A few short weeks ago, the Hartford Harpoons appeared to be on track to win the CHL’s Eastern Division with ease. They’d been out front of the division since the beginning, with a quality, balanced offense from their top two lines combined with reliable goaltending from Jonas Schemko. Over the last seven games, however, the East race has been shaken up significantly, as the Harpoons have come back to the pack thanks to a winless skid highlighted by a vanishing offense.
Hartford’s woes began the week before the All-Star break. The week began in fine fashion on Sunday, as the Harpoons drubbed the then-second-place Virginia Rhinos 8-2. Since then, though, Hartford hasn’t scored more than two goals in a game, and they’ve averaged just one goal per game during their 0-6-1 slide.
“I don’t know why it hasn’t been clicking for us lately,” said C Liam Engstrom. “But it’s been really frustrating, that’s for sure.”
The Harpoons’ most frequent tormentor during their slump: the Oshawa Drive. During their seven-game winless run, Hartford has played Oshawa four times and gone 0-3-1. The most agonizing of those games was on Saturday, when Harpoons RW Jacques Bacon scored a power-play goal with 22 seconds left in regulation to tie it up, only to give up an overtime goal to Drive LW Troy Blackwood to fall 3-2. Unsurprisingly, while Hartford has swooned, Oshawa has surged, going 5-1-1 to close an 11-point gap in the standings to a single point.
“Honestly, they’ve looked a little spooked out there,” said Blackwood. “They’re trying to force passes and take gambles, the kind of things you do when you’re in a slump and you can’t find your way out.”
The Drive aren’t the only team that has soared in the standings lately. The Baltimore Blue Claws have won seven games in a row, zooming up from fifth place to tie Hartford for first. One of those wins came against the Harpoons just before the break. Baltimore scored twice in the third period to notch a come-from-behind 3-2 win.
Harpoons coach Herman Chambers said that he’s not worried about the team’s recent struggles. “It’s not like we forgot how to play hockey overnight,” Chambers said. “We’ve just hit a bit of a dry spell; plenty of time left to straighten it out. We just have to refocus and play the way we know how.”
Chambers noted that two of the Harpoons’ leading scorers, RW Felix Delorme and D Brett Stolte, were called up to the parent Boston Badgers during the break, and that has played a role in the team’s dry spell.
“There’s no question that we’ve been pressing a little bit,” said Chambers. “But it’s not really a big thing. Once we have a game ot two where the puck bounces our way, we’ll be right back on track.”
The Idaho Spuds have had a tremendous debut season in their new home. The Dakota Jackalopes affiliate rocketed off to a strong start this season and hasn’t looked back since. Barring a collapse, they will make the playoffs. And their merchandise – which features an angry hockey-playing potato – has become the most popular in the league.
On Thursday at Treasure Valley Arena, the Spuds gave their fans another moment to cherish in a memorable season. Facing off against the Hartford Harpoons, Idaho set a new CHL record for goals scored in a game during a 12-0 whitewashing.
“We were firing on all cylinders, but it went beyond that,” said Spuds coach Gilbert McCoyne. “We were firing on cylinders I didn’t even know we had.”
Idaho got the scoring started virtually right out of the gate. It took only 45 seconds for C Dale Wilcox to record the first goal of the game. Just 42 seconds after that, Wilcox scored again on a shot that deflected off the right leg of Hartford goalie Jonas Schemko and into the net. Six and a half minutes later, D Victor Addison cashed in on a power play to make it 3-0. Later in the period, D Brady Prussian banged home a pair of goals. By the end of the first period, the Spuds led by five and Schemko was out of the game.
Idaho seemed to throttle back a bit in the second period against backup netminder Jeff Bingley. LW Terry Cresson scored within the first 90 seconds of the period, and Addison tipped in a rebound for his second goal of the evening in the latter half, but those were the only tallies. After the frenzied barrage of goals in the first, the middle stanza gave the fans a chance to catch their breath.
The Spuds got things cranked back up again quickly in the third, however. Forty-seven second in, Wilcox fired a shot over Bingley’s left blocker to complete his hat trick. The fans sailed their lids onto the ice in tribute. Just over a minute later, Prussian stuffed one home for a hat trick of his own. The fans who had held onto their hats during Wilcox’s tally relinquished them now to salute Prussian. Several of the Spuds tossed their helmets on the ice to augment the total a bit.
“I told Victor he’d better not score again, because there weren’t any hats left in the building,” quipped Prussian.
