CHL Update: Unsung Heroes Keeping Halifax in Contention

If you look at the standings in the CHL’s Eastern Division, you might be surprised to find the Halifax Atlantics near the top.  The Quebec Tigres affiliate isn’t stocked with big-name prospects.  They’ve barely scored more goals than they’ve allowed.  On paper, they don’t look like they should be a contender.  But they’ve quietly hung in the race all season, thanks to a trio of unlikely heroes: one player considered a failed prospect, another who’s considered a marginal journeyman, and a third who’s viewed as washed up.

“We might win the championship,” said Atlantics coach Mel Lonigan, “and everyone will still be scratching their heads, trying to figure out how we did it.”

Back in 2017, LW Jarmann Fischer was a highly-touted 20-year-old prospect in Seattle’s system.  He finished that season with 22 goals (just missing the league’s top 10) and 30 assists, leading an Omaha Ashcats team that finished with the league’s best record.  That offseason, he was dealt to the Dakota Jackalopes, the centerpiece of a trade that brought RW Elliott Pepper and D Doron Lidjya to Seattle.  The Jackalopes organization and fans hoped that Fischer would ultimately blossom into a dynamic scorer who could replace Pepper on the top line.

The following two seasons were, in Fischer’s words, “a total disaster.”  He scored 22 points in those two campaigns… combined.  He quickly became a prime target for the ire of Dakota’s dwindling fan base, who held up signs with cruel slogans like “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Dead Fisch”.  “I was too young and immature, and not ready to take on the kind of role they needed from me,” Fischer explains now.  “And the organization was dysfunctional; there wasn’t a lot of teaching going on.  Add in the fact that I was getting booed every night… it was just a bad scene all around.”

Dakota didn’t renew his contract, and Fischer headed into free agency as a 23-year-old prospect-turned-suspect.  The Tigres signed him and sent him to Halifax, where he began rebuilding his game and his reputation.  Now he has 27 goals, tied for the team lead.  “I see Fisch out there, and he just looks so much looser,” said Lonigan.  “The pressure’s off now, and he doesn’t have to justify the trade or win the fans over.  He can just sit back and play, and he’s loving it.”

Skating beside Fischer on Halifax’s top line is C Dwight Flynn.  As a young draft pick in 2016, Flynn won raves for his speed and passing touch, but was considered undersized and defensively deficient.  He never did manage to put on weight, and his defensive shortcomings cost him ice time.  With inconsistent ice time (he never appeared in more than 32 games in a season), Flynn struggled to produce and develop, and he didn’t blossom into the solid bottom-six center that he was expected to be.  His career high was 15 points.

When he didn’t receive a single major-league offer this offseason, Flynn considered retirement.  Instead, he signed a minor-league deal with the Tigres, and headed off to Halifax.  Partnered with Fischer, Flynn has flourished.  His 53 points (in just 43 games) places him fourth in the CHL; his 21 goals places him in the top ten, and his 32 assists lead the team.

“I feel like a rookie all over again here,” said Flynn.  “All my old failures and frustrations, those are gone now.  I have a fresh start, and it feels great.”

Meanwhile, the dean of the Atlantics’ blueline corps is Moose Baker.  The 33-year-old defenseman has bounced between four different teams in his SHL career.  He’s a big, lumbering player who won’t help you much on offense, but will provide you with a physical presence in his own end.  He’s regarded as a locker-room glue guy with a quick wit and a good mentor to younger players.  He also has a pair of rings: one with the 2015 Anchorage Igloos and one with last year’s Hamilton Pistols.

“I’ve never been a star,” said Baker, “but I’ve been with some great teams, and I know what makes for strong team chemistry.”

Like Flynn, Baker thought of retiring in the offseason; he had several coaching offers on the table.  But he decided he wasn’t ready to hang up his skates just yet, and came to Halifax to keep his career going and work with the team’s young blueline prospects.  “I love hockey, playing hockey, more than anything,” Baker noted.  “As long as my body holds out and I’m having fun, why not keep the party going?”

And keep it going he has.  Mind you, Baker isn’t taking life easy in the minors: he’s appeared in 51 games and he leads the CHL in blocks with 125.  “Moose has been an inspiration to all of us,” said Lonigan.  “A lot of veteran players, they hate being in the minors.  They’re just going through the motions out there; if they don’t have a shot at getting back to the majors, they just want to skate around a little and then go drink beer.  Not Moose; he’s out there blocking shots and banging bodies like the Vandy is on the line.”

