CHL Update: Ashcats Fans Livin’ La Vida Loca

If you attend an Omaha Ashcats game, at the start of the third period you’ll hear a familiar sound, a series of staccato horn blasts over a throbbing drumbeat.  You’ve heard it before, but it may take you a bit to remember where.  You’ll notice the fans around you leaping to their feet and swiveling their hips over the words “She’s into superstition, black cats and voodoo dolls…”

Finally, it hits you: it’s the 1999 Ricky Martin smash hit “Livin’ La Vida Loca”.  The song has become an unlikely anthem for the Ashcats, firing up the crowd night after night in athe Switching Yard.

How did a 20-year-old pop song come back to life in Omaha, of all places?  It traces back to the beginning of the season, when the Ashcats held a “90s Night” promotion.  Fans clad in flannel, Starter jackets, Doc Martens, and other era-appropriate threads showed up and enjoyed a wide-ranging soundtrack that ranged from the Spin Doctors to Nirvana to Sheryl Crow to the Macarena.  But the song that really got the fans going was “Livin’ La Vida Loca.”

“It surprised us a bit at first,” said Ashcats GM Steve Galesko.  “But if you think about it, the song is pure energy.  It’s uptempo and fun, and totally danceable.  What’s not to love?”

The team tried playing the song during other games, and got the same enthusiastic response each time.  After testing it out for a couple weeks, the Ashcats made it a permanent fixture of the second intermission.

“It’s become our hype song,” said Galesko.  “It’s guaranteed to get the crowd excited, no matter what the score is.  And it let us go into the third period with a ton of energy!”

As the song became an Ashcats standard, the team realized something: The fans enjoyed dancing to the song, but unlike the Macarena, there’s not a standard dance associated with the song.  So they decided to create one.  The Ashcats filmed a series of short videos with their players doing simple salsa moves in time with the song, which they then played along with the song.  The players took to this with… varying levels of enthusiasm.

“I’ve got a total white-guy sense of rhythm,” said G Eric Middleton, “and I was like, ‘Are you sure you want to see me dancing?’  They assured me that they did.  I don’t know if that was a good idea, but it was fun.”

Speaking of the players, they’re not quire as enchanted with the repeated playings of “La Vida Loca” as the fans.  “That song is a total earworm,” said D Reggie Armour.  “If you come to one or two games, hear the song and do the little dance, it’s a good time.  But we’re hearing the song night after night, and then it gets in your head and stays there, and that gets old.  I’m hearing that damn song in my sleep now.  I may need therapy by the end of the season.”

Ashcats coach Butch Slazenger is well aware of his players’ feelings about the song, and he has decided to use that as a motivational tactic.  “I’ve promised the guys that if we win the division, I’ll buy a whole stack of CDs of that song and I’ll let them destroy them one by one,” Slazenger said.  “That ought to be enough inspiration to get them to go undefeated.”

Even if the players don’t love the song, the fans clearly do, and Galesko says to expect to hear it echoing through the arena at least for the rest of the season.  “It’s just a great experience for the fans,” said the GM.  “I bet Ricky Martin never thought he was going to have a second act 20 years later in Omaha, but it just goes to show life is full of the unexpected!”

CHL Update: One Newcomer Joins Familiar Faces in Playoffs

The SHL’s minor league, the Continental Hockey League, wrapped up its regular season this week.  Three of the four postseason qualifiers from last season will be returning this year, joined by a team that’s new to its city.  As always, the division series will be best-of-five, with the winners facing off in a best-of-seven Finals with the Howard Trophy at stake.  Here’s a preview of the first-round matchups:

 

Eastern Division

The Virginia Rhinos have made the playoffs an annual tradition; the Saskatchewan Shockers affiliate has finished atop the East in every one of the CHL’s four seasons of existence.  This season’s trip, however, was far from guaranteed.  Six weeks ago, the Rhinos were in fifth place with a sub-.500 record.  They finished strong, however, going 17-7-0 down the stretch to surge to the front of the pack.  Virginia’s success was built largely on its stout defense; they allowed an average of 27 shots per game, fourth-lowest in the league.  Offensively. the Rhinos were middle of the pack, but they were built on balance; they had five players who scored between 17 and 20 goals, so they don’t have an obvious star for opponents to key on.  They begin the series without one of their top weapons, rookie LW Zane Skandalakis, but they hope to have him back within a couple of games.  One potential controversy lurks: Who should start in net?  Heralded prospect Quentin Chislic (25-19-1, 2.41 GAA, .908 save percentage) got the bulk of the work during the regular season, but backup Eino Malmquist (10-9-0, 2.08, .922) posted results that were as good or better.  Coach Jeffrey Marsh said that he’s sticking with Chislic, but if the Rhinos struggle in the first game or two, might he turn to Malmquist?  “Hey, I’ll take two good goalies over one any time,” the coach noted.  “If Chiz gets hurt, we know we can plug in Malmo and not miss a beat.  Just like Allstate, we’re in good hands.”

