Champion Pistols Look Poised to Repeat

Last season, the Hamilton Pistols delighted the Greater Toronto Area by claiming their first-ever championship.  In the wake of their title — and considerable roster turnover — some wondered whether the Pistols would be up to the challenge of prevailing in the improving East and defending their title.  So far this season, Hamilton looks like they’re very much up to the challenge, and are well-positioned to defend their title.

“We’re not taking anything for granted,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “But we’re feeling good about where we are, and we’re confident that we can match up with anyone who wants to take the Vandy away from us.”

Over the first month or so of the season, Hamilton found themselves in close competition with the Hershey Bliss.  After that, though, they ripped off an 11-game unbeaten streak to establish a comfortable division lead.  They’re currently riding a 15-3-3 run.  They’ve survived their share of injuries, including to stars like C Calvin Frye and LW Steven Alexander.  It’s seemed that nothing can slow them down.

Steven Alexander

“Everyone in this room is focused on repeating,” said Alexander.  “There’s no slowdown and no slacking off.  We’re driven to keep the Vandy here.’

Last season’s success was built on the strength of their powerful offense, and the same is true this season.  Hamilton is tied for the SHL lead in goals per game, averaging an eye-popping 3.8 goals per game.  GM Marcel LaClaire has a knack for finding affordable veterans who produce outsized contributions, and this season is no exception.  The Pistols added RW Ben Summers and C Marco Venezio for a combined $1.5 million, and both players are providing bang for their back.  Venezio (9 goals, 13 assists, +8 rating) has stepped into the second-line center role that Eddie Costello filled so well last season, while Summers (16 goals, 16 assists, +15) has provided the secondary scoring threat that the team was lacking.  They have clicked brilliantly with linemate Magnus Gunnarson, who is on track for a career year (14 goals, 28 assists, +13).

“We have the best second line in the league, no question about it,” said Frye.  “And that makes us a really dangerous team, because nobody has an answer for our top six.”

At the other end of the ice, netminder Lasse Koskinen (17-7-4, 3.13 GAA, .914 save percentage) has rebounded from an early-season slump back to his typical elite level of play.  And when backup Ron Mason (8-3-1, 2.90, .912) is in the crease, the Pistols don’t miss a beat.

“Having Koski and Mase in net is great,” said Shields.  “We know that whoever’s got the start on a given night is going to give us a top-notch performance.  And knowing that, our guys are free to be more aggressive and maximize their scoring chances.”

Are there any warning signs for the Pistols?  They may not have lost much recently, but some of their losses have come against potential playoff opponents.  They’re 2-3-0 this season against Hershey; their last meeting was a 6-0 Bliss blowout at Chocolate Center.  And when the Pistols hosted the Western-leading Portland Bluebacks just before the All-Star break, the Bluebacks cruised to an easy 4-0 victory.

But Alexander says the Pistols aren’t concerned about those results.  “When it gets to be playoff time, it’s a different game and a different atmosphere,” the winger noted.  “We’ve been tested in the battle, and we’ve come out strong.  And we’re going to do that again this year.  Just you wait.”

Pistols’ Goal Song Raises Roof… and Complaints

In recent seasons, the trend of individual goal songs has been spreading throughout hockey.  Most NHL and SHL teams have an anthem that they play when their team scores, but now some teams are playing specific songs when certain players score.  The Hamilton Pistols are the latest team to join that bandwagon, and it’s proven delightful to their fans… and annoying to their opponents.

The Pistols front office discussed the idea of individual goal songs during the offseason.  They decided to start small, with an individual song only for their top scorer, Steven Alexander.  “Alex is a generational talent, so if anyone deserves to have a special song, it’s him,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.

After discussing the idea with Alexander and considering some possible choices, the team ultimately settled on a techno remix of “Scotland the Brave.”  (Alexander is of Scottish descent.)  “It was the perfect mix: distinctive, energetic, and fun,” said GM Marcel LaClaire.

Steven Alexander

The Pistols rolled out the song at the home opener, and it quickly proved to be a hit.  The song’s tempo and the quirkiness of the bagpipes were an infectious and irresistible combination for the fans.  Several Hamilton diehards dubbed themselves “Clan Alexander,” and now come to the arena dressed in red-and-black plaid kilts and tams, and play “air bagpipes” whenever their hero scores.

So far, so good.  But the song was such a hit that the team also began playing it as a third-period rally song.  The song is accompanied by a cartoon of a kilt-clad Alexander clubbing opponents to death with his hockey stick.  Naturally, the fans responded raucously to the prompt, raising the decibel level within Gunpowder Armory to deafening levels.  This tidal wave of noise drew the ire of Anchorage Igloos coach Sam Castor this week.

