“We are one of the most elite organizations in this league. Unfortunately, most people don’t recognize that because of our record.”
- New York Night GM Royce McCormick
“We are one of the most elite organizations in this league. Unfortunately, most people don’t recognize that because of our record.”
The New York Night announced this week that they hired Nick Foster as their new coach for the 2017 season. Foster replaces Preston Rivers, who was fired after two seasons of disappointing results on-ice and tremendous dysfunction off of it.
“It’s no secret that we have high aspirations as an organization,” said New York GM Royce McCormick. “We want to be a championship organization, and we think Nick is the guy to get us there. He’s got the qualities that we were looking for: he’s smart, tough, and he knows the game inside out. There’s no limit to how far he can take us.”
Sources close to the organization say that the Night strongly preferred a veteran coach, and Foster definitely fits the bill, with over 15 years of experience coaching at a variety of levels, from college to junior to the minor leagues. “This isn’t my first rodeo,” said Foster. “I know we’ve got some work to do, but that doesn’t scare me.”
Foster has a reputation as a turnaround artist; at several stops, he’s taken poor and struggling teams and turned them into contenders. “He’s a guy who knows how to get results, and quickly,” said McCormick. “That’s exactly what I want to see.”
Foster was coy about setting expectations at the press conference. When asked if he thought the Night would make the Finals this season, the new coach replied with a grin, “I’m not going to make any guarantees. That’s a good way to get run out of town in a hurry. But we’re going to be competitive, and we’re going to win sooner than later. That’s why I love New York; it’s a winner’s town.”
The Night certainly expected to be competitive under Rivers, and the coach never shied away from boasting about his team’s prowess. But New York’s grand ambitions crumbled into a wreck of poor defense, inconsistent effort, and internal dissension. Several players took public shots at their teammates and Rivers, with star RW Rick “The Stick” Nelson even bolting the team in the final week of the season.
Foster acknowledged that repairing the Night’s toxic clubhouse is a priority. “Obviously, things got out of control here last year, and that can’t happen again,” said Foster. “I want to get us focused on winning and working together. I’ve always found that it’s a lot easier to keep everybody happy when you win.”
Asked if he planned to seek trades for any noted troublemakers, Foster said, “Nah. Not right away. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve all got a clean slate with me. Everybody’s got a chance to get on board with what we’re doing.”
Along with Foster, the Night introduced new assistant coach Biff Lombardi, replacing Cam Prince. Lombardi was reportedly a finalist for the head job as well. Lombardi has been an assistant for almost 20 seasons, primarily in the minor leagues. He is known for his defensive instruction, and he hopes to address the team’s defensive issues.
“Look, let’s be honest: this team is never going to be Michigan in terms of defense,” Lombardi said. “That’s not our identity. But if we can make more of an effort, police our own end better, that goes a long way. We don’t have to turn into a bunch of grinders and trappers, but we need to make that effort. I’m OK with winning 5-4, but we can’t give up 5 or 6 goals a game and expect to win.”
New York players responded positively to the hirings of Foster and Lombardi. “Nick Foster seems like a good guy and a serious, professional guy,” said Nelson. “He’s not going to be out glossing himself all the time. He’s into winning, and that’s what we’re into too. Let’s do this.”
In a move that comes as a surprise to few, the New York Night fired coach Preston Rivers. The move came at the end of a season of acrimony and disappointment, as the Night slogged to another mediocre season and an enormous and public rift developed between the coach and several key players.
“The only shocker was that he made it all the way to the end of the season,” said one player.
Rivers finishes his New York career with a record of 54-61-5, not nearly good enough for an organization that makes no secret of its lofty aspirations. Night GM Royce McCormick focused on the record as the prime driver behind the firing of Rivers. “Our goal is championships, nothing less,” said McCormick. “Preston failed to deliver on that expectation, so we decided it was time for a new voice to get to that next level.”
