CHL Update: Zoomies Coach Sparks OT Win with Wacky Speech

The Colorado Springs Zoomies have been one of the CHL’s strongest teams since the league’s inception.  They made the playoffs in 2016 and 2017, only to lose in the divisional round.  This season, Colorado Springs is mired around the .500 mark, but they’re hoping to get hot in the second half and win their first title.  If they do reach the promised land, the Zoomies may look back on this week’s comeback win – and coach Artie Gambisch’s unusual inspirational speech – as a turning point.

On Wednesday, Colorado Springs rallied after blowing a third-period lead and snatched a 3-2overtime win over the contending Idaho Spuds.  After the game, several of the players pointed to a between-periods Gambisch pep talk as the key to the comeback.  When asked what the coach had said, the players were a bit vague.  “It’s hard to describe.  It was… a work of art,” said RW Joel Hagendosh, who scored the game-winning goal.  “You should ask him about it.”

Artie Gambisch

Accordingly, the reporters asked Gambisch about the speech in his postgame press conference.  After a long laugh, Gambisch said, “I don’t know.  I feel like it should just be between me and the boys.”  Upon follow-up questioning, however, Gambisch elaborated.

“I was telling them not to give up hope just because we had the lead and lost it,” said Gambisch.  “I told them that they shouldn’t be afraid, that fear is the only thing that could hold them back.”

Gambisch’s tempo and volume picked up as he got into the rhythm of it, “I told ‘em, ‘If you’re afraid you can’t win it, kill that fear!  Stab it right in the heart with a rusty jackknife!  Be brave!  Punch a lion in the nuts!  Fear is useless!  Fear is temporary!  Glory is forever!”

Pounding the podium, Gambisch shouted, “You deserve greatness!  Kill anyone who says you don’t and build your castle out of their bones!  Now go out there, grab this game by the throat and choke it to death with your bare hands!!”  The assembled reporters broke into spontaneous applause as Gambisch grinned and said, “That’s what I told ‘em, basically.”

The Colorado Springs players were just as charged up by the speech as the reporters.  “It was the most inspirational thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” said D Ernie Blake.  “When he first got going, we weren’t quite sure what was happening.  We were looking at each other like, ‘Is he having a stroke? Do we need to call 911?’  But then we got into it, and we got pumped up.  By the time he was done, the other team didn’t stand a chance.”

“If General Patton had given that speech to the troops,” said G Sonny Kashiuk, “World War II would have been over in a week.”

“That speech… man, I get chills just thinking about it,” said C Foster Culp.  “He got me so fired up, I was ready to run through a brick wall.  In fact, I was gonna go find a brick wall and run through it, but my teammates kind of grabbed me and guided me out to the ice instead.”

Asked what he planned for an encore, Gambisch said, “I didn’t.  You mean I’ve got to find a way to top that?  Oh Jesus.  I should have saved this one for the playoffs.”

CHL Update: Teams Punch Postseason Tickets

The Continental Hockey League, the SHL’s junior circuit, also ended its regular season this week, and their playoff field is now set.  Like the SHL, the CHL’s playoff field features a pair of returning postseason combatants as well as two new faces.  Just like season, the division playoffs will be best-of-five, with the victors meeting in a seven-game series for the league title.  Here’s a preview of the first-round matchups:

Eastern Division

The Virginia Rhinos captured the division title for the second straight year, despite losing a couple of key contributors from last year – G Shawn Stickel and RW Colton Jabril – to their parent club in Saskatchewan.  Just like last season, the Rhinos have thrived on fast-paced, high-scoring hockey; the led the league with 224 goals.  Their offense was driven by Ds Rennie Cox and Blake Blacklett, the CHL’s highest-scoring blueliners (with 33 and 31 goals, respectively).  Netminder Gus Parrish made the playoffs last year with Omaha; he signed as a free agent with Virginia this offseason and turned in another solid campaign, going 24-13-2 with a 2.48 GAA.  In addition to their potent offense and solid goaltending (as well as a league-best 88.4% penalty kill), the Rhinos bring a big chip on their shoulder and a fierce desire to claim the title that eluded them last season.  “We’re just the right amount of crazy to win this thing,” said coach Jeffrey “Swampy” Marsh.  “Not, like, underpants-on-your-head crazy.  Just hockey crazy.  Crazy enough to be dangerous.”

