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.”

2019 SHL Week 14 Transactions

  • On Friday, the Hershey Bliss activated D Steve Cargill from the injured list.  The 20-year-old Cargill suffered an upper-body injury four weeks ago after suffering a hard check into the boards.  Upon his return, Cargill was re-inserted into Hershey’s top defensive pairing, skating alongside Reese Milton.  In order to make room for Cargill on the roster, Hershey reassigned D Seth Dowd to their CHL affiliate in Milwaukee.  The 33-year-old Dowd appeared in only one game during his stint with the Bliss, recording an assist.
  • On Saturday, the Hamilton Pistols placed D Moose Baker on the disabled list.  The 32-year-old blueliner suffered a lower-body injury in the Pistols’ 1-0 win over Quebec.  He had appeared in 16 games this season, putting up 3 assists.  As of press time, Hamilton did not plan to call up another player to fill Baker’s spot on the roster.

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.”

Mascot Wars Continue

Michigan Grey WolvesAnchorage IgloosThe next salvo in the mascot-based war between the Anchorage Igloos and the Michigan Gray Wolves has been fired.  Two weeks ago, Gray Wolves LW Vladimir Beruschko created an uproar in Anchorage when he attacked Igloos mascot Petey the Polar Bear with his hockey stick.  This week, during a game at Cadillac Place, the Igloos struck back against Michigan mascot Wally Wolf.

During a break in action during the second period, Wally came onto the ice to toss some T-shirts into the crowd.  He unknowingly wandered a little too close to the Igloos bench, and C Jake Frost stuck out his stick and tripped the mascot, sending him down to the ice in a heap.  “With his big giant head, he just sort of toppled over,” said one witness to the incident.  Frost then pointed and said, “That’s for Petey, you bastard!”

Wally Wolf
Wally Wolf

While boos rained down from the crowd and Frost and his teammates whooped it up on the bench, the Gray Wolves fumed.  “Blindsiding a guy like that on the ice isn’t right,” said D Frank Mudrick.  “He could have blown out his ACL and ended his career on a move like that.”

Gray Wolves coach Martin Delorme walked to the end of his bench and began pointing and shouting at the Igloos.  Anchorage coach Sam Castor responded in kind, and the crowd roared as the two coaches waved their arms and argued.  “Honestly, I’m not really sure what [Delorme] was saying,” said Castor.  “He might have been yelling in French.  Don’t know.  I was pointing out that his guy started it, and to give it a rest.”

During the first faceoff after play resumed, Mudrick skated up to Frost and demanded a fight.  Frost skated away, and Igloos D Olaf Martinsson squared off with Mudrick instead.  “I’m a lover, not a fighter,” said Frost.

In the third, Wally re-emerged with a large bandage wrapped around his head, as the fans gave him a standing ovation.  Wally walked behind the Anchorage bench, withdrew a pair of water balloons he’d hidden under his shirt, and dropped them on the Igloos, soaking Frost and RW Remi Montrechere.  The mascot ran off before the stunned Igloos could react.

“Good thing he didn’t hit me with those balloons,” said Castor.  “I’d have chased him down and beat the hell out of him.  This suit cost more than his whole wardrobe.”

The SHL fined Frost $500 and Wally $250, issuing a press release that stated, “Okay, you guys have had your fun.  Now knock it off or we’re going to start handing out suspensions.”  But neither side showed any indication of ceasing hostilities.

“This isn’t over,” said Gray Wolves C Hunter Bailes.  “That polar bear better have a suit of armor ready for the next time we play them.”  Replied Igloos D Moose Baker, “Petey’s going to be ready, and we’re going to be ready.  If any of those guys so much as lays a hand on Petey’s fur, there’s going to be a line brawl on the spot.  Mark my words.”

Frost had another suggestion: “I think the only way this can end is for Petey and Wally to settle this on the field of honor.  [The Gray Wolves] can pick the time and place, and I’ll spring for Petey’s airfare.”