHL rookies – tucked it home between Ross’s legs.  Suddenly it was a 7-5 game, and the crowd became deeply uneasy.  So did the Sailors bench.

“We’d already taken the W in our heads, and suddenly it was a game again,” said Sailors C Napoleon Beasley.  “We knew we had to respond.”

Sailors coach Harold Engellund called time out to calm his anxious team, but he appeared not to make any major strategic changes.  He did not remove Ross from the game, and he largely appeared to settle on playing defensive hockey and grinding the clock.

However, defensive hockey has never been Seattle’s strong suit.  And a couple minutes later, a failed clear by Mango turned into another Washington opportunity, and McNeely snuck one just inside the right post to make it a 7-6 contest.

The Sailors then made a belated bid to turn it back on and add to their lead, but couldn’t find the switch.  And with three minutes left in the game, the Galaxy’s rookie third line struck again.  Newly acquired RW Mickey Simpson went bar-down to tie it up and sink Century 21 Arena into a shell-shocked funk.

After the game, Engellund took a somewhat philosophical tack.  “Is this an embarrassing one?  Heck yes,” the coach said in his postgame press conference.  “If we miss the playoffs by a point, are we going to look back and regret this?  You bet.  But we can’t let ourselves dwell on this.  We’ve got to keep moving forward and play like we know how.”

Mango, meanwhile, seemed to shrug it off.  “This was one of those crazy fluke games, you know?” the Sailors star said.  “Like an asteroid strike.  It’s one in a million.  But it doesn’t wipe out all the great wins we’ve had this year.  Just forget it and go to the next one.”

Can the Sailors forget this loss, or will the memory haunt them?  Whether they can make their first-ever playoff trip in their last season in Seattle may depend on the answer.

Continue reading “Sailors Surrender Six in Third, Miss Sole Division Lead”

Bliss Hang Tough Without Sweet

Hershey Bliss D Reese Milton remembers the thought that flashed through his mind.

He remembers feeling good during last Saturday’s game against the Saskatchewan Shockers, with the Bliss comfortably ahead in a key game against a tough opponent.  He remembers Bliss LW Lance Sweet skating toward the corner to pick up a loose puck.  He remembers Shockers D Wyatt Barnes going after the same puck.  He remembers Sweet skidding on a bad patch of ice and getting tangled up with the burly Barnes.  He remembers both players slamming into the boards.  He remembers Barnes getting up, claiming the puck, and skating away.  And he remembers Sweet staying down, writhing in pain.  He remembers the stretcher coming out onto the ice to carry the winger away.

And he remembers the awful, sinking thought: “Oh no, there goes our season.”

Lance Sweet

You can’t blame Milton for his feeling of doom.  Sweet is one of Hershey’s leading scorers, and a member of their famous “Love Line.”  And perhaps no SHL team is more familiar with heartbreak than the Bliss.  In 2015, Sweet suffered a serious lower-body injury that caused him to miss a third of the season and tanked the team’s shot at a division title.  In 2016, the Bliss blew a division title on the last day of the season by allowing four unanswered goals to Washington in the third period, turning a 3-1 victory into a 5-3 defeat.  Last season, on the heels of a stunning Finals win over Anchorage, Hershey got off to an abysmal 3-16-1 start that left them in too deep a hole to climb back to contention.

This season, the Bliss have been at or near the top of the East for much of the season.  But they’re in a tight battle for the playoffs, with the Hamilton Pistols and New York Night neck-and-neck with them and the Quebec Tigres lurking just behind.  So losing a key contributor – and just after the trading deadline, too late to acquire a replacement – had the potential to derail a promising campaign.

Post-game examination confirmed Hershey’s worst fears: Sweet would require surgery and will almost certainly miss the rest of the season.

“This one’s tough on us, real tough,” said C Justin Valentine.  “As a friend and a teammate, you just feel awful for him.”

But a funny thing seems to have happened: the Bliss haven’t fallen apart.  Facing a week on the road against some tough opponents, Hershey has kept winning and kept up in the playoff chase.