The Oshawa Drive were not expected to make much noise this season.  They came off an underwhelming 2017 season where they finished last in their division, then saw the parent Hamilton Pistols call up several of their top players, such as LW Jamie Campbell, RW Michael Jennings, and D Buster Kratz.  So how did they turn things around to clinch their first-ever playoff spot?  They got strong seasons from players who washed out with the big club: LW Norris “Beaver” Young led the team with 72 points, and RW Jean-Michel Pireau put up a dozen goals and two dozen assists.  And several of their returning players stepped their game up a notch, including RW Anders Pedersen (64 points, 17 more than last season), D Elvis Bodett (29 goals, nearly double last year’s total), and G Hector Orinoco (whose GAA went down by three-fifths of a goal, and save percentage went up by 14 points).  Oshawa has developed a healthy dislike of the Rhinos, which should make for a hard-fought series.  If it turns chippy, keep an eye on Drive coach Peter James.  Several of their returning When these two clubs clashed early in the season, the normally mild-mannered James manhandled a Virginia defenseman who scrapped with the Oshawa bench.  Will the coach go into bouncer mode again if the Rhinos act up?  “I wouldn’t count on it,” James says.

Western Division

The Minnesota Freeze came a long way in order to win the division.  They executed a worst-to-first turnaround after a dismal 2017 campaign, and they soared in the second half, going 22-7-3 to erase a 12-point deficit in the standings.  Their turnaround was sparked by a potent offense, led by LW Jean Pierre Fleury; he topped the CHL with 42 goals, nearly one-fifth of Minnesota’s total output.  And while the Freeze’s defense was so-so, they got considerable help from their goaltending tandem of Curt Freeze (27-10-4, 2.27 GAA, .920 sv%) and Darren Lovelette (14-7-2, 2.71, .899).  One potential X-factor: the Freeze were terrific on the road, posting a league-best 20-9-3 mark away from home, including a 12-3-1 mark during their second-half surge.  “When you’ve had to deal with a winter as long and cold as ours,” said Freeze coach Patrick Chillingham, “it makes you tough.  So a hostile crowd in a road barn isn’t going to rattle us.”

Although the Colorado Springs Zoomies are making their first trip to the postseason, the same group of players (more or less) made the playoffs last season as the Omaha Ashcats.  The Zoomies are still smarting from last season’s upset loss to the eventual champion Utah Owls in four games in the Western playoff.  They’ve got a couple factors working in their favor this time.  Last year, Utah’s Sherman Carter was the league’s best netminder; this year, the Zoomies’ Sonny Kashiuk laid claim to that title, going 29-16-3 with a 2.03 GAA and a .925 save percentage.  Colorado Springs also got an unexpected breakout season from RW Philippe Durien, who surprised everyone by finishing among the league’s top 5 goal scorers with 34.  The Zoomies also led the league on the power play, converting 23.8% of their opportunities.  On the downside, the Zoomies have cooled off considerably since their hot start, going a mere 15-15-2 in the second half, including a stretch shortly after the All-Star break when they lost 10 out of 13 games.  Coach Artie Gambisch is confident that his team is ready for the postseason.  “We’ve had our highs and lows this season, but the tough times have only made us stronger,” he said.

CHL Update: Durien Stars as Zoomies Soar

Last season, the CHL’s Omaha Ashcats got hot in the second half of the season and rolled to the Western Division title (although they were upset by Utah in the first round of the playoffs).  In the offseason, the parent Seattle Sailors moved their affiliate to a new city, Colorado Springs, and got a new name (the Zoomies) and a new coach (Artie Gambisch).  They also saw significant roster turnover, as several top prospects were either promoted or traded.  Despite all the new faces, the Zoomies have picked up right where they left off last year, racing out to a 13-2-0 record and a five-point lead in the West.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Colorado Springs’ success is their breakout stars.  Netminder Sonny Kashiuk, who spent much of last year in Seattle, is off to a magnificent start, going 10-1-0 with a 1.45 GAA and a .946 save percentage.  But the biggest and most unexpected star is RW Philippe Durien.  Last season in Omaha, Durien put up a strong season, producing at a point-per-game pace.  But he was known primarily as a facilitator, racking up 48 assists as he fed the team’s big scorers.  This season, he has emerged as the team’s – and the league’s – top scorer.