There’s no guarantee the Atlantics will win the title, or even make the playoffs.  But if they do, they’ll owe a lot of their success to a trio of players that the SHL was ready to give up on.

“I don’t know what the future is for us,” said Fischer, “but I don’t care.  We’re enjoying the moment, and it’s a sweet ride.”

2020 CHL All-Star Rosters

The day after the SHL’s All-Star Game, their minor league will be holding its third annual All-Star contest.  The game will take place at the Aetna Center, home of the Hartford Harpoons. The rosters for the game, along with each player’s current stats, are below.

 

EAST ALL-STARS

Coach: Jeffrey “Swampy” Marsh (Virginia)

 

First Line

LW: Fendrick Scanlan, Cleveland (13 G, 10 A, 23 Pts, 23 Blk, 52 PIM, +4)

D: Morris Starling, Baltimore (10 G, 13 A, 23 Pts, 31 Blk, 10 PIM, -2)

C: Liam Engstrom, Hartford (13 G, 25 A, 38 Pts, 15 Blk, 2 PIM, +22)

D: Brett Stolte, Hartford (12 G, 13 A, 25 Pts, 37 Blk, 39 PIM, +3)

RW: Felix Delorme, Hartford (10 G, 17 A, 27 Pts, 20 Blk, 2 PIM, +22)

 

Second Line

LW: Jarmann Fischer, Halifax (8 G, 14 A, 22 Pts, 14 Blk, 16 PIM, -1)

D: Russ Klemmer, Oshawa (2 G, 22 A, 24 Pts, 63 Blk, 10 PIM, -1)

C: Dwight Flynn, Halifax (16 G, 21 A, 37 Pts, 11 Blk, 8 PIM, +3)

D: Burton Cullidge, Cleveland (1 G, 18 A, 19 Pts, 70 Blk, 19 PIM, +5)

RW: Anders Pedersen, Oshawa (12 G, 16 A, 28 Pts, 11 Blk, 14 PIM, -3)

 

Third Line

LW: Maurice Coutard, Baltimore (11 G, 11 A, 22 Pts, 9 Blk, 12 PIM, -18)

D: Teddy Morrison, Halifax (4 G, 13 A, 17 Pts, 57 Blk, 14 PIM, -2)

C: Ron Yaeckel, Virginia (10 G, 19 A, 29 Pts, 23 Blk, 41 PIM, +10)

D: Axel Borgstrom, Halifax (7 G, 9 A, 16 Pts, 54 Blk, 27 PIM, -9)

RW: Steve Brandon, Cleveland (12 G, 10 A, 22 Pts, 23 Blk, 24 PIM, +4)

 

Goalies

Hector Orinoco, Oshawa (13-8-2, 2.11 GAA, .918 save %)

Eugene Looney, Cleveland (9-12-3, 1.97 GAA, .917 save %)

 

WEST ALL-STARS

Coach: Gilbert McCoyne (Idaho)

 

First Line

LW: Terry Cresson, Idaho (8 G, 22 A, 30 Pts, 13 Blk, 12 PIM, +14)

D: Trevor Lockwood, Omaha (7 G, 20 A, 27 Pts, 36 Blk, 20 PIM, +5)

C: Lloyd “Goofy” Banjax, Utah (16 G, 23 A, 39 Pts, 28 Blk, 20 PIM, +14)

D: Brady Prussian, Idaho (14 G, 12 A, 26 Pts, 40 Blk, 16 PIM, +13)

RW: Britt Cadmium, Idaho (14 G, 15 A, 29 Pts, 21 Blk, 15 PIM, +16)

 

Second Line

LW: Chuck Alley, Utah (8 G, 19 A, 27 Pts, 29 Blk, 6 PIM, +14)

D: George Brinson, Utah (8 G, 20 A, 28 Pts, 26 Blk, 26 PIM, +11)

C: Yegor Nestorov, Milwaukee (16 G, 11 A, 27 Pts, 15 Blk, 8 PIM, -10)

D: Brian Coldivar, Minnesota (15 G, 10 A, 25 Pts, 32 Blk, 18 PIM, -3)

RW: Harris Wondolowski, Utah (16 G, 17 A, 33 Pts, 11 Blk, 14 PIM, +3)