The Halifax Atlantics are the fresh face in the CHL’s postseason picture, succeeding where the parent Quebec Tigres came up just short.  They didn’t clinch a playoff spot until the season’s final day, when they beat Virginia 2-1 in overtime on a goal by D Jose Martinez to finally fend off a spirited challenge from the Baltimore Blue Crabs.  The Atlantics are in their first season in Halifax; as a franchise, they haven’t made the playoffs since 2017, when they were known as the Maine Moose.  Like the Rhinos, Halifax’s success is built on its defense.  They led the league in blocks with 972, and they allowed only 25.6 shots per game, the CHL’s second-fewest.  The Atlantics love nothing more than to slow down the pace of the game and grind their opponents to death.  Unlike Virginia, the Atlantics’ offense is powered by a pair of stars.  LW Jarmann Fischer finished with 33 goals, good for second in the league.  C Dwight Flynn finished third in the CHL in points with 62; he’s the only player to make the league’s top ten in goals (25) and assists (37).  If Halifax is going to bring a title to Atlantic Canada, they’ll need Fischer and Flynn to come up big.  “We’re ready to take our game to the next level,” said Fischer.  “We’ve been grinding all season, and we’re ready to keep doing that all the way to the end.”

 

Western Division

The Idaho Spuds are the defending champions, and they come into the playoffs as favorites to repeat.  Their 37-21-6 record was the league’s best, and their 80 points was eight ahead of their closest competitor.  They finished with a plus-minus of +72, the league’s best by a long shot. They’re coming into the playoffs hot, having won 15 of their last 19 games. Their parent club, the Dakota Jackalopes, may have had a chaotic season and face an uncertain future, but Idaho’s season was virtually trouble-free (at least when their players stayed off social media). Looking at the Spuds’ statistics, it’s hard to find a weakness.  They led the league in scoring with 214 goals (3.3 per game), and they finished second in GAA with a stingy 2.32 figure.  Netminder Kelvin White (32-11-3, 1.99, .928) was a brick wall; he led the league in wins and GAA and missed the save percentage crown by a single point.  Their attack is led by C Dale Wilcox (26 goals) and RW Britt Cadmium (23), but Idaho loves to spread the wealth; they had a league-leading 11 players who finished with double-digit goals.  It’s a stretch to find any Achilles heels with this club, but… last season, in their first year in the Gem State, the Spuds had the league’s best home record, at 22-7-3.  This year, the crowds weren’t quite as huge, and the team actually did slightly better on the road.  This is a small nit to pick, however; Idaho figures to be a formidable opponent throughout the postseason.  “If anybody else wants the belt, they’re gonna have to come take it from us,” said LW Terry Cresson.  “We’re definitely not giving it up without a hell of a fight.”

The Omaha Ashcats face the Spuds in the Western playoff for the second season in a row.  Like the Atlantics, Omaha punched its playoff ticket on the season’s final day, knocking off Idaho 3-2 to finish ahead of the Utah Owls.  That season-ending victory completed a 6-1-1 stretch run that occurred after superfan “Krazy Karl”Loesser held a “sacrifice” outside the arena to change the team’s luck; prior to that, they’d lost 7 of their previous 9 games.  Was it the hockey gods at work, as Krazy Karl claimed, or a mere coincidence?  “At this point in the season, we need all the help we can get,” said coach Butch Slazenger.  “And I have no interest in pissing off the hockey gods, so I’ll just say thanks.”  Unlike the East playoff, this series should feature plenty of shots; the Ashcats favor a fast-paced, firewagon style of hockey. They averaged 34.6 shots per game in the regular season; only Idaho had more.  They do wind up getting burned sometimes on the other end; they gave up an average of 31 shots a game (only two teams were worse).  If Omaha can spring an upset and make the Finals, it will likely be thanks to winning the penalty battle.  The Ashcats are absolutely lethal on the power play; their 25.4% conversion rate led the league by a wide margin.  Meanwhile, Idaho’s 79.9% penalty kill rate was dead last.  The Spuds will need to play smart and stay out of the penalty box if they’re going to avoid the upset and defend their title.

