Interview of the Week: Brock Manning

This week’s interview is with New York Night C Brock Manning.

SHL Digest: We’re here this week with one of the SHL’s all-time leading scorers, Brock Manning of New York.  Brock, thanks for speaking with us.

Brock Manning

Brock Manning: I’m always happy to get the word out to the fans.

SHLD: It’s been an exciting season for the Night, as it looked for much of the season as though your team might make the postseason for the first time.  In the end, however, [it looks like] you came up a bit short.  How would you assess your season?

BM: Obviously, our goal is to win the Vandy, and we didn’t [probably won’t] even make the playoffs, so we can’t call that a success.  But we’ve reached the point where the other teams have to take us seriously as contenders, and where we take ourselves seriously too.  And that’s a big step.

SHLD: You mention taking yourselves seriously as contenders.  What do you think has been the key to that?

BM: Coach [Nick] Foster deserves a lot of the credit for that.  I know a lot of people think all he does is fire insults at other teams, but within the locker room, he’s really challenged us to get serious about playing as a team and doing what it takes to win.  And some of the more senior guys like myself, he’s challenged us to step up and be leaders, hold each other accountable.

SHLD: And the team has met that challenge?

BM: Yeah, I’d say we have.  Guys used to be focused on themselves and their own stats first, and now we’re thinking more about how we can help the team succeed.  We want the whole to be greater than the sum of our parts.  Before, we were just parts, and we weren’t even trying to fit together.

SHLD: Obviously, Coach Foster has gotten a lot of flak for his comments about other teams, especially Hamilton.  Is that the way he is in the locker room too, or is that just a public show?

BM: A little of both, really.  He takes rivalries seriously, and he encourages us to play with a chip on our shoulder.  We know that because we’re from New York and we’ve got a lot of star players, it’s easy for fans in other cities to hate on us.  We don’t back away from that; we let it fuel us.

SHLD: Especially with your black uniforms, you’ve got a little of that old Oakland Raiders mentality.

BM: That’s the kind of thing we go for, yeah.  But at the same time, some of the crazier stuff [Foster] says?  That’s for the media, mostly.  He likes to call it “laying down cover fire.”  He takes the heat and stirs the pot, and it gives us some space to just play our game.

SHLD: You’re one of the top offensive talents in the SHL, and you have been throughout the history of the league.  However, you’ve always had a reputation as a one-way player, and critics say that New York will never win because your team doesn’t care about defense.  How would you respond to those critics?

BM: I’d say two things.  First, winning hockey games is all about possessing the puck and outscoring your opponent.  There are lots of ways to do that; winning 5-4 counts just the same as winning 1-0.  We play a high-octane style, but as long as we’re keeping the puck in the offensive zone, the other team isn’t scoring.  The second thing is that there are a lot of so-called “hockey purists” who think that winning with defense is the only “real” way to win.  You have to have a team full of battering rams like Michigan or Quebec, clog up the neutral zone, and choke the game to death.  But where’s the fun in that?  Fans have a lot more fun watching our games than a Quebec or Michigan game.

SHLD: One more question: You’re often acclaimed for having the best flow in the league.  Do you have any hair care secrets to share?

BM: (laughs) Thanks!  I guess if I have any secrets, it’s to take care of your hair and it will take care of you.  I use a dry shampoo that my girlfriend turned me onto, and I always condition.  Helmets are tough on hair, obviously, but I do what I can.

SHLD: On that note, we’ll wrap it up for the week.  Thanks for the time, Brock, and good luck the rest of the season!

BM: Just know that we’ll be back next season, and we’ll be dangerous.

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Bliss, Night Get Nasty in Division Showdown

The Eastern Division race is as hot as it gets right now.  With the trading deadline coming next week, both playoff spots are up for grabs, and four of the division’s six teams have a real shot at the postseason.  With such a fierce and wide-open competition, the stakes of each game are heightened – especially when two contenders face off.

Sunday’s game between the Hershey Bliss and New York Night was a case in point.  Neither team is particularly known for playing rough; they generally focus on scoring rather than fighting.  But this time, they produced a notably chippy, nasty game in a 5-2 Hershey win.  If this is a preview of coming attractions down the stretch, the East could be in for a wild ride.

“There was a lot of hate out there on the ice today,” said Night D Dominic Sanchez.  “It was fun and scary at the same time.”