According to team sources, though, Rivers’ record wasn’t the real cause f0r the dismissal; rather, it was the fact that New York’s star players were increasingly open in their disdain for the coach. It started in midseason, when D Tuomas Nurmi claimed that Night players were being harassed as payback for Rivers’ boasting and taunting. Later in the season, RW Rick “The Stick” Nelson bashed his coach and called for him to be fired. The feud ultimately escalated to the point that Nelson and Rivers nearly came to blows in the locker room, after which the star winger left the team for three games. It took McCormick’s intervention to get Nelson to rejoin the team.
The situation went from bad to worse over the final week of the season. The entire team boycotted a mandatory practice on Monday as a show of no confidence in Rivers. The coach stopped addressing the team in the locker room before or after games, preferring to lock himself in his office. RW Daniel Bellanger went home to Montreal with two games left in the season. G “Jersey Mike” Ross refused to take the ice for the final two games, although he did attend the games. And the entire team just went through the motions in the last game, a 6-4 loss to struggling Saskatchewan.
The team announced the firing while Rivers and the Night were still in Saskatoon. Rivers did not fly back to New York with the team, avoiding a potentially awkward situation.
Predictably, the coach went down swinging. “I know everyone’s thinking they’ve seen the last of me,” Rivers told reporters. “But they’d better think again. You can’t keep a good man down, and you sure as hell can’t keep this man down. I’ll be back, unless I go to work for Mr. Trump’s administration. Either way, you haven’t heard the last of me.”
The New York Night tried to roll out some new merchandise for their fans to buy this holiday season. Instead, they wound up producing an embarrassing gaffe.
Early in the season, the Night’s marketing department got the idea to debut a new slogan in midseason, just in time for holiday shopping. The team held a press conference on Monday at which they unveiled the slogan: “Big-time hockey. Big-time city.” As New York GM Royce McCormick explained, “Everyone knows that New York is the greatest city in the world. The lights are brighter here, the stage is bigger. This is where the heroes shine brightest. Our slogan reflects that. This is the place where the action is.”
At the next home game following the press conference, the team stores were filled with T-shirts, sweatshirts, baseball caps, and winter hats, all emblazoned with the new slogan. The merchandise proved to be a hit at first, as fans snapped up the new merch.
Within a day or so, however, reports began trickling in that there was a problem. Specifically, the slogan. Fans took a closer look at their new duds and discovered that the word “hockey” was misspelled (it was rendered as “hocky”).
Fans began taking pictures of the mistaken merch and posting messages on Twitter and Instagram. “Big-time hocky. Small-time spell check” read one. Another said “Hey @NYNight: can’t you even spell the sport you play???” Another disgusted fan tweeted, “typical – same team that thought Remington would win the division for them can’t get their holiday merch right. way to go!”
The Night hastily pulled the new merchandise from the shelves, and the team issued a statement saying that any fans who brought back the items would receive a full refund and a 10% discount on any other merchandise.
“There’s no other way to say it: We screwed up,” admitted McCormick. “We apologize to any of our fans who are inconvenienced by it.”
McCormick said that the Night were working with the supplier to get corrected merch on the shelves by Thanksgiving, but that the supplier hadn’t committed to a timetable yet.
During the Night’s home game on Friday against Washington, fans launched several sarcastic chants of “Big-Time Hockey.” After New York lost 5-2, several fans tossed their misspelled merchandise on the ice.
Asked about the fiasco, Night coach Preston Rivers snapped, “That’s not my department. I’m not responsible for the marketing operation here, and I’m sure some intern already got fired over this. Game questions only.”
RW Rick “The Stick” Nelson, on the other hand, didn’t hesitate to weigh in. “That’s so typical of this franchise,” Nelson said. “Grand plans, crappy execution.”
On paper, the New York Night are in decent shape at the season’s halfway point. They have one of the most powerful offenses in the league, particularly their high-scoring top line. They’ve combined that potent attack with just enough defense and goaltending to be competitive in most games. They remain within striking distance in the struggling East.