“We’re determined that we’re going to win this [title] for Sweets,” said Valentine.  “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”

On Sunday, in the first game after Sweet’s injury, the Bliss faced the Seattle Sailors at Century 21 Arena.  The Sailors have been having a terrific season, and they’ve been nearly unbeatable on home ice.  But Hershey blitzed the Sailors with a four-goal first period and held on for a 6-4 win.

Things didn’t get any easier on Tuesday, as the Bliss headed north of Alaska to face the Anchorage Igloos.  The trip to Anchorage is always tough on visiting teams, and the Igloos are in the middle of their annual second-half surge.  But that didn’t stop Hershey from coming from behind with a four-goal third to hand the Igloos a stunning 4-3 defeat.

After the jet-lagged Bliss dropped a 4-3 decision in Dakota on Thursday, they went to Kansas City and thumped the Smoke 5-2.  Valentine scored, completing a seven-goal week as he picked up the slack for his fallen teammate.

“I think we’ve faced enough adversity over the years that we’re ready to handle this,” said Bliss coach Chip Barber.  “We’re like a well-tempered chocolate: we’ve been forged by the heat and we’re nice and firm and smooth.  We’re not going to crumble the minute something happens to us.

“Would we rather have Sweets out there?  Of course we would.  But are we going to hang our heads and give up just because he’s out?  No way.  We believe we can win this, and we will.”

Jackalopes Slice Payroll Again, Deal Cherner, Anderson

One of the ongoing storylines in the SHL over the last couple of seasons has been the Dakota Jackalopes’ financial stability.  The Jackalopes have steadily pared payroll over the last couple of seasons, to the point that observers around the league have wondered whether the team will survive.  Those rumors bubbled up early this season when Dakota dealt netminder Dennis Wampler a few weeks after signing him to a sizable free-agent deal.  They swirled again a couple weeks later when goalie Christien Adamsson ripped the team as “cheap” in a postgame rant.

With the trading deadline arriving this week, the Jackalopes were expected to consider trades that would reduce their payroll even further.  They did just that, trading both of their top-pairing defenseman north of the border: Matt Cherner was dealt to the Quebec Tigres, while Rusty Anderson was sent to the surging Saskatchewan Shockers.

Predictably, the trades set off another round of rumors that the Jackalopes are in financial trouble.  GM Paul Mindegaard stoutly rebuffed those rumors while announcing the deals to the press.  “Neither of these was a dump deal,” said Mindegaard.  “These are hockey trades, and we think they’re going to make us stronger in the long run.”

Mindegaard noted that both Cherner and Anderson will be free agents in this offseason, and that Dakota had concluded that they couldn’t resign either player.  “We’ve been in talks with Matt’s and Rusty’s agents for a while now, but we’ve recognized there isn’t a fit there,” the Dakota GM stated.  “And we’re not competing for a playoff spot, so we made the difficult decision to make these trades and get some value back.”

The trade of Cherner was particularly hard on both the player and the fans.  The defenseman has been with Dakota since the SHL’s inception, and he has developed over time into one of the league’s top two-way defensemen.  Cherner has also been vocal about his desire to stay with the Jackalopes.  When news of the deal came down, he broke down in front of reporters.

“I’ve really been hoping there was a way that this wouldn’t happen,” Cherner said.  “Playing for this team in front of these fans has been a real joy.  This has become my home.  I guess I’ve seen the writing on the wall for a while, but now that it’s here, I just – just can’t… sorry, I have to stop now.”

In exchange for Cherner, the Tigres sent D Kirby Hanlon, C Jacob Cunniff, and their first-round pick to Dakota.  The 21-year-old Hanlon is having a solid rookie season with Quebec, putting up 16 points (3 goals, 13 assists).  Cunniff, also 21, has been a steady contributor with Quebec’s CHL affiliate (12 goals, 20 assists on the season), and he addresses a position of need for the Jackalopes, who are very weak in the middle.

