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.”