Wolves Coach Wright Resigns

For the last four and a half seasons, Ron Wright has been the driving force behind the Michigan Gray Wolves.  He has pushed them hard in grueling practices, demanded a relentless commitment to excellence, and shaped the team’s selfless, hard-nosed identity.  It’s an approach that has yielded results, including a Vandy in 2016 and two playoff appearances.

Ron Wright

But Wright and his players have grown increasingly disenchanted with one another as the Wolves’ record has sunk.  They finished last season in a tailspin, ultimately finishing in fourth place.  And this season, Michigan has been battling with Dakota and Kansas City to stay out of the cellar.  This shocking performance led to an even more shocking development on Saturday, as Wright resigned as Wolves coach.

“Our performance this year has been a disappointment and an embarrassment,” said Wright.  “And the responsibility for that starts with me.  I have failed to motivate this team, and our performance has not been up to our standards.  So the only responsible thing for me to do is to step aside and let the team find a new leader.”

To say that the move was a surprise would be an understatement.  “I think you could sum up the mood in the locker room as stunned,” said C Hunter Bailes.  “Coach Wright always talked about the importance of commitment and being all in, and for him to walk away in the middle of a season is – well, it’s unexpected.”

According to sources close to the team, Wright’s intense, hard-driving personality was embraced by the players when the team was winning.  But as the team’s fortunes have declined, the grumbling about the coach’s demands and brutal practices have grown louder.

“Most of the guys in here are veterans, and we’ve been working in this system for years,” said one player.  “For [Wright] to still be yelling at us like we’re raw rookies, it doesn’t sit right.”

Several players also cited the departure of assistant coach Morris Thompson as a key factor in the decline of Wright’s relationship with his team.  Thompson left to become the head coach of the Saskatchewan Shockers for the 2019 season.  According to several players, Thompson served as a vital buffer between Wright and the players.

“Morris knew how to get [Wright] to tone it down a notch, cool out when needed,” said one player.  “And the players knew that if they had a problem, they could go to Morris and he’d smooth it over.  When he left, the emergency brake was gone.”

One theory is that Wright chose a midseason departure in order to control the terms of his exit.  Many on the team believed that, barring a second-half turnaround to claim a playoff spot, Wright was going to be fired at season’s end.  Rather than wait for the ax to fall, Wright could depart on his own terms.

The team announced that assistant coach Roger Stackledge will take over as interim head coach for the rest of the season.  Barring an unexpected turnaround, GM Tim Carrier will face some interesting decisions at the trading deadline and in the coming offseason.  The Wolves are the league’s oldest team, and while they arguably have too much talent (starting with G Dirk Lundquist and including a stellar defensive corps) to be torn apart, they do not have enough offensive firepower to be a top-tier contender.

“I was not expecting to be holding this press conference in the middle of the season,” said Carrier.  “But I am confident that this team is still capable of being a strong contender.  I am confident in Roger’s ability to lead this team.  We’ll re-group over the All Star break and come back strong.”

“Ministry of Fun” Raises Shockers’ Spirits

The Saskatchewan Shockers are the West’s answer to the Quebec Tigres: a solid team that has hung around the .500 mark all season, lurking around the edges of the playoff race but not quite getting over the hump into contention.

The attitudes of the two teams couldn’t be more different, however.  While Quebec seems downcast, having struggled with injuries and offensive stagnation – the latter serious enough that their star winger groused about it to reporters last week – the Shockers remain cheerful and upbeat.

What’s the difference?  It seems that the credit goes to a group of Shockers players who refer to themselves as the “Ministry of Fun.”

Zeke Zagurski

“Hockey can be a pretty intense business,” said goalie Zeke Zagurski, who is considered the Ministry’s ringleader.  “That’s why we spread nonsense and silliness wherever we go, to bring a little bit of balance to the whole thing.”