“Matt’s one of the best defensemen in the league, and we weren’t going to let him go for cheap,” said Mindegaard.  “We got two very promising young guys – a quality blueliner and a top prospect center – plus a first.  I’ll stand behind that.”

Quebec, meanwhile, views Cherner as just the shot in the arm they need to make up ground in the East playoff race.  “Our identity is built around defense first,” said Tigres GM Pete Gondret.  “We’ve struggled a bit with keeping guys healthy, but we’ve added the best player available at the deadline.  I can’t wait to see what he achieves with us.”

To acquire Anderson, the Shockers parted with C Tanner Brooks.  The 22-year-old appeared in the CHL All-Star game; he’s known as strong on defense, and his offensive game has blossomed this season.  He’s widely regarded as the best center who hadn’t yet made the SHL.

“Tanner is a player we’ve coveted for a long time,” said Mindegaard.  “Between him and Jake Cunniff, we’ve gotten a lot stronger in our weakest area.  We’ve taken a step back on the blueline, but we have a lot of defensive prospects in the pipeline.”

This is the first time Saskatchewan has been a buyer at the deadline, and GM Cooper Matthews appreciates his haul.  “Rusty Anderson fits right in with our blueline corps, and strengthens us in an area where we’re already strong,” Matthews told reporters.  “It was a tough decision to part with Tanner, and I know I probably made [the Jackalopes] crazy going back and forth on that.  But we see an opportunity here, and we’re going for it.”

It must be noted that with the deals, the Jackalopes shaved about $2 million off of a payroll that was already second-lowest in the league.  Mindegaard stressed that he plans to work quickly to sign extensions with their newly-acquired players, as well as key members of their existing team.  “

“We’re not going broke, folks,” said the Dakota GM.  “Sorry to disappoint you, but it’s fake news.”

Pistols Make Big Splash in Landing Costello from DC

Last season, the Hamilton Pistols were headed for their first-ever playoff appearance, and they faced a choice: dip into their store of top prospects and make a big win-now deal, or make a smaller depth deal and hold on to their young talent.  They chose the latter path, and wound up being bounced in the first round by Quebec.

This year, in the midst of an intense race in the East, the Pistols decided to go for a big-splash deal.  They acquired C Eddie Costello from the Washington Galaxy in exchange for C Pat Collistone, D Buster Kratz, and their first-round pick.

“To be honest, I’m surprised to be here announcing this deal,” said Pistols GM Marcel LaClaire.  “When we began to discuss it, it was almost as a joke.  But the longer we talked, the more serious it became.  Finally I said, ‘Let’s take the dare and do it.’”

The trade is a big swing designed to address Hamilton’s biggest weakness, which is scoring beyond their top line.  The 28-year-old Costello led the Galaxy in points with 45 and in assists with 33.  He will slot into the second-line center position in Hamilton, between LW Magnus Gunnarson and RW Kenny Patterson.  In order to fit under Hamilton’s salary cap, the Galaxy will retain $1 million of Costello’s salary.

“Eddie is a dynamite player, and he gives us an immediate boost on offense,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “I’ve watched him beat us enough times over the years; I know what he can offer us.”

For Washington, the trade brings an end of the tenure of one of their most popular players.  Costello was a key contributor to the Galaxy teams that made back-to-back SHL finals appearances, and was also a colorful character on the ice and in the locker room.  Many young Galaxy fans copied his signature fauxhawk haircut.

“It’s pretty tough for me to leave DC, since I’ve had so many good times here,” Costello said.  “But I’m excited to join the playoff hunt again, and I’ll keep in touch with all my boys back here.”

The rental of Costello (who will be a free agent at the end of the season) didn’t come cheaply.  Collistone has been a longtime favorite in the Pistols organization.  The 23-year-old known affectionately as “Stoner” was strongly considered for the third-line center role in Hamilton this season; the Pistols wound up signing veteran J.C. Marais instead.  He was a 2018 CHL All-Star, and though his numbers are down a bit this season (13 goals, 17 assists with Oshawa), he remains a well-regarded prospect.