This was the back end of a home-and-home between the Night and Bliss, who entered the game tied for first place in the East.  Hershey came into the game hungry for revenge: New York had won Saturday’s game 3-2 at the Chocolate Center, handing the Bliss there fourth straight loss.

Nick Foster

And per his usual, Night coach Nick Foster rubbed salt in the wound during his postgame press conference.  Foster, who has ridiculed the Bliss as soft all season, came to the podium holding a roll of Charmin.  “I brought this because it reminds me of Hershey,” said Foster.  “It’s really soft, easy to squish, and I love wiping my [butt] with it.”

Foster’s jibe riled up the Bliss clubhouse, which made it clear that they were going to respond physically.  “We’ll show Foster who’s really soft,” one Hershey player said.

Sure enough, less than two and a half minutes into the game, Bliss D Steve Cargill dropped the gloves with New York blueliner Donald Duckworth.  The two traded blows until Cargill wrestled Duckworth to the ice – no small task given Duckworth’s rugged physique.  Both sides smacked their sticks on the boards in appreciation.  The Bliss had made their point; outside observers might have assumed that was the end of hostilities.  In fact, though, said hostilities were just beginning.

A couple minutes after the Cargill-Duckworth scrap, Bliss LW Russell Nahorniak hit Night star Brock Manning with a high stick, opening a gash next to Manning’s left eye.  Nahorniak claimed the high stick was accidental; the Night insisted it was intentional, and called for the Hershey winger to be ejected.  Nahorniak received a double minor instead.

Manning dashed into the locker room to be patched up, then returned and scored a game-tying power-play goal, then pointed at Nahorniak.  (Manning finished out the first period, but did not return to the ice after that; he also missed the following two games.)

Not to be outdone, Hershey proceeded to score a pair of goals a little more than two minutes apart.  Each time, their celebration “coincidentally” wound up in front of the Night bench.

A couple minutes after that, New York C Tom Hoffman avenged Manning by ramming the butt end of his stick into Nahorniak’s stomach in the middle of a scrum in front of the Hershey net.  That earned Hoffman a double minor penalty of his own.  The Night committed a couple more penalties before the period ended, but the score remained the same.

Tensions didn’t ease in the second period.  After only 46 seconds, Night D Andy Ruger challenged Cargill to another fight.  Cargill gladly accepted the challenge; this time, Ruger got the better end, bloodiyng Cargill rather badly.  Both players received majors for their trouble.

Less than a minute after that bout, Bliss C Vance Ketterman scored to make it 4-1.  With the competitive portion of the game essentially over, both teams turned the physicality up even further.

Night D Rocky Winkle enraged Hershey by spearing Bliss C Spencer Kirkpatrick in the groin.  This time, it was Hershey calling for Winkle to be ejected; instead, he received a double minor.  Bliss RW Remi Montrechere upset New York with a high stick that nearly caught Night C Rod Remington in the teeth.

Early in the third period, Hershey LW Lance Sweet dumped New York LW Chase Winchester into the boards with a hard cross-check.  The Night were angered that Sweet received only a two-minute penalty, instead of a major or an ejection.  On the ensuing power play, Duckworth and Winkle combined on a score; they celebration by flashing their middle fingers at the Hershey bench.  They weren’t penalized, but Bliss D Reese Milton earned an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty a little bit later for squirting his water bottle at the New York bench.

The rest of the game unfolded with a slew of hard checks and minor penalties, but no major conflagrations.  After the game ended, both teams dissolved into a fit of pushing and shoving that didn’t quite turn into a line brawl.

After the team, both teams pointed fingers at their opponents.  Bliss coach Chip Barber focused on the two Night spearing penalties.  “Butt-ending is one of the dirtiest plays in hockey, and everyone knows it,” said Barber.  “Normally, you might get two of those [penalties] in a year.  But two in one game?  That’s just ugly hockey.”

Foster, meanwhile, noted the attack against some of his top players.  “I know [the Bliss are] desperate to show me how tough they are,” the New York coach quipped, “but this is ridiculous.  They tried to take Brock’s head off, then they tried to put Chase in a wheelchair.  Okay, we get it, you’re big tough boys.  Now put your [genitals] away and play some hockey next time.”

The league declined to hand out any supplemental discipline, but Commissioner Perry Mitchell warned that they wouldn’t be so lenient next time.  “We know that emotions run high in games like this,” Mitchell said in a statement.  “But there’s a line between good hard hockey and dirty hockey, and both teams came too close to that line.  If it happens again, the league will act appropriately.”