What sort of silliness does the Ministry engage in?  Some of it is garden-variety pranks and practical jokes: whoopee cushions, fake dog turds, dribble glasses and the like.  Some of their moves, though, require a bit more sophistication.  There was the time, for instance, that they hacked into the PA system at the team’s practice facility and started blasting “I Feel Pretty” in the middle of morning skate.  Or the time that they showed up for the team picture and slipped on Groucho glasses just as the shot was taken.  Or the time they burst into a flash mob-style dance in the middle of the airport.

The Ministry was the brainchild of Zagurski, a well-known eccentric.  He is dubbed the “Prime Minister,” and many of the group’s shenanigans stem from his fertile, if twisted, imagination.  Backup netminder Shawn Stickel was named Deputy Prime Minster.  Other Ministry members include C Elliott Rafferty (Minister of Foreign Affairs – “because he helps us meet women on the road,” according to Zagurski), LW Vonnie McLearen (Minister of Practical Joke Innovation), D Rennie Cox (Minister of Funkitude), and D Chris Oflyng (Minister of Silly Walks).

The Ministry initially formed in the 2019 season, after Morris Thompson was named head coach.  Thompson is a disciple of Michigan coach and noted disciplinarian Ron Wright, and he was hired in part to encourage a more serious and dedicated attitude from a team with a reputation for (often drunken) hijinks.  Several players thought that Thompson’s initial approach was too firm, and the Ministry was their form of civil disobedience.

“We’re not opposed to working hard or taking our jobs seriously,” explained Zagurski.  “But frankly, a lot of our guys have a couple screws loose.  This isn’t a team that’s going to react well to a drill-sergeant approach.”

Morris Thompson

When Thompson first figured out what was going on, he was furious and wanted to crack down on the players involved.  But after he cooled down, he decided to take a different tack.

“After I thought about it, I realized that if I went hard after these guys, I’d probably tear the team apart,” Thompson said.  “Especially since a lot of these guys are leaders in the locker room.  What good is it to win the battle and lose the team?  Besides, most of what they were doing was just goofy.  They were working hard and playing well, just blowing off a little steam afterward.”

So Thompson made the Ministry a deal: As long as they worked hard in practice and in games, he wouldn’t complain about their antics.  He even agreed that whenever the team won, he would designate a 15-minute period after practice where the Ministry could engage the locker room in whatever sort of lunacy they dreamed up.

The Ministry took the deal, and it’s worked quite well so far.  “Every once in a while, we’ll do something so ridiculous that [Thompson] will just kind of bury his face in his hand, like a frustrated dad,” said Zagurski.  “But he’s been good to his word: as long as we play hard and don’t embarrass the team too much, he lets us do our thing.”

Will the Ministry of Fun and their zaniness propel Saskatchewan into the postseason?  It’s too soon to tell.  But the team is playing solid hockey and having a good time, and that’s a good place to start.

Shockers Owner Tries Hypnotizing Team

In the last couple of seasons, the Saskatchewan Shockers have earned a reputation as a young team with promise that can’t quite get over the hump.  And since the SHL’s beginning, Shockers owner Heinz Doofenshmirtz has had a reputation as an… unconventional thinker.  Those two narratives intersected this week, as Doofenshmirtz reportedly resorted to mind-control techniques in order to improve his team’s play.

“We’ve seen some weird stuff around here,” said longtime Saskatchewan D Chris “Lightning” Oflyng, “but this one probably takes the cake.”

Heinz Doofenshmirtz

Apparently, Doofenshmirtz dreamed up his latest idea when he read an article about a baseball team bringing in a motivational speaker to inspire the players with the power of positive thinking.  According to sources in the Shockers front office, Doofenshmirtz felt that such a tactic might help his club take the next step.

Rather than hiring an actual motivational speaker, however, the owner decided to do the motivating himself.  Last week, Shockers coach Morris Thompson arrived at the arena to find a package in his office.  It contained a pair of videotapes, with a note from the owner instructing Thompson to play them for the team before the morning skate.

Thompson did as he was asked (although he had to find a VCR first).  He gathered the players in the locker room and played the first tape.  This consisted of a continuous loop of Doofenshmirtz’s spinning, sunglasses-clad head chanting “My name is Doof and you’ll do what I say.  Whoop whoop!” over and over.