In the third period of Tuesday’s game, the Igloos trailed the Pistols 4-3, but Anchorage went on the power play with less than two minutes left and a chance to tie things up.  Castor called time out to discuss strategy with his team.  Unfortunately, he found himself completely drowned out by the music and the roar of the crowd.  The Igloos failed to score on the ensuing power play, and wound up losing the game.

“I’m trying to get my team on the same page for a critical PK, and I can’t even hear the words coming out of my mouth,” fumed Castor after the game.  “I’m used to loud music and screaming fans, but this was another level.  I ought to be able to have a strategy session with my team without having to use sign language.”

Castor claimed to have measured the sound level using an app on his phone; he said that it exceeded 130 decibels, roughly the same as a jet engine during takeoff.

Initially, the team blew off the complaint.  “What, are our fans cheering too loud for you?” said Shields when informed of Castor’s remarks.  After talking to the league office, however, the Pistols apologized and said they would lower the volume on the song somewhat.

“We’re not wanting to deafen anybody,” said LaClaire.  “We just want everybody to have a fun time.  But never fear, ‘Scotland the Brave’ is here to stay.”

Continue reading “Pistols’ Goal Song Raises Roof… and Complaints”

Night’s Foster Roasts Pistols’ New Mascot

New York Night coach Nick Foster is a master at using verbal jabs to stir up rivalries with opposing teams and players.  Over the last couple of seasons, he has trained the bulk of his rhetorical fire on the Hamilton Pistols, turning that rivalry into one of the league’s most heated.

Crosscheck

The two squads faced off again on Sunday, and after a 2-2 tie, Foster took the opportunity in his postgame press conference to open up another front in his verbal war against his opponents from the north: he mocked the Pistols’ new mascot, Crosscheck.

The Pistols originally planned for Crosscheck to debut at the beginning of this season.  After they won the Vandy last year, though, Hamilton’s front office shifted their early promotions to focus on celebrating the team’s title.  The new mascot – a rather unusual-looking orange creature clad in a Pistols jersey – finally took its bow late last month.  It’s received mixed reviews so far; some fans find it fun and cheerful, while others seem to consider it creepy.

Foster’s first exposure to Crosscheck occurred during Sunday’s game, and he wasted no time opening fire on the new mascot.  “So I look up at the scoreboard for a second, and suddenly I’m staring at this freaky inbred Teletubby,” Foster told reporters.  “At first I thought I must be hallucinating, but I rubbed my eyes and it was still there.  I asked [assistant coach] Biff [Lombardi] if he saw it too, and he did, so it must be real.”

After bugging out his eyes in mock shock, Foster continued.  “Now, I know Halloween isn’t for another eight months, so what the hell is this?  Are they trying to scare kids, or get the adults to throw up in the aisles?  I know I’m scarred for life: I’m going to see his one extra-wide tooth in my sleep.

“I finally figured it out, though,” the New York coach concluded.  “This… thing is supposed to represent Hamilton’s fans!  Think about it: It’s fat, missing most of its teeth, and it looks like its family tree is a straight line.  Just like your typical Pistols fan!  It must be like looking in a mirror for them.  So now I get it.”

In the wake of Foster’s barbs, the Pistols and their fans rushed to Crosscheck’s defense.  “Crosscheck is one of us,” said coach Keith Shields.  “Crosscheck is all about fun and love of hockey, and certainly deserves better than Foster’s insults and cruelty.  If you insult any member of the Pistols family – whether it’s a player, a fan, or a mascot – you have to answer to all of us.”

Added LW Steven Alexander, “Crosscheck might be ugly, but it’s better to be ugly on the outside than ugly on the inside.”

Hamilton’s fans have bombarded social media with memes and posts supporting Crosscheck and attacking Foster.  “I think perhaps we owe our gratitude to Coach Foster,” said Pistols GM Marcel LaClaire.  “He has done more to unite our fan base behind our new mascot than anyone ever could.  For this, I am thankful.”

Pistols Make Big Splash in Landing Costello from DC

Last season, the Hamilton Pistols were headed for their first-ever playoff appearance, and they faced a choice: dip into their store of top prospects and make a big win-now deal, or make a smaller depth deal and hold on to their young talent.  They chose the latter path, and wound up being bounced in the first round by Quebec.

This year, in the midst of an intense race in the East, the Pistols decided to go for a big-splash deal.  They acquired C Eddie Costello from the Washington Galaxy in exchange for C Pat Collistone, D Buster Kratz, and their first-round pick.