Continue reading “Bliss, Night Get Nasty in Division Showdown”

Tigres Topple Night in Wild 7-5 Contest

There are perhaps no SHL teams more diametrically opposed in style than the New York Night and the Quebec Tigres.  The Night are well known around the league both for the brash boasts and insults of coach Nick Foster and for their fast-paced, high-flying, high-scoring brand of hockey.  The Tigres, on the other hand, are renowned for their deliberate, hard-hitting, trapping approach to the game; they also prefer to send messages on the ice, rather than in the press.  It’s no surprise that the two teams don’t like each other much, and that their games tend to be fiercely contested.  When both teams are in close contention for a playoff spot, as they are now, their matchups gain an extra layer of excitement.

“Us and New York, it’s like the old saying about the irresistible force vs. the immovable object,” said Tigres LW Walt Camernitz.  “It’s a battle to dictate the game.  Whoever controls the tempo usually wins.”

That’s what made Thursday’s game at Neon Sky Center so unusual and thrilling.  In general, the contest – and the delightfully bonkers third period in particular – was played at New York’s preferred pace.  But it was Quebec that emerged victorious, by an eyebrow-raising 7-5 score.  The win only further tightened the East’s tense playoff chase, in which the top four teams are separated by a mere three points.

“I can’t even be mad we lost this one, because it was just so much fun to watch,” said Foster.

The game’s opening period set the tone for what was to come, as the teams combined for 33 shots (18 of them by the Night).  New York got on the board first 5:56 into the game, when C Rod Remington went short-side to beat Tigres netminder Riki Tiktuunen.  A mere eight seconds later, Quebec struck back with a goal by RW Stephane Mirac.  It took only 51 more seconds for the Tigres to take the lead, courtesy of a top-shelf blast off the stick of Camernitz.

Even though they trailed after the first, the Night remained confident, since the game was being played on their terms.  That confidence took a hit in the second period, as the Tigres scored twice exactly two minutes apart to make it a 4-1 game.  Foster admitted that he thought of removing goalie Jesse Clarkson at that point, but he elected not to.  Instead, in the locker room between periods, the coach urged his team to keep hope alive.

“Remember, you are the most dangerous scoring machine this league has ever seen,” Foster told his players.  “You think a little three-goal deficit can stop a great team like this?  Not a chance.  Let’s go out and show them who we are!”

New York proceeded to go out and do exactly that.  As Foster predicted, they scored four goals in the third period, enough to erase that deficit.  However, they also gave up three, eliminating any shot at a win.

Most of the period’s action was front-loaded, occurring in a frenetic three minutes that Camernitz described as “total insanity.  I’ve never seen that much scoring in a short time, not even playing shinny as a kid.”

Remington kicked off the craziness 47 seconds into the period, jamming home a rebound off a shot by D Dominic Sanchez.  That cut the Night’s deficit to two and brought the crowd to its feet.  It felt like a momentum-shifter.  But less than 30 seconds later, the Tigres swung the momentum firmly back in their direction, thanks to a pair of goals by LW Rupert MacDiarmid only seven second apart.

“Thank God for Rupe,” said Camernitz.  “He really saved our bacon there.”

But the Night weren’t dead yet.  Less than a minute and a half after MacDiarmid’s second goal, New York C Brock Manning deflected a shot from LW Chase Winchester between Tiktuunen’s legs to make it a 6-3 game.  Just 28 seconds later, Winchester and Sanchez got loose on a breakaway.  Tiktuunen bit hard on a fake shot from Winchester, who slid the puck over to Sanchez for a layup into the wide-open net to make it a two-goal game again.

A frustrated Tiktuunen smashed his stick over the crossbar as the New York fans serenaded him with sing-song chants of “Ri-ki, Ri-ki.”

“I was so mad at myself,” Tiktuunen said after the game.  “That goal was a disaster.”

The crowd was kicked into high gear after Sanchez’s goal, and they only got louder and more frenzied after Tigres D Kirby Hanlon took a delay of game penalty a couple minutes later.  “If [the Night] had scored there,” admitted Camernitz, “they probably would have come back and won.”

But Quebec fought off the penalty, and about 20 seconds after it ended, RW Weldon “Candy” Kane buried a shot from the slot to restore the three-goal lead and give everyone on the Tigres bench a chance to breathe.

The Night gave it one more run when RW Ivan Trujwirnek scored with 2:19 left in the game to get New York within two.  But they couldn’t get another tally, and a clipping penalty by D Anson Brank in the final minute snuffed out their final chance at a comeback.