The players watched in stunned silence for about a minute before Thompson ejected the tape.  “I figured he probably gave me the wrong tape,” the coach said.  “Although why he’d want one like that, I don’t know.”

The second tape featured the owner in cowboy garb, singing a country-western song.  This seemed more promising, although on closer inspection the song contained lyrics such as “You’ll be my obedient mindless slaves, and nobody will blame me/ Because you’ll yodel-odel-odel-odel-obey me.”

This time, several players got annoyed, and Thompson stopped the tape.  He promptly informed GM Cooper Mathews that if the owner ever provided tapes like that again, Thompson would resign.

“It felt to a lot of the guys like he was trying to hypnotize us or something, and that’s not cool,” said Oflyng.

“That song was horrible,” added C Elliott Rafferty.  “I mean, it was catchy, but the lyrics were way too on the nose.”

Matthews apologized to the team, and made clear that the idea was Doofenshmirtz’s alone.  “At the end of the day, he wants us to win, and that’s what we all want,” the GM said.  “But I don’t think that’s the best way to go about it.”

“Come on, what’s the big deal?” Doofenshmirtz said to reporters.  “People pay good money to go on stage and have a hypnotist make them bark like a dog or act like a chicken or whatever.  I was just trying to brainwash my guys a little into playing good hockey, that’s all.  It’s not like I was trying to make them my minions in some plot to take over the world or anything.  I mean, who would even think of that?”

Shockers Get Used to New Role: Contender

The Saskatchewan Shockers are in unfamiliar territory.  For the first couple of years of the SHL’s existence, the Shockers were the joke of the league; they piled up losses left and right and were better known for wacky promotions and player hijinks than for anything they did on the ice.  The last couple of seasons, they were considered a team on the rise, but one that never quite managed to live up to its promise.

This year, under new coach Morris Thompson, the Shockers are in genuine contention in the West.  Instead of looking to sell at next week’s trading deadline, Saskatchewan will be looking to buy.  Instead of looking up at Michigan and Anchorage, the Shockers are side-by-side with them in the standings.

“It’s almost like ‘Hey, Pinocchio, you’re a real boy now,’” said Shockers D Chris “Lightning” Oflyng, who has been with the team since its inception.

Morris Thompson

What has driven Saskatchewan’s success?  Many around the team are giving credit to Thompson.  When the team fired the well-liked Myron Beasley last season, GM Cooper Matthews said that the Shockers needed to get tougher and more disciplined.  That’s why he chose Thompson, a longtime assistant coach in Michigan, to apply the lessons he learned from Wolves coach Ron Wright.

So far, Matthews said, Thompson is living up to expectations.  “I couldn’t be happier with what Morris has done for this team,” said the Shockers GM.  “Watching games last year, you could tell the talent was there, but we needed a little more focus on the little things, the hard and unglamorous work that builds champions.  That’s what Morris has been teaching our team.”

The improvement has been obvious on both sides of the puck.  Last season, the Shockers struggled badly on offense, both in terms of generating shots and quality scoring chances.  This season, they’re averaging 35.3 shots per game (fourth in the SHL) and 2.9 goals (sixth).  “This year, we’ve been focusing on driving to the net more aggressively and looking for the right shot, not just the first shot,” said LW Troy Chamberlain.  “By creating chaos in front of the net, we’re taking the goalie’s eyes away and increasing the chance of a tip-in or rebound for a greasy goal.  It’s really paying off for us.”

The Shockers were solid last year on defense, but they’ve taken a step up this season.  They’re allowing roughly the same number of shots per game as last season, but they’ve reduced their GAA from 2.71 to 2.60.  Their penalty kill has also gotten strong, improving from 82.7% to 84.9%.

“We’ve gotten better about finishing our checks, denying zone entries on power plays, controlling the neutral zone,” said D Wyatt Barnes.  “Pretty basic stuff, but Coach Thompson is death on letting the fundamentals slip.”

