Badgers Find No Escape on Bonding Trip

Cam Prince

As the Boston Badgers have struggled through their inaugural season, coach Cam Prince has looked for ways to encourage bonding among his players.  And with a number of new faces on the team after the recent trading deadline, Prince felt it was especially important to give his players a chance to get to know each other better.

With that in mind, on the Badgers’ trip to New York this week, Prince decided to take his players to an escape room.  In this increasingly popular form of entertainment, a group of players is locked in a room and must solve a series of riddles and puzzles in order to get out.  The Badgers’ trip to the room proved highly entertaining, but there were several surprises along the way that got in the way of the bonding aspect.

Since there are limits on the number of players that can share a single escape room, Prince divided his squad into four groups.  One group consisted of the top two forward lines; C Jens Bunyakin captained that group.  Another group included the third line and reserve forwards; F Randy O’Connor was in charge of that group.  The third group included the top two defensive pairings and starting goalie Dennis Wampler, with D Timothy “Cyclone” Winston as captain.  The final group included the bottom defensive pairing, reserve blueliner Horst Hasenkamp, and backup goalie Carson Wagner as captain.

The squabbles began as soon as the teams were announced.  Ds Jurgen Braun and Moose Baker argued over which of them was a second-pairing defender and thus belonged with Winston’s group; Prince ruled in favor of Braun.  Bunyakin asked to trade RW Gene Kennedy to Winston’s group for Wampler, a known puzzle enthusiast; Prince said that there would be no trades.  Wagner suggested scrapping the groups altogether and letting the captains pick teams; that request was also denied.

“If our guys don’t make it in hockey, they should all become lawyers,” said assistant coach Mark Morganhurst.  “They’re all great at arguing.”

Once the groups were locked away in their respective rooms, further hijinks ensued.  In Bunyakin’s group, RW Jorma Seppa and Kennedy were chained together, and had to find a key to free themselves.  Unfortunately, this confinement brought out a previously unknown claustrophobia in Kennedy, who suffered a panic attack and had to be calmed by Bunyakin until the key could be found.

“Fortunately, I have a 3-year-old at home,” said Bunyakin, “which equipped me perfectly to deal with Gene.”

In Winston’s room, there was a jigsaw puzzle that the team had to assemble in order to find a clue.  Wampler and D Brody “Bruiser” McCallan both wanted to be in charge of assembling the puzzle.  The disagreement became so heated that the two nearly came to blows and had to be separated by their groupmates.

“Wamp’s giving up at least 70 pounds to Bruiser in that fight,” said Winston, “so I knew we had to stop it.  I didn’t want to explain to Coach that we had to put our starting goalie on the DL because Bruiser broke him in the escape room.”

O’Connor’s group managed to figure out all of the clues well within the 60-minute time limit.  But when they tried to leave their room, they found that they couldn’t.  Escape room staff spent an additional half-hour just trying to free the trapped group.  As it turned out, the prank-loving Kennedy had jammed the lock to their room.  When O’Connor finally emerged, he had to be restrained from choking Kennedy.

“I hoped that this evening would bring us closer together,” said Prince.  “I’m not sure if we succeeded in that, or if we brought guys closer to killing each other.”

Wagner’s group wound up getting out first, despite being the smallest group of the four.  “Maybe we’ve just got a head for these things,” said Wagner.  “Or maybe it’s because we just focused on getting out instead of trying to fight each other.”

Prince said that he would continue to seek out bonding opportunities for his team.  He doesn’t plan to try another escape room, though.  “I’m pretty sure that once this story gets out,” said the Boston coach, “we’ll be banned from every escape room on the continent.”

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Eastern Division Wide Open Early

Just like last season, the SHL’s Eastern division appears to be anyone’s for the taking, at least through the first two weeks.  The top four teams in the division are separated by just three points.  Each of the potential contenders has a surprising strength, but also a weakness that might undermine their hopes of victory.

“If anyone tells you they know who’s gonna win the East,” said Hershey Bliss C Justin Valentine, “they’re either lying or drunk.”

Valentine and the Bliss are the current leaders in the East with a 6-3-1 record.  Thus far, they’ve thrived with impressive defense.  They’ve recorded the fewest shots allowed in the league, less even than famously stingy Michigan.  Hershey coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber praised his team’s eagerness to block shots and win the board battles.  “Our guys are willing to do the unglamorous work that wins games,” said Barber.  “You can’t make chocolate without grinding up a few beans, and our guys have been grinding.”

The Bliss have needed that lockdown defense, because their goaltending has been lackluster.  Free-agent signee Brandon Colt has posted a 3.09 GAA and an .897 save percentage.  “I know I’ve got to step it up,” said Colt.  “We’ve got a championship-caliber team here, and I need to get up to that level.”

The Bliss are also hamstrung by a pedestrian offense, as they continue to search for scoring beyond the “Love Line” of Valentine, LW Lance Sweet, and RW Christopher Hart.  Second-line LW Russ Nahorniak has six goals, but no one other than he and the Love Line has scored more than two.  The defense has been a particular black hole offensively; star Reese Milton has 12 points, but the other five have only combined for 8 points.  “We’ve been taking care of business in our own end,” said second-pairing blueliner Vitaly Dyomin, “but we need to be stronger both ways.”

The surprising second-place squad is the Hamilton Pistols, who have won their last four in a row to rise to 6-4-0.  The key to the Pistols’ surprising success has been their dominant top line; they are the runaway leaders in plus-minus rating, and four of them (LW Steven Alexander, C Calvin Frye, RW Claude Lafayette, and D Raymond Smyth) are among the league’s top 10 in points.  “All the smart folks thought we were still a couple seasons away,” said coach Keith Shields.  “But our first line is hotter than a firecracker, and it looks to me like we’re ready now.”