“We really pushed the pace, huh?” said a grinning Foster after the game.  “The grinding little bastards got the W, but they were playing our game.  Nine times out of ten, when we get in a firewagon game like that, we win.”

Predictably, Quebec coach Martin Delorme had a different spin on the outcome.  “Obviously, this game was not to our usual comfort,” he told reporters, “but at this point, the victory is what matters.  Next time we play them, we can win 1-0 and make me happier.”

Continue reading “Tigres Topple Night in Wild 7-5 Contest”

Eastern All-Star Rosters

The roster for the Eastern Division in the SHL’s first All-Star Game, as announced by coach Rodney Reagle, are as follows:

First Line

LW: Steven Alexander, HamiltonThe young, scrappy, and hungry winger has been one of the SHL’s top scorers since the beginning.  This year, Alexander is tied for the league lead in goals with 23.  “I am not throwing away my shot,” Alexander told reporters, confirming that he will play.

D: Reese Milton, HersheyThe 25-year-old blueliner is one of the SHL’s best two-way threats, contributing solidly on offense (7 goals, 24 assists) and providing lock-down defense that has helped propel the Bliss to the top of the division. “For once, Reese will be on my side, instead of kicking my butt,” said Reagle.

C: Justin Valentine, Hershey. Valentine was the top overall vote-getter among Eastern All-Stars.  He needed them all, as this was one of the most competitive positions.  Valentine withstood a determined charge from New York’s Brock Manning, Hamilton’s Calvin Frye, and Washington’s Eddie Costello.  Valentine is tied for the league lead in goals (23) and is in the top five in points (39).

D: Dominic Sanchez, New YorkSanchez was the beneficiary of a late surge in voting from the New York area, allowing him to surpass Hamilton’s Raymond Smyth to claim a starting spot. Sanchez is one of the league’s top offensive defenseman, and he has put up 30 points (6 goals, 24 assists) for the Night so far this season.

RW: Jefferson McNeely, WashingtonMcNeely withstood a late charge from New York’s Rick “The Stick” Nelson to win this starting spot by less than 5,000 votes.  The winger is having a bit of a down season, but he is still among Washington’s top scorers with 25 points (12 goals, 13 assists).  When reporters called McNeely to get his reaction to being selected, they discovered that he had not yet learned he had been chosen.  “What’d I miss?” McNeely said.

 

Second Line

LW: Lance Sweet, Hershey. Sweet is a member of Hershey’s well-known “Love Line,” among the top-scoring lines in the SHL.  Sweet has more than held up his end of the bargain, putting up 34 points (11 goals, 23 assists) on the season so far. He is just outside the league’s top 10 in both points and assists.

D: Raymond Smyth, Hamilton. Smyth lost out on a starting spot to Dominic Sanchez in the final days of voting, but Reagle wasted no time tapping him as a reserve.  Smyth has the numbers to back up his case: he has the most points (38) of any defenseman in the league, and he has an excellent defensive reputation as well.

C: Brock Manning, New York. Manning fell short to Valentine  in the voting for the hotly-contested center position, but he was selected by Reagle as a reserve.  Manning has long been one of the SHL’s top scorers, and this season is no exception; his 21 goals puts him in the league’s top five.  As the Night have improved in recent weeks, Manning has led the way, scoring 10 goals in the last two weeks.

D: Kevin Buchanan, Washington. Buchanan was one of three Galaxy players that Reagle named to the Eastern squad.  He is the top point-scorer among Washington’s defensive corps with 18, but he is known primarily as a stay-home defender.  “I was afraid of what Kevin would do to me if I didn’t pick him,” said Reagle.

RW: Christopher Hart, Hershey. Hart joins his linemate Sweet among the Eastern reserves.  He is among the top 10 in the league in points with 36 (10 goals, 26 assists).  “Glad to see the Love Line representing!” Hart said.  “We’re going to tear it up out there.”

 

Third Line

LW: Casey Thurman, Washington. Thurman is having a bit of a down year by his standards, but he remains the Galaxy’s leader in goals scored (with 14), which is good enough to put him in the top 10 in the league.  “I had to talk Casey into it a little,” said Reagle.  “He didn’t think he deserved it, but I convinced him that he did.”

D: Ward Jones, QuebecJones will be the Tigres’ only All-Star representative, as Riki Tiktuunen will miss the game due to injury.  Jones is one of the key contributors to the Tigres’ largely anonymous but second-ranked defense.  He has been a stalwart on Quebec’s top line, producing 3 goals and 3 assists while providing rugged defense.

