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.”

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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.”

Galaxy Pick James as New Coach

The Washington Galaxy surprised a number of observers around the league when they fired coach Rodney Reagle, who had guided the team to a pair of Finals appearances in four seasons.  After the surprising dismissal of Reagle, the team made an unsurprising choice for his replacement, tapping Oshawa Drive coach Peter James to take over the bench next season.

Peter James

“When we looked for our next coach, we had several criteria in mind,” said Galaxy GM Ace Adams.  “We wanted a coach who was professional and dedicated.  We wanted someone who was firm but not overbearing, someone who was serious but not too straitlaced, someone who could help mentor younger players while also relating well to veterans.  We wanted someone who was comfortable with the demands of a bigger market, but wouldn’t be looking to grab headlines.  Peter met all of our criteria.”

Several of those criteria could be interpreted as a veiled shot at Reagle, who had a well-earned reputation as the SHL’s clown prince.  He was well known for wearing costumes on the bench and frequently dropping movie quotes and offbeat accents into his press conferences.  These antics made Reagle a colorful and popular character, but team sources say the front office and some players found his behavior childish and that owner Perry Dodge felt the coach was too easy with the players.

James represents a virtual 180-degree change in personality from Reagle.  The 55-year-old Kitchener native has a reputation as for being serious and mild-mannered; one Oshawa player described James as having “milk running through his veins.”

The coach confirmed the accuracy of his reputation at his introductory press conference.  “If you’re expecting a lot of memorable quotes out of me, well, you’ll be disappointed,” said James.  “I’m always willing to talk to the press, but my plan is to keep my head down and do my job.”

Those who might equate James’ politeness and lack of flair with meekness or weakness, however, are mistaken.  He demonstrated this in Oshawa last season when he physically repelled an opposing defender who attempted to climb onto the Drive’s bench and start a fight.  Asked about this incident, James said, “My first instinct to protect my players, always.  I’m not a fighter, but I’m also not a pushover.”

James will face a challenge navigating an aging roster that lost key contributor Walt Camernitz to free agency last season and may see #1 goaltender Roger Orion depart this offseason.  “I would really like to see us re-sign Roger,” James said.  “He’s a really top-notch goalie.”

The new bench boss will also have some work to do in the clubhouse, whose chemistry reportedly went south during the Galaxy’s second-half swan dive, when they went 11-20-1 to finish below .500 for the first time in team history.  “Obviously, losing makes things tough on everybody,” James said.  “But even during tough times, if you put the right foundation in place, the team will hold together.”

The team reportedly didn’t interview many candidates for the vacancy.  The team is known to have also spoken to former assistant coach Herman Chambers and Michigan assistant Morris Thompson.  Sources say that the front office was torn between James and Thompson; the latter’s reputation for building stout defenses was appealing.

It was James’ calm demeanor, Adams said, that put him over the top.  “The longer we talked to Peter, the more I noticed how calm and confident he was, no matter what questions I threw at him,” said the Galaxy GM.  “He was so calm that he made me feel calmer just listening to him.  And I knew this was the guy to guide us through good times and bad.”

As for Washington’s ex-coach, it appears unlikely that Reagle will find himself behind a bench this season.  The only remaining open SHL job is with the Saskatchewan Shockers, who are said to be looking for a disciplinarian.  Reagle said that he was open to a job in broadcasting, but “if I wind up spending the season at home with my wife, sipping lemonade and cashing checks, I’m okay with that too.  I’m not sure if she will be, though.”