The Shockers are proud to note that they don’t rely heavily on one or two stars; instead, they rely on depth, including a number of homegrown players who came up through their farm system.  “We don’t have a lot of big names on our team, but you don’t need big names to win the Vandy,” said Oflyng.

With that in mind, who might the Shockers pursue in trade?  The biggest names likely to be available are Dakota Jackalopes Ds Rusty Anderson and Matt Cherner, and Sasktchewan has the prospects and cap space to acquire at least one of them.  Will they go for such a big splash, given the fierce competition for playoff slots in the division?  Or will they shun the big names and settle for smaller depth additions, and bet big on their team-first chemistry?

“I’m looking at pretty much every option you can think of, and probably some you can’t,” quipped Matthews.  “The next few days are going to be interesting.”

In a lot of ways, Saskatchewan faces the same dilemma that the Hamilton Pistols faced a season ago: a young, rising team with promise gets its first chance at the postseason and has to decide whether to make a big move and go for the Vandy this year, or sit back and try to build a multi-year dynasty.  The Pistols opted for depth moves, and wound up losing in the first round of the playoffs.

“We definitely don’t think this is our only shot at [a title],” said Thompson.  “This team is no fluke, and not a one-year wonder.  If there’s a move that can improve our chances in the short term, I’d be interested.  But we have a foundation that will let us contend for years to come.  I wouldn’t want us to jeopardize that.  I’m not just thinking about this year.”

Shockers Dealt Tough Loss Amid Tight West Race

At the midway point of the season, both the East and West divisions are more competitive than usual.  Four clubs in each division have a real shot at the playoffs; on the flip side, no team is so dominant that their postseason trip is essentially certain.  It’s anybody’s game, and that’s exciting for the fans, as almost every game has potential playoff ramifications.

On the other hand, it can be frustrating for the teams, especially when stretches of strong play don’t create any separation in the standings.  And when a team suffers a particularly tough loss, it stings even more knowing that the line between making the playoffs and watching them on TV appears so thin.

Just ask the Saskatchewan Shockers.  Under the guidance of new coach Morris Thompson, they’re playing smart, strong, disciplined hockey.  They’ve posted their best first-half record ever.  And yet, they’re mired in fourth place, remaining close but agonizingly far for a playoff spot.  Sasktchewan’s precarious position made Thursday’s mystifying loss, in which they played well against the Hershey Bliss only to lose in a 5-0 blowout, a truly bitter pill to swallow.

“I know it’s weird to say this about a game we lost by 5, but I thought we were the better team in a lot of the game,” said Shockers LW Troy Chamberlain.  “This game was just really weird.”

It’s hard to say whether Chamberlain’s claim that Saskatchewan was “the better team” holds water, but they definitely dominated the first period.  The Shockers came out firing, dictating the pace of play.  Aided by a pair of power plays, they outshot the Bliss 19-11.  “I thought we should have been up 2-0 or 3-0 after that,” said Chamberlain.

Instead, the game remained scoreless, thanks to Hershey goalie Brandon Colt.  He isn’t usually considered among the league’s top goalies, but he played like one on Thursday.  He made a dramatic kick-out save on a power-play blast by Chamberlain, bringing the crowd at Chocolate Center to its feet.  He also made a brilliant stop in the closing minutes of the period, robbing C Elliott Rafferty on a breakaway.  The Shockers also suffered some poor luck; on their two power plays in the period, they rang three shots off the posts.

Saskatchewan again got the better of the play to start the second, only to see Colt stymie them again and again.  Just after the nine-minute mark of the period, the Shockers got their third power play of the night when Bliss C Vance Ketterman was whistled for cross-checking.  Saskatchewan failed to convert yet again, managing only one shot, and the momentum seemed to shift toward the home team.

The game remained scoreless until late in the second.  With 2:31 remaining, Hershey RW Noah Daniels deflected a blast from D Steve Cargill and bounced it past Shockers goalie Zeke Zagurski into the net.  It was a fluke goal, but after seeing so many of their shots stopped, spirits sagged on the Saskatchewan bench.

“We couldn’t understand how we were losing when we’d played so much better,” said Rafferty.