Aside from that top line, though, Hamilton is a young team that’s lacking in depth.  The team’s third line has been a particular black hole.  Shields has juggled players in and out to no apparent effect; they’ve combined for only two goals and a -6 rating.  “We’re just getting wiped out when we’re on the ice,” said C Jens Bunyakin, who has a lone assist to his credit two weeks in.  “That’s not good enough.”

If the Pistols are going to contend, they’ll also need to rely on rookie Lasse Koskinen in the crease.  The Finnish prospect comes highly touted, but he’s shown his inexperience in his SHL debut (compiling a 4-3-0 record and a 3.26 GAA).  He has come up strong in his last couple of starts, though, stopping 32 in a 3-2 win over Saskatchewan and 35 in a 5-1 beatdown of Washington.

Sitting a point behind Hamilton is the Quebec Tigres.  As expected from a Martin Delorme team, the Tigres are making their name with defense and goaltending.  Second-year netminder Riki Tiktuunen has been one of the league’s best so far, going 5-2-1 with a 1.73 GAA and a .949 save percentage.  He’s been backed by a trapping, slow-down-oriented defense that makes Quebec’s games an exercise in patience at times.  “I don’t care if people think us boring,” said Delorme.  “Boring hockey can be winning hockey, and I am all about winning.”

What may keep the Tigres from winning, however, is their completely anemic offense.  Quebec has scored only 22 goals this year, last in the league; more disturbingly, they’ve managed only 237 shots, 75 fewer than the next-worst team, Seattle.  The Tigres had expected to draft top-prospect winger Rod “Money” Argent to address their lack of firepower, but were knocked for a loop after Seattle drafted Argent instead.  Their already-struggling attack took a further hit when RW Flint “Steel” Robinson went down with an injury.

Quebec’s one-dimensional and unattractive style of play has made them less than popular with other teams.  “I think we’re all agreed that we don’t care who wins as long as it’s not Quebec,” said Valentine.  “The other teams are trying to win with talent.  They’re trying to win by beating and bloodying the other team and hobbling their talent.  It’s not cheating, but it’s close.”

Sitting in fourth, a point back of Quebec at 5-5-0, is the two-time defending champion Washington Galaxy.  The good news for the champs is that they’re getting a career season out of goalie Roger Orion, who’s posted a 1.99 GAA and a .933 save percentage.  The Galaxy’s defense has also been strong, allowing only 336 shots, virtually tied with Quebec.

But Washington’s offense has kept the team mired in mediocrity.  Part of that has been attributable to bad luck; they’ve converted on only 7.5% of their shots, one of the worst marks in the league.  Anecdotally, Galaxy players say they’ve noticed an unusually high percentage of shanked shots and pucks pinging off of goalposts this season.  However, their usually-stout power play has disappointed them as well; they’ve scored on only 18.4% of their shots, good for only sixth in the league.

“I don’t need to do a deep dive on the numbers to see where our problem is,” said Washington coach Rodney Reagle.  “The numbers say we’ve been meh.  Our record says we’ve been meh.  Watching us play, I’ve seen a lot of meh.”

It was shortly after this point last season that the Galaxy caught fire and took control of the East, holding it the rest of the way and fending off a late challenge from Hershey to claim the crown.  Can Washington repeat the feat in 2017?  Or will Hershey wreak their revenge?  Or will Hamilton or Quebec play Cinderella and steal the title from the favorites?

“I’m not making any predictions two weeks in,” said Reagle.  “As Shakespeare once said, that’s why they play the games.  I think that was in Romeo and Juliet.”

Rapids, Pistols Trade Third-Liners

Dakota RapidsHamilton PistolsThe SHL trading deadline this week passed fairly quietly, with no blockbusters.  There were only two deadline deals this time around.

The first deal, struck approximately two hours before the deadline, involved the Dakota Rapids and the Hamilton Pistols.  The Rapids shipped C Jens Bunyakin and F Diego Garcia to the Pistols in exchange for C Florian Theroux, F Jacques Bacon, and a 3rd-round pick.

Jens Bunyakin
Jens Bunyakin
Diego Garcia
Diego Garcia

For the Pistols, seeking a little offensive pop on their lower lines, Bunyakin (10 goals, 23 points) was just what the doctor ordered.

“We’ve been interested in Jens ever since the beginning,” said Hamilton GM Marcel LaClaire.  “I feel like he was born to play for us.  He’s a strong two-way player, and he can create his own shot or make a great pass to set up an opportunity.”

Florian Theroux
Florian Theroux
Jacques Bacon
Jacques Bacon

Meanwhile, the Rapids had depth at the center position (also featuring Harvey Bellmore and Lars Karlsson), and pounced on the opportunity to collect an extra pick.  “We know that it’s a pretty long shot for us to make the playoffs, so we were looking for a chance to stockpile some assets,” said Dakota GM Paul Mindegaard.  “We feel good about how this deal sets us up for the future.”

In Theroux (3 goals, 18 points), the Rapids acquired a player with a reputation for passing and speed.  Dakota also took the opportunity to offload Garcia, who lost his starting spot to Vonnie McLearen early in the season and had been disgruntled ever since.  He appeared in only 7 games for Dakota, collecting only an assist in that time.  Bacon (6 games, no points) played a similarly bit part for Hamilton.