“To be honest, I’m surprised to be here announcing this deal,” said Pistols GM Marcel LaClaire.  “When we began to discuss it, it was almost as a joke.  But the longer we talked, the more serious it became.  Finally I said, ‘Let’s take the dare and do it.’”

The trade is a big swing designed to address Hamilton’s biggest weakness, which is scoring beyond their top line.  The 28-year-old Costello led the Galaxy in points with 45 and in assists with 33.  He will slot into the second-line center position in Hamilton, between LW Magnus Gunnarson and RW Kenny Patterson.  In order to fit under Hamilton’s salary cap, the Galaxy will retain $1 million of Costello’s salary.

“Eddie is a dynamite player, and he gives us an immediate boost on offense,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “I’ve watched him beat us enough times over the years; I know what he can offer us.”

For Washington, the trade brings an end of the tenure of one of their most popular players.  Costello was a key contributor to the Galaxy teams that made back-to-back SHL finals appearances, and was also a colorful character on the ice and in the locker room.  Many young Galaxy fans copied his signature fauxhawk haircut.

“It’s pretty tough for me to leave DC, since I’ve had so many good times here,” Costello said.  “But I’m excited to join the playoff hunt again, and I’ll keep in touch with all my boys back here.”

The rental of Costello (who will be a free agent at the end of the season) didn’t come cheaply.  Collistone has been a longtime favorite in the Pistols organization.  The 23-year-old known affectionately as “Stoner” was strongly considered for the third-line center role in Hamilton this season; the Pistols wound up signing veteran J.C. Marais instead.  He was a 2018 CHL All-Star, and though his numbers are down a bit this season (13 goals, 17 assists with Oshawa), he remains a well-regarded prospect.

The 21-year-old Kratz is another homegrown Hamilton prospect.  He’s been a depth defenseman for the Pistols this season, appearing in only 12 games and failing to record a point.

“I never thought [LaClaire] would make Stoner available,” said Galaxy GM Ace Adams.  “He and Kratz both help us restock our prospect pool, which is great as we look to the next chapter for our team.  We wish Eddie all the best.  I hope he brings home the Vandy.”

CHL Update: Garcia’s Time in Oshawa Comes to Ugly End

Diego Garcia has a well-earned reputation as a malcontent.  The 26-year-old has played in several SHL organizations since the league’s inception, but he’s never seemed happy with his role wherever he’s been.

Diego Garcia

He started on the third line in Dakota, but quickly lost his starting spot, and complained about it until he was traded to Hamilton.  With the Pistols, his lackadaisical work habits and indifferent focus wore out the patience of coaches, and they dealt him to New York the following season.

He played regularly in New York for the rest of the 2016 season, but then Night coach Preston Rivers was fired, and new head man Nick Foster benched Garcia due to his poor defensive work.  Garcia griped to the press about the benching, implying that racial discrimination was a factor in the decision.  Shortly thereafter, the Night demoted him to their farm team in Utah.

Garcia played well in Utah over the next season and a half, but failed to earn a call-up.  This led him to once again demand a trade.  The Night accommodated him at last year’s deadline, shipping him up to Boston.  He played in the bigs for the final 20-odd games of the season, but the Badgers weren’t impressed enough to re-sign him this season.

Failing to land any major-level offers, Garcia signed with the Oshawa Drive.  But his usual issues – lack of hustle and his penchant for bellyaching – landed him in hot water with coach Harvey Williams.  The simmering tension between the two boiled over this week, when Williams benched the winger and Garcia responded by leaving the team.

According to team sources, Garcia’s latest frustrations began when he was passed over for the CHL All-Star Game.  He made the team last season, and felt that he deserved a return trip.  He became even more upset when the Pistols, Oshawa’s parent club, traded for F Cary Estabrook from Boston.  In Garcia’s opinion, he is a superior player to Estabrook, and deserved to be called up instead.

“I knew [Estabrook] from Boston,” Garcia fumed to reporters.  “They say I don’t hustle?  He hustles way less than I do.  They say I’m bad at defense?  He’s worse.  They say I don’t show up for practice?  He cares more about what time the bar closes than what time practice is.  But he’s the golden boy, the great white hope, so he gets a second chance.  And the lazy brown guy rots in the minors.  I wish I was surprised.”