C: Calvin Frye, Hamilton. Frye was not voted in as a starter despite being in the top ten in the league in both goals (14) and assists (28).  Frye was named SHL Rookie of the Year last season, and he shows no signs of dropping off in his sophomore campaign, on pace for a 25-point improvement from his rookie point total.

D: Grant Warriner, Washington. The Galaxy’s second-year blueliner is proving his worth as a two-way contributor.  He has thrived beside free-agent signing Patrick Banks in Washington’s second pairing, putting up 17 points to go with a +10 rating.  “I didn’t want to pick too many of my own guys,” said Reagle, “but I look at the numbers until my eyes crossed, and I didn’t see anyone who was more deserving.”

RW: Ivan Trujwirnek, New York. The second-year winger known affectionately as “Trainwreck” has been a consistent contributor on a struggling Night team.  His rugged, hard-working play quickly earned the notice of coach Nick Foster, who wound up promoting him from the third line up to the top line.  He has continued to produce even with the promotion, putting up 8 goals and 11 assists.

 

Goaltenders

Roger Orion, Washington. The Galaxy have been a defense-first team this season, and Orion has been a key piece of the equation. He is among the top 5 in the league in wins (9), GAA (2.50), and save percentage (.922).  He was voted the starter by over 10,000 votes more than his closest competitor.

Dennis Wampler, Hamilton. Orion originally named Quebec’s Riki Tiktuunen as the backup netminder, but the sophomore star was injured in Friday’s loss to Dakota.  Pistols rookie Lasse Koskinen was another possibility, but he was also injured this week and therefore unavailable.  So Reagle turned to Koskinen’s backup, Wampler.  The second-year man has been strong, going 6-3-1 with a 2.47 GAA and a .913 save percentage.

SHL Issues First Annual Awards

Starlight Hockey LeagueAt a banquet celebrating the league’s second season, SHL Commissioner Perry Mitchell formally announced the creation of a new series of awards recognizing the league’s top players and coaches.  “We see this as an opportunity to recognize the many great individual performances that make the league so much fun to watch,” said Commissioner Mitchell.  These awards will be voted on by the league’s players, coaches, and beat reporters.

The commissioner announced the inaugural group of award winners, which are as follows:

jefferson-mcneelyMost Valuable Player: RW Jefferson McNeely, Washington Galaxy

McNeely had a strong sophomore season for the Galaxy, scoring 39 goals and notching 70 points while leading his team to its second consecutive SHL Finals appearance.

“Jefferson’s got more fakeouts than a three-card monte dealer,” said Washington coach Rodney Reagle.  “I mean, he gets a headman and starts heading up the ice, then all of a sudden he makes a move and he sheds his defenders and he’s breaking free.  If he ever gets tired of hockey, he should try being a magician.  He’s got that sleight-of-hand thing down cold.”

Other finalists for the MVP honor included Michigan G Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist, Hershey C Justin Valentine, Anchorage RW Nicklas Ericsson, and New York C Brock Manning.


calvin-fryeRookie of the Year: 
C Calvin Frye, Hamilton Pistols

The SHL had a very impressive freshman crop this season, and the voting for the Rookie of the Year trophy was very close indeed.  But Frye made enough of an impression to receive the accolade.  The 22-year-old led all rookies with 59 points, a number that included 30 goals and 29 assists.  He made enough of a splash that the Pistols traded away star C Rod Remington to make room on the team’s top line.

“Calvin is just an exceptional young man,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “He has enormous God-given talent, and there’s no doubt about that.  But he also has a tremendous work ethic.  He’s driven to make the absolute most out of the gifts that he’s been given.  And even though he’s one of the youngest guys on the team, there’s no question that the whole team looks up to him as a leader.  As a coach, he’s my dream come true.”

Other top vote-getters in the crowded field included Saskatchewan LW Troy Chamberlain, Quebec G Riki Tiktuunen, Michigan D Fritz Kronstein, and Seattle RW Vince Mango.


Ron WrightCoach of the Year: 
Ron Wright, Michigan Gray Wolves

The selection of Wright as Coach of the Year comes as little surprise after he led the Wolves to a 43-14-3 record and their first SHL title.  It’s a happy ending to the game of coaching musical chairs that led Wright to Michigan in the offseason.  After incumbent Wolves coach Martin Delorme led the team to a close second-place finish last season, he left to become the first coach of the Quebec Tigres, his hometown team.  Meanwhile, Wright had had a falling out with players and management in Hamilton, and was already contemplating resignation.  When the Michigan job opened up, Wright jumped at the chance.  Suffice to say, it’s been a win-win for both parties.