The 21-year-old Kratz is another homegrown Hamilton prospect.  He’s been a depth defenseman for the Pistols this season, appearing in only 12 games and failing to record a point.

“I never thought [LaClaire] would make Stoner available,” said Galaxy GM Ace Adams.  “He and Kratz both help us restock our prospect pool, which is great as we look to the next chapter for our team.  We wish Eddie all the best.  I hope he brings home the Vandy.”

Wolves Bolster Depth in Trade With KC

The Michigan Gray Wolves have never been ones for the trade market.  While other contenders have frequently used the trade deadline as a chance to patch weaknesses before the stretch run, the Wolves have always passed.  In some cases, this has been because they were too far ahead to be caught.  But it also seemed to be a matter of philosophy; Michigan tended to trust their own players, even when they struggled, rather than looking to add outsiders.

“The guys in this locker room have been around from the beginning,” said Wolves coach Ron Wright in the run-up to this year’s deadline.  “They’ve made the sacrifices and bought in to what we’re trying to do.  I’m happy with what we have.”

But with Michigan clinging to a razor-thin lead in the West and with three other teams hot on their heels, GM Tim Carrier decided to break with tradition and make a deal.  The Wolves picked up LW Kelvin Starkey and D Scott Hexton from the Kansas City Smoke in exchange for minor-league winger Cleo Rodgers, goalie Gus Parrish, and a 2nd-round draft pick.

“This is obviously not our usual approach at the deadline,” said Carrier.  “And this is not in any way a commentary on the players on our current rosters.  But with the race as tight as it is, I’d be remiss if I wasn’t looking for ways to improve our team.  And this is a deal that makes us better now and in the future.”

While Michigan’s success has always been built on defense and goaltending, their punchless offense and aging roster have been growing concerns.  As of the deadline, the Wolves were tied with Boston for dead last in the league with only 88 goals.  And of their 15 regular starting skaters, eight of them are over age 30.

Starkey helps the Wolves address both concerns.  The winger has been a reliable and steady scorer for Kansas City, with 23 points (9 goals, 14 assists) so far on the season.  The 26-year-old is also signed for this year and next at a very reasonable $200,000 annual salary, another plus for the cap-strapped Wolves.

“This is a pretty cool opportunity for me,” said Starkey.  “Knowing that a strong team like Michigan was interested in me… that’s a real boost.  I can’t wait to get over there!”

The 28-year-old Hexton has struggled with the Smoke this season, recording a lone assist in 16 games as he has shuttled between Kansas City and their Omaha farm club.  But he is a veteran with a reliable track record, and he was reportedly highly disenchanted with a Smoke team that he considered directionless and unprofessional.  According to team sources, he had asked to be dealt if the opportunity presented itself.

With the Wolves, he’ll replace Igor Shovshenkov, a depth defender who was another member of the over-30 club.  To facilitate the trade, the Smoke agreed to retain $150,000 of Hexton’s salary.

For the Smoke, the 21-year-old Rodgers provides the team with a much-needed scoring prospect.  He had been considered a likely replacement for one of Michigan’s aging wingers, but despite a solid season with the Wolves’ affiliate in Cleveland (14 goals, 20 assists), his star seemed to have dimmed a bit within the organization.  He will report to the Smoke’s farm club in Omaha, but is considered a strong shot to make the big-league roster next season.

The 29-year-old Parrish, meanwhile, will reportedly head straight to Kansas City to aid the Smoke’s woes in the crease.  Kansas City is last in the league in GAA (4.13) and save percentage (.880).  Parrish was having an exceptional season in Cleveland (8-9-4, 1.97 GAA, .912 save percentage), but was blocked in Michigan by the exceptional tandem of Dirk Lundquist and Art Cowan.

So after his “happy with what we have” comment a couple days earlier, how does Wright feel about the new additions?  “I’m all for it,” the coach said.  “What, you thought they were going to make this deal without asking me?”