In the third, the Shockers pushed hard in the early going, only to come up empty yet again.  Bliss C Justin Valentine banged home a rebound just until 7 minutes in to make it 2-0.  D Bruce Minnik went to the sin bin a couple minutes later, giving Saskatchewan its fourth power play of the game.  By this time, the Shockers were stressing out, shanking shots left and right and missing out on quality chances.

Twenty second after the power play ended, Bliss LW Lance Sweet and RW Christopher Hart broke out on an odd-man rush, and Hart beat Zagurski to give Hershey a three-goal edge.

The dam seemed to burst after that; the Shockers all but gave up, and Hershey scored twice more before the game mercifully ended.

The frustration in the Shockers locker room was palpable after the game.  Rafferty, who was denied at least three times by brilliant Colt saves, smashed his stick to pieces against his stool.  Zagurski opted for a different approach; he went into the shower with his equipment still on, sitting in soaked silence.

To make matters worse, the three teams ahead of Saskatchewan in the West standings (Michigan, Seattle, and Anchorage) all lost, costing the Shockers a rare chance to gain ground.

“In any season, there’s always going to be a few games you wish you could have back,” said Thompson.  “But this one was a knife to the gut.  When you get a 6-0 edge in power plays, you really need to win it.  This one really stings.”

Continue reading “Shockers Dealt Tough Loss Amid Tight West Race”

Interview of the Week: Morris Thompson

This week’s interview is with Saskatchewan Shockers coach Morris Thompson.

SHL Digest: This week, we’re talking to the new coach of the Saskatchewan Shockers, Morris Thompson.

Morris Thompson

Morris Thompson: I’m pleased to be here.

SHLD: What do you think of your team so far?

MT: There’s a lot of talent here, definitely.  We’ve got a good core of young players with speed, with the potential for a sturdy defense and a reliable offense.  And in Zeke [Zagurski], we’ve got one of the league’s better netminders.  We got off to a bit of a slow start, but we’ve got the pieces to build a contender.

SHLD: Before you came to Saskatchewan, you were Ron Wright’s assistant in Michigan, so you know a lot about building a contender.  Do you see any of the Wolves in the Shockers?

MT: Absolutely.  Zeke has the same kind of unflappability that you see in [Dirk] Lundquist, and that’s a key to success for any goalie.

SHLD: At least if you can get him to stop eating hot dogs on the ice.

MT: Yeah, we had a talk about that.  But in general, this team is willing to do the kind of unglamorous work in their own end that a lot of teams won’t.  That’s what made Michigan so successful.

SHLD: And now you’re having to do battle with your old team, as well as the defending champs in Anchorage. What do you think it will take to reach the next level, to compete with those teams?

MT: It’s a matter of attitude.  Any professional athlete wants to win; it’s in their nature.  But the best athletes hate to lose, which isn’t the same thing.  They hate losing so much that they’re willing to do whatever it takes to prevent it.  They’ll practice shooting until their hands bleed.  They’ll skate laps past the point that they feel they want to drop.  They’ll push themselves to the limit, then they’ll keep going, because that’s what it takes to beat the best teams.

SHLD: And you think that attitude has been missing in Saskatchewan?

MT: Frankly, yeah.  The stories you heard about the Shockers, they were kind of the joke of the league.  You’d hear about guys getting drunk and getting arrested at the airport, or guys microwaving burritos and setting the locker room on fire, and you’d just shake your head.

SHLD: They’ve definitely had some crazy stories, yeah.

MT: Whenever the Shockers would play us, we’d be licking our chops, because we knew we could skunk them.  They had plenty of talent, but they didn’t know what to do with it.

SHLD: And you’re looking to change that.

MT: Exactly.  Just like Michigan, we want to be the team nobody wants to play.  You might beat us on any given night, but we won’t make it easy.  You’ll have to work your butt off and take a beating if you’re going to get that W.

SHLD: Tell us a little bit about what you’re like away from the arena.  Are you married?  Do you have kids?  What do you do for fun?