“Coach Wright is the big reason we won this year,” said Wolves C Hunter Bailes.  “He’s very smart strategically, and he’s also really dedicated to practice and the kind of lunch-pail work most players don’t want to do.  He’s told us again and again that championships aren’t won with highlight-reel plays; they’re won through strong fundamentals, wall work, controlling the puck.  Now we’ve seen that approach pay off firsthand.”

Other coaches receiving votes included Washington’s Reagle, Dakota’s Harold Engellund, and Hershey’s “Chocolate Chip” Barber.

brock manningSharp Shooter Award: C Brock Manning, New York Night

This award was not determined through voting; rather, it was awarded to the player who finished with the highest goal total.  This season, that was Manning.  He finished the year with 55 goals, 10 ahead of second-place Steven Alexander of Hamilton.

“This isn’t the trophy I really wanted to win,” admitted Manning.  “I mean, I’m glad to be recognized, and I’m definitely proud of the season that I had.  But this sport is all about championships, and we didn’t come close to that.  I’d totally trade this award for a shot at the Vandy.  Maybe we’ll get there next year.”


Chase WinchesterCommissioner’s Trophy: 
LW Chase Winchester, New York Night

Like the Sharp Shooter Award, the Commissioner’s Trophy isn’t awarded based on voting; instead, it’s given to the player who finishes with the highest season point total.  Winchester earned this year’s award with an incredible offensive season, shattering the SHL record with 104 points, six ahead of his teammate Manning.  Winchester’s point total was largely driven by assists; he recorded an incredible 88 this season, 25 more than his nearest competitor.

Despite having the league’s two best offensive producers in Manning and Winchester, along with other quality scorers including RW Rick “The Stick” Nelson and Ds Dominic Sanchez and Tuomas Nurmi, New York finished with a sub-.500 record thanks to so-so goaltending, abysmal defense, and volatile team chemistry.  Coach Preston Rivers was fired at the end of the season.

“I feel optimistic about where we’re headed,” said Winchester.  “We’ve got the best offense in the league, bar none.  If we can strengthen the blue line a little bit and smooth out some of the problems in the clubhouse, I think we can make some real noise next season.”


Dirk LundquistGoalie of the Year: 
Dirk Lundquist, Michigan Gray Wolves

This award came as no surprise.  In fact, Lundquist was the only unanimous award winner this season.  There wasn’t any serious room for debate, either; the Michigan netminder posted a 39-10-2 record with a 1.57 GAA and a .941 save percentage.  He led the league in wins, GAA, and save percentage by a comfortable margin.

“There’s no one better than The Bear,” said Wright.  “He’s got incredible reflexes and top-notch instincts.  But best of all, he just doesn’t get rattled out there.  Nothing fazes him.  Forget about ice water in his veins; he’s got solid ice in there.  He’s got that kind of calm under pressure.  He’d make a hell of a soldier; the heat of battle doesn’t get to him at all.  They should just name the award after him now and save time.”

raymond-smythDefenseman of the Year: Raymond Smyth, Hamilton Pistols

Despite finishing fourth in the East, the Pistols can take solace in capturing a pair of awards: the Rookie of the Year nod for Frye, and an award for their blue-chip defender, Smyth.  The 26-year-old Manitoba native was brilliant on both ends of the ice this season; he produced 49 assists, the highest total in the league among defensemen, and provided lock-down brilliance in his own end.  Smyth was anmong the league leaders in blocked shots, and played fierce defense while racking up only 51 total penalty minutes.

“There’s a reason why Raymond is our team captain,” said Shields.  “He’s a tremendous leader for us.  He always plays heads-up hockey, doesn’t take shifts off, plays through pain, and he plays at a really high level.  He doesn’t neglect any aspect of his game.  He just radiates strength in everything he does.”

Smyth got the nod over Hershey’s Reese Milton, New York’s Nurmi, Washington’s Bruce “Boom Boom” Hogaboom, and his Pistols teammate Dmitri Kalashnikov.