Addison didn’t score again, but D Rusty Sienna put the Spuds in double digits just over seven and a half minutes into the period with a blast from the blueline that beat a screened Bingley. The fans barely had time to process that milestone, because RW Dylan Alizarin scored again a mere seven seconds later. Less than two minutes later, Cresson got has second goal of the game on a wraparound, making it an even dozen. Amazingly, the Spuds made it through the last half of the final frame without scoring again, which would have tied the Michigan Gray Wolves’ all-time SHL record for highest-scoring shutout.
“Somebody better check on [PA announcer] Brody Watkins,” joked McCoyne after the game. “He probably got laryngitis from calling out all those goals. I’d consider him day-to-day at this point. Hopefully, he can stay off the DL.”
The final stats were staggering. Four Idaho players had five-point games: Wilcox, Prussian, Addison, and C Jacob Cunniff, who had five assists. Only three Spuds failed to record a point: LW Rick Crisak, C Sammy Fryer, and D Gray Torian.
Harpoons coach Herman Chambers took the result in stride. “This only counted as one loss, thank God,” Chambers told reporters. “It’s not one we’re proud of, but it’s over now. Let’s bury this game film at the bottom of the ocean and move on.”
Does hockey run in the blood? There are plenty of examples of family acts in NHL history: the Sutter brothers, Gordie Howe and his sons, Bobby and Brett Hull, and many others. The SHL doesn’t have any of those… yet. But there are three CHL players who are working hard and hoping to join their relatives in the big time.
Arguably, Virginia Rhinos C Tanner Brooks is the closest of the three to making the leap. The 22-year-old center has been in the CHL since 2017, and he has earned raves for his strong defensive plays. The Rhinos’ parent club, the Saskatchewan Shockers, seriously considered making Brooks their third-line center out of training camp this year. Instead, the Shockers kept him in the minors for another season to develop his offensive game further.
2019 has been a breakout year for Tanner; he’s among the CHL’s top scorers with 15 goals and 10 assists so far. He seems to be on the verge of making the big time, either with Saskatchewan or as an attractive deadline trade piece.
When Tanner does reach the majors, he’ll follow in the footsteps of his older brother, Washington Galaxy LW Charlie Brooks. Charlie is seven years older than Tanner, and he serves as example and inspiration to his little brother. “I wouldn’t be a hockey player today if it wasn’t for Charlie,” Tanner Brooks said. “He taught me how to skate, and he let me tag along with him to the rink when I got older. And he was always teaching me what he knew about the game.”
Charlie has followed Tanner’s career with great interest, and he’s excited to someday take the ice against (or with) his brother. “I think Tanner will be a better player than me,” Charlie said. “He’s taller and stronger, and he’s always been driven to succeed. If he does, I’ll be proud as heck.”
Charlie and Tanner’s parents still live in their childhood home in the Toronto area, but they faithfully attend as many of both brothers’ games as possible each year. “They always come to the same number of games for both of us, so they aren’t playing favorites,” said Tanner. “When I’m playing in Oshawa or Charlie’s in Hamilton, they’re definitely there for those. But they travel to see us too. It’s really great.”
Hartford Harpoons RW Felix Delorme doesn’t have a brother in the SHL, but he has another family connection: his uncle is Quebec Tigrescoach Martin Delorme. Felix is only 20, and he was drafted by the Boston Badgers in 2018. He’s off to a strong start this year (13 goals, 8 assists), but likely still a season or two away from his SHL debut. But when he does, he knows he’ll have at least one fan, albeit behind the opposing bench.
Felix grew up in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec. His father worked the second shift in a paper mill; due to his late hours, he had few opportunities to teach his son about the game. Fortunately, Uncle Martin was able to step in and help.
Beginning at age 7, Felix began attending his uncle’s summer hockey camps in Montreal. These sessions didn’t always go smoothly. “Uncle Martin always talked about defense and fundamentals, and all I wanted to do was shoot,” Felix admitted. But he did absorb a lot of key lessons about the game, lessons he practiced in the winter playing shinny with his friends.
Martin Delorme believes that his nephew will make the SHL someday. “He was a strong-minded boy, and sometimes we clashed heads,” Martin said. “But he was very determined and confident in himself. Plus he has a great natural talent. I know he will be a good player.”
Martin and Felix text regularly, and they speak via video chat when their schedules allow. Felix fills his uncle in on his latest progress; Martin gives his nephew tips and suggests SHL players to watch. “I hope we can still do this even when we are on enemy teams,” Felix said.