Harvey Williams

Garcia’s rant rubbed Williams the wrong way.  The coach told reporters that Garcia “has been a pain in my [butt] all season.  He’s always in my office whining about how he ‘deserves’ to be in the majors.  And I always tell him the same thing: If you want to make it to the next level, go out there and show me something special.  Make it so they can’t deny you a shot.  And he doesn’t want to do it.  He’s been fine, but nothing special.  He’s had five years to make it in the majors, and he hasn’t stuck.  He’s got talent, but he doesn’t want to put in the work.  So I don’t want to hear about it.”

When informed of his coach’s comments, Garcia shot back: “Oh, so now I’m lazy and uppity, huh?  I wonder why I haven’t gotten a fair shake in this organization.  All my life, I’ve had to work twice as hard to get half as far.  It’s the same old crap.”  He then said that – yet again – he wants to be traded.

Williams reacted to the trade demand with derision.  “Oh, here we go again: ‘Trade me, trade me.’  Every time someone calls him out on his [crap], he demands a trade.  Anything to avoid taking a hard look in the mirror.  Well fine, then.  I’ll do it for him.”

The coach announced that he would bench Garcia indefinitely.  “Everywhere else, people got sick of him and they punted so they don’t have to deal with him.  Well, I’m gonna deal with him.”  Williams said he would play Garcia again “when he finally owns up that he has no one to blame but himself.  Given his track record, he might be sitting awhile.”

Garcia responded by leaving the team and returning to his offseason home in Vancouver.  He said he would not return to the ice until the Drive traded him.  “Obviously, I’m never going to get a fair shot with this organization, so let’s move on.”

Three days later, the Drive terminated his contract.  “If Diego is not going to provide his services to our team, then he is in breach of contract,” said Pistols GM Marcel LaClaire.  “He said that he wants a fresh start; he is now free to pursue that with any team he wishes.”

This may be the end of the line for Garcia in the SHL; he has worn out his welcome with multiple organizations, and he does not put up the kind of numbers that would compel a team to sign him in spite of the headaches.

“If some desperate team takes a chance on him, I wish ‘em the best of luck,” said Williams.  “He’s a legend in his own mind, and guys like that – there’s just no reasoning with ‘em.”

Badgers Deal First Player Estabrook to Hamilton

When the Boston Badgers made LW Cary Estabrook their first-ever player signing, it seemed like a movie script come to life.  Estabrook was a native of Rhode Island and played college hockey at the University of Massachusetts.  In college, he caught the eye of Jody Melchiorre, then a scout for the Anchorage Igloos.  Estabrook suffered a major knee injury as a senior and the Igloos passed on him.  But Melchiorre never forgot what he saw, and when he signed on as GM of the expansion Badgers, his first move was to sign Estabrook to a contract.  The young winger dreamed of starring in the same area where he’d grown up.

Reality, though, doesn’t always unfold like a movie.  Estabrook’s tenure in Boston was a miserable experience for both him and the team.  He struggled with his conditioning and off-ice habits, clashed with coach Cam Prince, and failed to produce.  Finally, after a season and a half, the Badgers finally pulled the plug, trading the 24-year-old to the Hamilton Pistols in exchange for F Norris “Beaver” Young.

“This one stings for me, because I think Cary’s a special young man,” said Melchiorre.  “But clearly, things haven’t worked out the way either of us would have wanted.  I think a fresh start is the best thing.”

Cary Estabrook

During his rookie season in 2018, Estabrook found that the lingering after-effects of his college injury robbed him of crucial speed, and his performance wasn’t up to par.  He reportedly took to drinking and partying excessively, which further impacted his game.

This caused Estabrook to run afoul of Prince, a battle that came to a head when Estabrook overslept and missed a team meeting.  Shortly thereafter, the Badgers demoted Estabrook to their minor-league affiliate in Hartford.  He’d played 28 games with the Badgers, failing to record a point and putting up a -23 rating.

Prince and the Badgers gave Estabrook another shot this year; he broke camp as the third-line left winger.  But his on-ice and off-ice struggles continued, as he rotated in and out of the lineup.  In 21 games this season, Estabrook had a goal to go with a -12 rating, worst on the team.

“I’m really disappointed with the way everything turned out here,” Estabrook told reporters.  “I feel like I let everyone down.  I know I have no one but myself to blame.  But I have to pick myself up and move on to the next thing,”

The 24-year-old Young was drafted by the Pistols in 2016.  He spent two seasons on their bottom line, totaling 31 points (15 goals, 16 assists).  After spending the 2018 season with their farm club in Oshawa, he returned to the big club this season.  He split time on the third line with RW Michael Jennings.  In 16 games this season, Young had 4 points (1 goal, 3 assists) and a +2 rating.