 

Washington Surges in East

Washington SmallLast season, the Washington Galaxy led the East virtually wire-to-wire, maintaining a steady single-digit lead for almost the entire season.  This season was different, as the Hamilton Pistols and Quebec Tigres got off to surprisingly strong starts and the division remains tightly bunched in the early weeks.  Over the last couple of weeks, though, the Galaxy have quietly kicked things into gear, going on a tear and opening up a double-digit advantage over their stumbling competitors.  As the league hits midseason, Washington appears well-positioned for a return trip to the playoffs.

“That whole team should wear ninja outfits,” said New York Night C Brock Manning, whose team trails the Galaxy by 11 points.  “They rarely look dominating, they don’t have a bunch of big-name stars… but damned if you don’t look up and see them pulling away every time.  I don’t know how they do it.”

How do they do it?  With a surprisingly potent and balanced offense, combined with a sturdy defense and solid goaltending.  To the surprise of many observers, Washington is second in the league in goals with 104.  The Galaxy’s top scorer is RW Jefferson McNeely, who has rebounded in a big way from a down year in 2015 to establish himself as a star.  McNeely’s 18 goals and 36 points puts him in the top 10 in the league in both categories.  McNeely’s emergence has taken considerable pressure off of linemate Casey Thurman, who was the team’s leading scorer in ’15 but got off to a slow start this year.

“I’m really glad to see Jefferson having a strong season,” said teammate Eddie Costello.  “He’s an electric personality, and the fans are really getting to see that now that he’s breaking out.  The people in DC are going to love this guy.”

But McNeely is far from the only quality scorer in the Galaxy’s lineup.  Thurman (10 goals, 25 points) has been gaining steam during Washington’s recent run.  Costello has done a great job setting up McNeely and Thurman, but is also a scoring threat in his own right (12 goals, 36 points).  Washington has strong scorers on its second and third lines as well, including LW Walt Camernitz (15 goals, 29 points), RW Sindri Pentti (11 goals, 17 points), and C J.C. Marais (25 points)

“That’s what makes us so dangerous,” said Camernitz.  “We pack a punch on all three lines, and we can score at any time.  Some other teams, you contain their one or two big guys and you can shut them down.  We’re not like that.”

Washington is no slouch in its own end, either.  The Galaxy’s defensive prowess was a key reason they were able to push the heavily favored Anchorage Igloos to 7 games in last season’s SHL Finals, and if anything, they’re stronger this year.  Defenseman Bruce “Boom Boom” Hogaboom is the team’s chief enforcer, and his willingness to scrap is legendary around the league.  But Washington is well stocked with solid two-way threat on the blue line.  Top pairing Leonard Wright and Kevin Buchanan are strong playmakers at both ends, and second pairing Rusty Anderson and Grant Warriner provide a bit of a heavier, more defense-oriented look.  The team also has several rugged wingers, most notably the hard-checking Pentti.

“A lot of teams in this league are imbalanced toward offense or defense,” said Buchanan.  “We pride ourselves on being balanced.  We can bang with the big boys, but we also have the speed and scoring ability to keep up with the faster clubs.”

Backstopping the defense is netminder Roger Orion, who has provided steady and drama-free prowess in the crease since the beginning.  “Other goalies have flashier reps and bigger names,” said Costello.  “But we’re happy to go to war with Roger any time.  We know he’s going to take care of business back there.”

Overseeing the whole circus is the league’s most colorful coach, Rodney Reagle.  A former goalie who was nicknamed “Reagle the Eagle” in his playing days, he’s done nothing to disprove the adage that goaltenders are a strange breed.  Players, though, say that his offbeat style keeps the cluhbhouse loose even in tense moments.

“Coach, well… what can you say?” said Costello.  “He’s one of a kind.  And by that I mean he’s hard-core nuts.  But we love that.”

Reagle keeps up a seemingly never-ending stream of pranks and jokes.  Recently, in reaction to the “creepy clowns” stories circulating on the Internet, he had the visiting locker room at Constellation Center decorated with pictures of clowns.

“I’ve been in there,” said Reagle, “and afterward I had to curl up in the fetal position for a half hour.  It’s totally going to unnerve our opponents.  Think of it as psychological warfare.”

While creepy clowns may or may not be essential to Washington’s recent success, critics argue that the Galaxy are simply cleaning up against a weak division.  As of this writing, none of the other teams in the East have an above-.500 record.  The West, meanwhile, has a pair of powerhouses in the Igloos and the Michigan Gray Wolves.  Even if Washington cruises back to the Finals, won’t they simply be crushed by whoever emerges from the West?