Both Tanner Brooks and Felix Delorme are in different organizations then their SHL relatives. So far, there is only one SHL-CHL family pairing where both members are in the same system. RW Jefferson McNeely is a star for the Washington Galaxy. And his younger brother, D Davis McNeely, plays for the Galaxy’s CHL affiliate, the Baltimore Blue Crabs.
Unlike Brooks and Delorme, the 20-year-old McNeely is not considered a top prospect. Since signing with the Galaxy in 2017, he has generally been relegated to Baltimore’s bottom pairing, and this year he has only 1 assist in 21 games (albeit with a +4 rating).
For Davis, the family connection brings pain as well as pleasure. “Everyone seems to think I only got signed because of Jeff,” said Davis. “I get heckled about it in other cities. ‘Your brother’s better than you!’ and stuff like that. Even here, when I’m slumping, people say, ‘They can’t get rid of him because, well, you know.’ Sometimes I want to go to another team, just so I can prove I deserve to be here.”
Jefferson McNeely vigorously denies that he asked the Galaxy to sign his younger brother. “Davis is his own man, always has been,” said Jefferson. “The Galaxy scouted him and signed him all on their own. I’m glad they did, because he’s a good player. But this idea that I ‘made’ the team sign him is just silly. I don’t have that kind of pull, anyway.”
Davis’ case may be an extreme example, but all three can’t help but he overshadowed by their big-league relatives. For now, Tanner Brooks is still “Charlie’s brother,” and Felix Delorme is still “Martin’s nephew.” But all three of them eagerly await their shot at the SHL spotlight, and the chance to make a name for themselves.
The Hartford Harpoons, one of the CHL’s two new expansion teams, took the ice for the first time this week. They played their first road game on Tuesday against the Baltimore Blue Crabs. Unfortunately for them, they were unable to take the ice in their attractive white-and-blue uniforms. Thanks to a luggage handling error, the Harpoons’ uniforms didn’t make the trip with them to Baltimore.
“It’s really kind of hilarious,” said Harpoons coach Mel Lonigan. “You spend all this time working and planning and dreaming about this moment. Then you show up and the first thing you hear is, ‘Sorry, guys, we lost your uniforms.’”
Apparently, when the Harpoons boarded the plane for Baltimore, most of the team’s luggage didn’t go with them. The majority of the team’s uniforms and gear, along with the personal baggage of the players and coaches, wound up on a flight to San Francisco instead.
The team’s equipment managers were stunned when they went to retrieve the team’s gear and were unable to find it. After a frantic series of phone calls and conversations with the airline, it was determined that the team’s gear was in California. But by that point, there was no way to get it to Charm City in time for the game.
For Lonigan, the solution was pretty straightforward. “I just went to Men’s Wearhouse and got a new suit and tie,” the coach said. “Fortunately, I’m a pretty easy guy to fit.”
For the players, things weren’t that simple. Team staffers were able to get sticks, gloves, skates, and pads at local sporting goods stores. But they couldn’t just go in and get uniforms.
“Maybe if we were in the NHL, we could have bought them off the rack,” said C Caden Ritz. “But a bunch of minor-leaguers on a brand-new team no one’s heard of? Not a chance.”
Faced with the possibility of having to cancel or postpone the game, the visiting Blue Crabs came through with some help. They allowed the Harpoons to borrow their road uniforms so that the game could go on as scheduled.
“We may be opponents, but we’re all brothers in the hockey fraternity,” said Baltimore GM Pierre Lacorcet. “We weren’t going to let the game not happen. I know they’d do the same if the situation was reversed.” In addition to borrowing uniforms, the Blue Crabs also permitted Hartford to use some of their extra gear.
The Harpoons looked good in their borrowed duds, at least on the ice. They rallied in the third period, scoring three goals to tie the game, including a pair by Ritz. Unfortunately, they couldn’t get the winner across, and the game ended a 5-5 tie.
“If we’d managed to pull it out,” said Lonigan, “we might have wanted to keep wearing those unis. But I doubt Baltimore would have been that generous, so it worked out for the best.”
Fortunately, the Harpoons got their uniforms back when they returned home. And when the team made it to Virginia for their next game, their gear was waiting for them.
“Good thing, or we’d have had to have guys stuff their unis in their carry-ons next time,” quipped Lonigan.
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.”