Philippe Durien

“We all knew Philippe was a very good player,” said Zoomies C Nikolai Valkov.  “But we didn’t know that he could score like this.”

Now Valkov’s teammates, and the league as a whole, know of Durien’s scoring prowess.  The winger has already scored 15 goals, more than the 12 he tallied all of last season.  He has six more goals than anyone else in the CHL.  Unsurprisingly, he also leads the league in points with 25.

“Last year, my instinct was always to pass,” said Durien.  “I always want to help my teammates and my team.  But this year, Coach has told me to look for my shot first.  He says, ‘Always you are unselfish, but maybe you should be a little more selfish.’  So I tried, and it is great!”

Durien sparkled this week as Colorado Springs played their first inter-division games of the year.  On Saturday, Durien scored a goal and set up LW Kendall Bannon for another as the Zoomies bashed Baltimore 6-2.  The next night, Durien struck twice in the first period to spark a 6-4 win over Cleveland.  On Friday, in a showdown of first-place squads, Durien potted a pair to help Colorado Springs thrash Oshawa 7-2.

“I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but one of the smart things I did was to unleash Philippe,” said Gambisch.  “I’d watch in practice, and I noticed that he had the hardest shot on the whole damn team.  So I said to myself, Why the hell is he passing all the time?  Take the shots!  Now he’s leading the league in goals, and suddenly I’m a genius.   I love it!”

CHL Update: Screaming Eagles Move to Colorado Springs, Affiliates Shuffle

Change is coming to the SHL for 2018, as the Boston Badgers and Kansas City Smoke will be joining the fold.  Similarly, change is coming to the SHL’s minor league, the Continental Hockey League.  The CHL will also be adding two teams to match the SHL’s expansion; in addition, several teams will be swapping affiliates, and one team – the Albuquerque Screaming Eagles – will be relocating.

The Screaming Eagles lasted only one season in New Mexico, finishing fourth in the West with a 24-34-2 record that led to coach Butch Slazenger‘s firing.  The team drew poorly, finishing last in the league with an average attendance under 3,000 per game.  Arguably the most memorable features of the team was their garish uniforms, featuring gigantic stars on the sleeves and flames on the breezers.

“It’s going to be a lot easier on the eyes this year with the Eagles gone,” quipped Utah Owls coach Wiley Kiyotie.

The Eagles franchise was purchased by shipping magnate Rick Gilborn, who will relocate the team to his hometown of Colorado Springs.  In addition to a new home, the franchise will have a new nickname: the Zoomies.  Gilborn, a graduate of the Air Force Academy, said that the name is a slang term applied to cadets at the Academy.  “Speed, valor, skill,” said Gilborn.  “Makes for a great cadet, and makes for a great hockey player.”

To go along with their new city and name, the Zoomies will have a new parent club.  The Screaming Eagles were affiliated with the SHL champion Hershey Bliss, The Bliss wanted an affiliate closer to home, so they chose to partner with the Milwaukee Hogs, one of the CHL’s expansion clubs.  Colorado Springs will instead link up with the Seattle Sailors.  Seattle was in the market for a new minor-league club after their previous affiliate, the Omaha Ashcats, decided to link up with the Smoke.

“We couldn’t be happier to be in Colorado Springs,” said Sailors GM Jay McKay.  “It’s closer to us, so I should be able to get out and see our prospects in person more often.  And it should be a strong market with a great bunch of fans.  I can’t wait for the new season!”

Over in the CHL’s Eastern Division, the picture is less complicated, as no teams will be moving or changing affiliates.  The division’s expansion team, the Hartford Harpoons, will be affiliated with (and partially owned by) the Badgers.

“This is a tremendous opportunity,” said veteran coach Mel Lonigan, who was hired as the Harpoons’ first bench boss.  “Hartford’s a great hockey town – hell, the Whalers never should have left – and we’re getting in on the ground floor with a new team.  I see no reason why we can’t compete right out of the box.  We’re going to bring some exciting, competitive hockey here to Whale Country.”

SHL Commissioner Perry Mitchell is excited by the growth and change in the CHL.  “There’s been a little reorganization between seasons, but in a good way,” said Commissioner Mitchell.  “By adding two great expansion teams in Hartford and Milwaukee and relocating to Colorado Springs, our minor league is stronger then it’s ever been, just as the SHL is stronger than it’s ever been.  2018 is going to be our best year yet.”