 

Third Line

LW: Rick Crisak, Idaho (5 G, 22 A, 27 Pts, 8 Blk, 32 PIM, +18)

D: Conrad van Rijn, Milwaukee (3 G, 24 A, 27 Pts, 72 Blk, 39 PIM, -5)

C: Nikolai Valkov, Colorado Springs (16 G, 11 A, 27 Pts, 8 Blk, 24 PIM, -15)

D: Laszlo Cierny, Minnesota (5 G, 18 A, 23 Pts, 58 Blk, 36 PIM, -3)

RW: James Clay, Milwaukee (13 G, 15 A, 28 Pts, 16 Blk, 12 PIM, -4)

 

Goalies

Kelvin White, Idaho (14-5-1, 2.07 GAA, .927 save %)

Kostya Arsenyev, Minnesota (9-4-1, 1.92 GAA, .933 save %)

 

CHL Update: Omaha Surges in West

A month ago, the CHL’s Western division was wide open.  No dominant team had emerged; the top four teams were within three points of each other, clustered around the .500 mark.  Now, though, one team has broken away from the pack.  The Omaha Ashcats have gone 15-4-1 over their last 20 games, and they are now tied with Virginia for the league’s best record.  They are 15 points ahead of their nearest competitor in the West.

How have the Ashcats done it?  “The talent’s been here all along,” said coach Randy Bergner.  “I think we’ve taken a while to gel as a team, but now that we’re all used to playing together and the guys are getting used to our offense, everything’s really clicking.  We’ve had the instruments, but it took us some time to write the symphony.”

Omaha’s offense has been the prime driver of their success.  They’ve been one of the CHL’s most prolific shooting teams, second only to the Rhinos in that department.  They lead the league in plus/minus rating at +30.  They have two of the league’s Top 10 goal scorers (LW Jarmann Fischer and D Bud Gatecliff, both with 19) and two of the Top 10 assist men (C Nikolai Valkov with 43 and RW Philippe Durien with 35).  Unlike Virginia, which relies heavily on its top line for its offense, the Ashcats spread the offensive load over their top two lines.  Omaha has seven of the league’s top 11 in plus/minus, with representatives from their top six and their top two defensive pairings.

“Our team isn’t about stars,” said Fischer.  “We are all about working together to make ourselves greater as a group.  The team is the star.”

The same team-first mentality applies to the team’s unselfish defense, which is among the league’s top units.  Similar to the Rhinos, it’s all backstopped by an SHL washout trying to rebuild his reputation in the minors.

Gus Parrish was the goofy, easy-going, well-liked backup in Washington for the last two seasons.  In the offseason, though, the Galaxy got an upgrade (signing veteran free agent Ron Mason) and shipped Parrish to the Seattle Sailors, Omaha’s parent club.  With a much more porous defense than he was used to in Washington, and thrust into an everyday role after an early injury to starter Rocky Goldmire, Parrish flopped.  He went 0-7-0 with a 6.55 GAA and an .848 save percentage before being demoted.  “The game was moving too fast for me, and I wasn’t used to it,” Parrish admits.

It took Parrish a bit to get over the blow to his pride, but in Omaha he found a welcome landing spot.  “Right away, it felt more like a college dorm than a locker room,” Parrish said.  “It was a fun environment with a bunch of young guys who took hockey seriously, but didn’t take themselves too seriously.”  The team regarded Parrish as an older brother, asking him about life in the majors.  He was able to forget about his disastrous experience in Seattle and just focus on the game.  His growing comfort has been reflected in his results, going 14-6-1 with a 2.84 GAA.

“I don’t have to do a lot of hand-holding with Gus,” said Bergner.  “He hasn’t been a prima donna or anything.  He’s down here having fun and doing a solid job.”

Bergner is already starting to look forward a bit to a possible championship series with Virginia.  Most of his players, though, have their eyes on a different prize: a callup to the struggling Sailors.  With the expansion draft looming, Seattle has been hesitant about calling up players, potentially showcasing them only to lose them later.  “We all love it here,” said Fischer, “but we don’t want to stay here.”

For now, though, the young Ashcats are happy to be playing well and looking forward to the future, whatever it may hold.  “I always tell the guys: enjoy the ride and don’t take anything for granted,” says Parrish.  “Don’t be in a hurry to get past right now, because right now can be pretty great.”