“Younger was a solid contributor for us, and we will miss him,” said Pistols GM Marcel LaClaire.  “But we are excited about Cary.  We think there’s a lot of untapped potential there, and we think he can be a real asset in the right situation.  We believe that our organization and our coaching staff will help him thrive.”

For Hamilton, which has lagged in the playoff chase in spite of strong underlying numbers, Estabrook represents a low-stakes gamble that could pay dividends down the stretch.  For Estabrook, Hamilton represents a chance to start over.  He may not have lived his dream of starring with the local team, but he’s still young and has a chance at a solid SHL career… if he can avoid repeating the mistakes that doomed him in Boston.

“If I screw this up, I know I might not get another chance,” said Estabrook.  “So I’m going to make sure I don’t screw this up.”

Hamilton’s Dramatic New Look Highlights 2019 Uni Changes

As the SHL prepares to take the ice for its 2019 season, several teams are announcing updates to their uniforms.  The list of changes isn’t as extensive as last season, when there were two new teams and four other clubs with new or modified looks.  This time around, however, there is one team – the Hamilton Pistols – that has completely overhauled its look, with a new logo, color scheme, and uniforms.

“Last year, our team showed that it was ready to be a rising power in this league,” said Pistols owner Cory Blackwood, Jr.  “Now we’ve got a fresh, up-to-date look that matches our fresh young roster.”

The Pistols’ logo has evolved over their tenure in the SHL.  The original logo prominently featured the silhouette of a handgun, a controversial choice that drew protests from gun-control groups.  Possibly as a result, the team began de-emphasizing the gun as a design element, increasingly featuring a secondary logo consisting of the letter “H” superimposed over a red maple leaf.  The team claimed that this logo was designed to highlight the team’s Canadian identity.  However, that logo earned the ire of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs, who threatened the Pistols with trademark action.

Now, the Pistols have scrapped both their original gun-based logo and the secondary maple-leaf logo in favor of a striking new “Pistols” wordmark that includes a gun sight in place of the “O.”  

“We wanted something simple, clean, and modern-looking,” said Pistols GM Marcel LaClaire.  “Our old logo had kind of a ’70s Starsky-and-Hutch type of appearance, especially with that mustard yellow.  It was a little dated, and not suitable for today.  We found ourselves asking, ‘When our team wins the Vandy, do we want to be in these uniforms?’  We quickly realized that we did not.”

New home uniforms

The Pistols’ new uniforms pay homage to their previous look, while still providing a major departure.  Red is still Hamilton’s dominant color, but the secondary color has gone from mustard yellow to black.  The uniforms still have a contrasting color band along the shoulders and down the sleeves, but it narrows below the numbers.  The stripe at the bottom of the jersey kicks up at the end, as the silver trim has been modified to look like a hockey stick.

“We’re going to look a lot cooler on the ice now,” said Pistols star Steven Alexander.  “Our new threads are cutting-edge, cool, and a little dangerous.  No one’s going to want to mess with us.”

New alternate jersey

In lieu of their previous maple-leaf jersey, the Pistols unveiled a new third jersey that’s primarily black. In place of the “Pistols” wordmark that appears on the home and road jerseys, the jersey includes the team’s secondary logo – a gunsight with a capital “H” in the crosshairs.

“I really like the alts,” said D Raymond Smyth.  “They make us look like assassins, ready to take out the competition.”

Blackwood said that the team’s new look symbolized a new era of championship competition.  “We want our fans to know, and the world to know, that we’re going all in,” the owner said.  “We’re expecting big things from the team in the next few seasons.  We’re breaking out in a big way, and we want everyone to know about it.”

While the Pistols’ image overhaul is the biggest sartorial news of the offseason, a couple of other SHL teams also announced smaller refreshes:

  • The Seattle Sailors are brightening their accent color, going from spring green to a neon green.  “Between the Seahawks and the Eclipse,” said owner Gary Blum, referencing Seattle’s NFL and UBA teams, “neon green is a popular color around here, and we thought it would work for us too.”  In addition, the team is adding more black to their alternate uniforms, and are dropping the numbers on their sleeves.
  • The Michigan Gray Wolves are switching their home and alternate jerseys.  Now, their jersey with the wolf-and-moon logo is their primary home uniform, while the one with the “Gray Wolves” wordmark has been relegated to alternate status.  “Just looking at our merchandise sales, it’s clear that our fans love the moon logo,” said GM Tim Carrier.  “So we figured it was time for us to catch up.”  The “Gray Wolves” wordmark remains on the team’s road jerseys, however.  Also, the numbers on the back of the home and alternate jerseys have changed from white to red.