CHL Update: Ashcats Fan Makes Sacrifice for Luck

If the Omaha Ashcats are synonymous with a single person, it has to be superfan Karl Loesser (aka “Krazy Karl”).  Win or lose, Krazy Karl is there, most likely engaging in some wild stunt in support of the team he loves.

“Winning requires dedication and hard work,” he explains.  “That’s true if you’re a player, and it’s true if you’re a fan too.  You have to be willing to go the extra mile for your team.”

This year, the Ashcats have been competitive, but they’ve remained a frustrating few points out of playoff position for much of that time.  With the season reaching a critical stretch, Krazy Karl felt it was time for him to act.

“The hockey gods must be appeased,” as Loesser put it.  “Special measures are called for.”

Krazy Karl decided to make a sacrifice.  On Sunday, he and a group of fellow fans gathered outside the Ashcats’ arena, the Switching Yard.  Krazy Karl removed his Ashcats T-shirt and threw it on the ground, and invited the others to do the same.  Several of them did so.  The superfan then reached into his backpack and withdrew a stuffed model of Engineer Eddie, the team’s mascot, which he placed atop the pile of discarded shirts.

“Hockey gods, we call on you,” shouted Krazy Karl.  “We are the Omaha Ashcats, and to earn your favor, this cat will now become ashes.”

He then withdrew a stick lighter from his backpack and touched it to the pile, setting it ablaze.  As the fire built, the fans chanted “Fire! Fire! Fire!”

As the flames continued to rise, Krazy Karl turned on a boom box, which played “Disco Inferno” as the fans cheered.

“Accept our sacrifice, hockey gods, and bring us wins!” Krazy Karl concluded, thrusting his arms into the air.

It was an unorthodox approach, but it seems to have worked: Since the sacrifice, the Ashcats have gone 3-0-1 and moved into a tie for second place.  “Clearly, the hockey gods have deemed our sacrifice worthy,” said Krazy Karl.  “We have changed the energy around this team!”

The Omaha players themselves had mixed reactions about the action performed in their name.  “I’m as superstitious as the next guy,” said C Owen Griffin, “but they’re letting fans set fire to stuff in front of the stadium?  That sounds… kinda dangerous, really.” (Krazy Karl claims that he had a fire extinguisher on hand in case things went haywire.)

On the other hand, LW Cleo Rodgers regarded the sacrifice positively.  “Knowing that our fans are out there doing stuff like this for us, that makes you feel good,” he said.  Does he actually believe it can have an effect?  “Hey, I’ve got family from New Orleans, and they taught me to take that stuff seriously.  And at this point of the season, I’ll take all the good juju we can get.”

When D Melchior Okonseniak was informed of Krazy Karl’s actions, he paused for a moment.  “That’s the guy who runs through the aisles banging his drum and screaming at people to cheer?” When told that it was, Okonseniak smiled.  “Yes, that sounds like what he would do.”

CHL Update: Playoff Picture Clicks Into Place

The SHL’s minor league, the Continental Hockey League, wrapped up its regular season this week.  Both divisions weren’t resolved until the final week, with the wide-open, topsy-turvy East going down to the very last day.  As usual, the division series will be best-of-five, with the winners facing off in a best-of-seven Finals with the Howard Trophy at stake.  Here’s a preview of the first-round matchups:

Eastern Division

The defending champion Virginia Rhinos battled through a bumpy season.  Several of their key contributors from last season departed; Ds Rennie Cox and Blake Blacklett were called up by the parent Saskatchewan Shockers, while starting goalie Gus Parrish departed in free agency. The Rhinos suffered another blow when C Tanner Brooks, who was in the midst of a breakout season, was moved in a deadline trade.  But the Rhinos held on in the closely contested East (only seven points separated first place from last) and won their third straight division title.  As befits their just-above-.500 record, the Rhinos were in the middle of the pack this year on offense and GAA.  The secret to their success has been special team; both their power play (20.9% conversion rate) and penalty kill (85.1%) were second-best in the league.  Virginia also did a good job staying out of the penalty boxes; their 585 PIMs were the CHL’s fewest.  Even though they just squeaked into the postseason, the Rhinos are eager to defend their title and confident that their past experience will serve them well.  “We do not get scared in the big situations,” said LW Yuri Laronov, whose 29 goals led the team.  “This has all happened for us before.”