Smoke Snap Skid With 6-5 Shocker Over Igloos

The Kansas City Smoke have been stumbling through a dismal month of hockey.  Coming into Saturday’s game, they’d lost five in a row and 13 of their last 14.  Since a rare three-game winning streak that ended on Valentine’s Day, Kansas City has posted a pitiful 1-18-1 record.  They’re weak on both sides of the puck; they’re dead last in goaltending (3.94 GAA and .885 save percentage), tenth on defense (34.5 shots allowed per game), and ninth on offense (100 goals scored).

On Saturday, the Smoke hosted the Anchorage Igloos at Heartland Telecom Center.  Given that the Igloos are fighting tooth and nail for playoff position in the crowded West, they were widely expected to stomp the Smoke.  Instead, Kansas City burst out with a rare offensive explosion, stunning Anchorage with a 6-5 win.  The Smoke scored as many goals in this game as they had during their prior five-game losing streak.

“This is a big win for us!” crowed Smoke RW Zachary Merula.  “When you’re in a slump like we’ve been, it’s easy to get down on yourself.  But we showed that we can beat anybody!”

After the first two periods, Kansas City had played Anchorage close, but still found themselves trailing 4-3.  This seemed like a harbinger of yet another defeat; third periods have been a horror show for the Smoke all season.  They’d blown countless leads in the last period; coming in behind, they seemed ripe for another blowout.

But in the locker room before the third, D Tony Hunt rallied his teammates.  In a young clubhouse, the 35-year-old Hunt has been a vocal leader.  He exhorted the Smoke to go out and steal a win.

“Hey guys, have you noticed [the Igloos] out there?” Hunt said.  “They’re just skating around.  They think they’ve got this one in the bag.  I think it’s time for us to go out there and give ‘em a shock!  We’ve got awesome fans, and it’s been a while since we’ve given them any good news.  Let’s go out and give ‘em a W they won’t forget!”

The fired-up Smoke didn’t take long to make good on Hunt’s words.  Just 41 seconds into the final period, RW Tyler Cloude snapped a shot between the pads of Anchorage goalie Wendell Cantillon to tie the score.  Hunt waved his arms to the crowd and got them to scream at the top of their lungs.

After that, Smoke C Mike Rivera took the spotlight.  Rivera is the Kansas City captain, but he generally prefers to lead by example.  Five minutes after Cloude’s tying blast, Rivera got behind the Anchorage defense and beat Cantillon on the short side to give the Smoke their first lead since the second minute of the game.  Ninety seconds later, Rivera redirected a slapper from LW Trevor Green into the net to make it 6-4 Kansas City.  Rivera jumped into the glass as the fans roared with delight.

“I got goose bumps, no lie,” said Rivera.  “Our crowds are usually pretty chill, but they really got amped this time.  Dude, it was amazing.”

The Smoke may have caught the Igloos napping early in the period, but the defending champs didn’t go down quietly.  Just over a minute after Rivera’s second goal, Igloos C Jake Frost scored to cut KC’s lead to one.  The crowd’s buzz turned uneasy; they’d certainly seen plenty of late collapses before.

But Hunt began thumping his stick against the boards, and persuaded his teammates to do the same.  Pretty soon, they had the crowd clapping in unison.

“What Tony did was really cool,” said Merula.  “I mean, these fans had every reason to think we were going to blow it, but Tony turned ‘em around and got them to believe.  And they got us to believe.”

Throughout the rest of the period, the Smoke fans showered their heroes with cheers and chants.  And the players responded, making rare blocks and steals.  Goalie Dennis Wampler made a couple of ten-bell saves that earned standing ovations.  And for the final minute of the game, all the fans got on their feet and roared, urging the Smoke on to a most unlikely victory.

“How ‘bout that W, huh!” exclaimed Smoke coach Randy Bergner, grinning ear to ear.  “This season’s been a slog at times, so I give a ton of credit to Hunter and the boys for making a stand.  And a big salute to our fans, who were the best I’ve ever seen!  We couldn’t have done this without them.”

Continue reading “Smoke Snap Skid With 6-5 Shocker Over Igloos”