MT: I am married, and we’ve got a 3-year-old daughter.  She’s the joy of my life.  As for fun: During the season, honestly, my focus is here at the rink.  During the offseason, though, I make it a point to unplug.  We like to go hiking and bike riding.  And I like to work on my car?

SHLD: Cool!  What kind of car do you have?

MT: It’s a ’67 Mustang.  I found it in a field, a total heap.  Paid $200 for it.  And for the last 5 years, I’ve been restoring it, bringing it back to life piece by piece.

SHLD: Man, that sounds like a lot of work.

MT: It is.  But I’m not afraid of work.  And it’s almost sort of meditative, just me out in the garage with Sally.  It’s a great way to decompress from the stress and chaos of the season.

SHLD: Sounds very nice.  That about wraps up our interview for today.  Thanks for your time, Morris, and good luck this season!

MT: We’re going to do our best.

Shockers Snap Up Thompson to be Bench Boss

Michigan Gray Wolves assistant coach Morris Thompson has been one of the most sought-after SHL head coaching candidates for the last two seasons.  The Washington Galaxy reportedly gave serious consideration to hiring Thompson to replace Rodney Reagle.  After the Galaxy opted for Peter James instead, the Saskatchewan Shockers wasted no time in tabbing Thompson as their next coach.

Morris Thompson

“Behold!” exclaimed Shockers owner Heinz Doofenshmirtz as he introduced Thompson.  “If there was such a thing as a Coachinator, this guy would be it!”

Over the last several seasons, the Shockers have gone from being the joke of the SHL to a young team on the rise.  As the team’s progressed seemed to stall in the 2018 season, however, Doofenshmirtz and the front office decided that change was in order.  They fired Myron Beasley, the only coach the team had ever had, in midseason.  Assistant coach Caleb Ponder was appointed as the interim head man, but was never seriously considered for the long-term job and was dismissed at the end of the season.

Reportedly, the Shockers were seeking a coach who would impose a firmer hand on discipline than either Beasley or Ponder, as well as someone who help the team take the next leap to become a contender.  When seeking a model for the kind of organization they wanted to build, they kept coming back to the Wolves and coach Ron Wright as a model.  “Michigan is everything we want to be: disciplined, hard-working, willing to do whatever it takes to win,” said Saskatchewan GM Connor Matthews.  “So why not go get one of the guys who helped build that?”

The 39-year-old Thompson started out playing for Wright and built a reputation as a grinding fourth-line winger.  After a shattered kneecap ended his playing career a decade ago, Wright suggested that Thompson get into coaching, and he’s been on Wright’s staff ever since.  In the SHL, Thompson followed Wright from Hamilton to Michigan.

“Everything I know about coaching, I learned from Coach Wright,” Thompson said.  “He taught me what it really means to work hard and be prepared.  He taught me that championships are won in practice, when a team commits itself to be all in.  He taught me that a coach can’t ask his players to make the sacrifices they need to win if he’s not willing to make those same sacrifices himself.  He taught me that hard work and sweat trumps raw talent every time.  That’s the culture I plan to bring here.”

Like Wright, Thompson is regarded as a defensive specialist.  With Saskatchewan, he will be working to strengthen a strength; the Shockers’ 2.71 GAA was good for fifth in the league.  Where they fell down was on offense, as they converted only 8% of their shots and outscored only the expansion teams in Kansas City and Boston.  Critics of the hire wonder if Thompson has the skill set to jump-start Saskatchewan’s sluggish offense.

“There’s nothing wrong with this team’s ability to create shots,” said Thompson.  “The problem is that too many of them are one-timers and slappers from way out, and any good goalie can stop those.  We need the ability to follow up.  We need to strengthen our net-front presence, get into the dirty areas where we might be able to get a deflection or rebound or take the goalie’s eyes away.  Work hard and be physical.”

The expectations are high for Thompson and the Shockers, as Matthews made clear.  “We know that champions aren’t built overnight,” the GM said.  “But we aren’t afraid to set that expectation.  The goal is not just to get a little better or be respectable.  We’re building to a championship.  That’s the goal, nothing less.”