The Cleveland Centurions didn’t secure a spot in the postseason until the last day of the regular season, when they beat the Oshawa Drive 2-1 to leapfrog the Canadian club into second place.  Like their parent club, the Michigan Gray Wolves, the Centurions are built around defense and goaltending.  Cleveland allowed only 21.8 shots per game, the fewest in the league by far, and 19-year-old Eugene Looney (19-15-1, 1.84 GAA, .914 save percentage) had a breakout season in net.  They’ve also got some punch on offense, with a trio of 20-goal scorers in LW Fendrick Scanlan, C Phoenix Cage, and RW Steve Brandon.  And like the Rhinos, they excel on special teams; their 24.8% power-play percentage led the league, while their 84% penalty kill percentage was fourth.  In the end, though, Cleveland wins when they can bang bodies, control the neutral zone, and slow the pace of the game.  “We don’t play pretty hockey,” admitted D Burton Cullidge.  “But guess what?  Life ain’t pretty either.  Ugly and effective beats pretty and soft every time.”

 

Western Division

The Omaha Ashcats were the only CHL team to punch their playoff ticket last week, completing a worst-to-first turnaround that they celebrated memorably with their “World’s Smallest Playoff Parade.”  The Ashcats are a strong team at both ends of the ice; they had the third-most goals in the league and finished fourth in GAA.  They have one of the league’s best offensive defensemen in Brandon Lockwood (22 goals, 33 assists).  They don’t have any players on the offensive leaderboards, but they have a couple of quality scorers in RW Adriaen van der Veen (23 goals, 26 assists in 44 games) and LW Aaron Knorr (25 goals).  They have a pair of strong goalies in Bill Bates (22-8-2, 2.19 GAA, .920 save percentage) and rookie Jim Fleetwood (6-5-0, 2.16, .913).  Several of these players are likely to be called up to the parent Kansas City Smoke next season, so this season may have a bit of a last-dance quality for the squad.  “It’s been great for me watching this team grow up and grow together over the season,” said coach Butch Slazenger.  “Now I want to see us take the next step and go all the way to the title.”

Like the Ashcats, the Idaho Spuds sailed through most of the year in comfortable playoff position.  They cooled off a bit toward the end of the season, though, and ultimately had to withstand a late charge from the defending division champion Minnesota Freeze in order to clinch their postseason spot.  The Spuds’ success has been built on a potent offense.  They scored 233 goals this season, far and away the most in the league; their +65 plus-minus rating is by far the league’s best.  They have three of the CHL’s top 10 goal scorers (D Brady Prussian with 31 – tied for the league lead, C Dale Wilcox with 29, and LW Terry Cresson with 28) and three of the top 10 assist leaders (Wilcox with a league-leading 51, RW Dylan Alizarin with 47, and Cresson with 37).  Idaho’s firewagon style meant that they gave up a lot of shots (30.9 per game, second-most in the CHL), but they got strong work from netminders Kelvin White (20-16-4, 2.44, .917) and Xavier St. Pierre (12-9-1, 3.28, .901).  They’re especially dangerous on their own ice: their 22-7-3 mark at Treasure Valley Arena was the league’s best home record.  If there’s a big hole in their game, it’s the penalty kill; their 78.5% kill rate was second-worst in the league, and they took 699 penalty minutes, which is the third-highest.  They come into the postseason on a cold streak, having lost 7 of their last 11 games.  Like the Ashcats, there’s a good chance that several of these players will be toiling for the parent Dakota Jackalopes next season.  Coach Gilbert McCoyne believes that the Spuds’ high-powered offense will be too much for Omaha to handle.  “We’re a well-oiled scoring machine,” said McCoyne.  “When we’re on, nothing can slow us down.  I think we’ll just run past [the Ashcats] and bury ‘em in an avalanche of goals.”