Reagle pointed out that people said the same thing last year, and the Galaxy nearly won the title.  “If everyone wants to overlook us and say that we’re weak because our division is struggling, go ahead,” said the coach.  “We’ll be happy to prove them wrong again.”

Tigres, Night Get Physical in Fight-Filled Game

Quebec SmallNew York smallThe Quebec Tigres are only a month into their existence as an SHL team, and they seem to be fast developing their first rivalry.  The Tigres faced off with the New York Night at the Neon Sky Center on Wednesday, and the game quickly turned into a rough physical battle that included a couple of fights and nearly culminated in a line brawl.  And based on the teams’ postgame remarks, the bad blood between the teams is likely to linger.

The game was chippy from the beginning, with multiple penalties being whistled on both teams within the first 3 minutes of the game.  Quebec attempted to slow down New York’s fast-paced offense with heavy checks and aggressive defense, and the Night rose to the challenge.  “We weren’t going to let [the Tigres] push us around and drag us into the mud,” said New York C Brock Manning.

tuomas-nurmi
Tuomas Nurmi
boris-zhzhynov
Boris Zhzhynov

The game remained feisty but contained through most of the first two periods.  But things boiled over with 12 seconds left in the second, when Night D Tuomas Nurmi banged home a shot from the blue line to put his team ahead 3-2.  Nurmi celebrated his goal vigorously in front of Tigres D Boris Zhzhynov.  Although Nurmi claimed later that he was just excited, Zhzhynov felt that he was being taunted.

Zhzhynov responded by shoving Nurmi in the chest.  The Night defender raised his arm in outrage, whereupon Zhzhynov dropped his gloves and began throwing haymakers.  Referees separated the combatants fairly quickly, with both being assessed fighting majors and Zhzhynov earning an extra minor for instigation.

Zhzhynov and Nurmi went at it again midway through the third period.  During an extended shift in the New York end, Nurmi drilled Quebec RW Stephane Mirac into the end boards.  Zhzhynov responded by whistling an elbow at Nurmi’s head.  Both teams quickly formed a scrum near the Night net, and for a moment it looks as though chaos would ensue.  The referees, however, managed to separate both teams.  On the ensuing faceoff, Nurmi challenged Zhzhynov to another fight, an offer the Quebec enforcer eagerly accepted.  This time, the referees let the two battle things out for a while before sending them both off with matching majors.

The atmosphere remained tense but bloodless through the rest of the game, a 4-3 New York win.  Night fans showered the visiting Tigres with popcorn and beer as they headed down the tunnel after the game.

Preston Rivers
Preston Rivers

After the game, Night coach Preston Rivers called the Tigres “a street gang in skates,” and accused Quebec coach Martin Delorme of purposefully incited violence.  “It’s obviously a pattern with Martin,” said Rivers.  “Last year in Michigan, he had a team that couldn’t keep up with us, so he’d turn our games into a bloodbath and try to win ugly.  This year, same thing.  The league should suspend him; he’s trying to ruin hockey.  He’s not a coach, he’s a crime boss.”

Martin Delorme
Martin Delorme

Delorme responded in kind, accusing Rivers of hypocrisy.  “That team is always puffing out their chests and screaming and taunting, and the officials do nothing,” said the Quebec coach.  “But if our team so much as looks cross-eyed at them, Rivers is crying to the officials for a penalty.  [The Night] can only play one type of game, and so they want the league to outlaw anyone who tries to play another way.”

Delorme added that he has “no respect” for Rivers and mocked him as “an empty suit.  Behind his big mouth and his slicked-up hair, there is nothing, no brains.  He is a carnival clown.”

Both teams lined up behind their respective coaches.  The Night echoed Rivers’ description of the Tigres as a gang of thugs.  “They can’t hang with us on talent, so they make it a brawl instead,” said Manning.  “It’s sad, but it’s what you can expect for a limited team like that.”  Meanwhile, Quebec C Drustan Zarkovich spoke for his team when he said, “If New York thought this game was ugly, wait until next time we play them.  They don’t know ugly yet.”

For his part, Nurmi seemed puzzled by his role in the fireworks.  “It’s strange to me,” said Nurmi.  “I was just celebrating my goal, and [Zhzhynov] took it personally.  After that, it’s like he was out to get me.  To me it’s over, but I don’t know what he thinks.”

Zhzhynov, speaking through a translator, shot back: “Tuomas Nurmi is a punk and not a real defenseman.  I am proud I stood up for myself and my team.”

The teams meet again in New York on Sunday.