But games aren’t played on paper, and at ice level, things aren’t looking good for the Night. The team has gone into a skid over the last couple weeks, dropping their last seven in a row. Not only that, but there’s friction in the locker room as well, as one of the team’s stars publicly attacked the coach this week.
The comments were made by D Tuomas Nurmi, arguably New York’s top defenseman. He is strong offensively (being in the Top 5 in the SHL in assists) and, unlike many Night players, is also solid in his own end. Nurmi’s excellent play this year has been key to the Night’s relative success early in the season.
However, observers have noticed a curious trend in recent weeks: Nurmi has gotten into a lot of fights lately. In the last 11 games, the defenseman has racked up six fighting majors, including three this week alone. League observers found this odd, as Nurmi doesn’t have a reputation as an enforcer and almost never starts fights. After Friday’s 4-3 loss to Dakota, in which Nurmi got into yet another tussle, a reporter asked him about it. Nurmi’s response was an indictment of coach Preston Rivers as well as his teammates.
“I don’t like fighting,” said Nurmi, “but I will do it when I must.” He then explained that other teams frequently harassed the Night, and implied that Rivers’ regular boasting and taunting was to blame. “We have a coach who acts like a bully,” said Nurmi. “He is always shouting about how great he is and how bad the other teams are, and it paints a target on our backs. Some teams are good enough to get away with this boasting, but we are not.”
Nurmi added that he found himself in so many fights because his teammates refused to do it. “Other teams push us around and wait for a response,” said Nurmi. “Everyone looks down and runs away, so they keep doing it. I must fight back, because someone must stand up.”
Nurmi said that as long as Rivers is coach, “we will be targeted. And as long as no one else will stand up, I will continue to fight. I am taking the punches that other teams want to throw at our coach.”
Predictably, Rivers expressed no remorse and showed no signs of backing down when told of Nurmi’s comments. “Everybody wants to take a shot at the king,” said Rivers. “When you play in a market like New York, it comes with the territory. Being a New Yorker means being willing to scrap. Tuomas gets that, and more power to him. I wish more of our guys did.”
The coach’s bravado notwithstanding, Nurmi’s comments are the latest sign that Rivers’ act is starting to wear thin in the Night locker room. LW Chase Winchester implicitly agreed with Nurmi, saying, “There’s no doubt that we take a lot of garbage from other teams, and I know the things Coach Rivers says are a part of that. We know that it’s sort of a heel act to some degree, to get us fired up, but other teams don’t see it like that.” When asked if life would be easier for the Night if Rivers toned down his public comment, Winchester chuckled and said, “Gee, ya think? He won’t. He is who he is.”
Night GM Royce McCormick stood behind Rivers in a statement, saying, “We’re confident that we have a championship organization, and that Preston Rivers is the man to run it. The organization remains confident in him and the success yet to come.”
But if the Night stumble to a mediocre finish and Rivers’ mouth continues to cause problems for the players, will that change? According to an anonymous player, the coach may already have lost the team. “We all know that he’s a carnival barker,” said the player. “He’s always running his mouth and getting his name in the paper. We’ve learned to tune it out, but Tuomas is right: we wind up paying for what he says.”
In the meantime, will any of Nurmi’s teammates stand up and fight with him? “I hope so,” said the defenseman. “My hands are becoming too sore.”
The other deadline deal – completed about an hour after the Hamilton-Dakota trade – involved, oddly, two teams competing against one another. The New York Night and Hershey Bliss are both struggling to catch up with the Washington Galaxy in the East, but they have complementary weaknesses: New York’s defense is virtually non-existent, while Hershey has struggled to light the lamp. Therefore, the Bliss and Night rolled the dice on a deal that improved themselves as well as their strongest rival.
“When we’d finally worked out the terms of the deal, I think we both took a deep breath,” said New York GM Royce McCormick. “Sort of like, ‘Yeah, this makes me better, but is it gonna help them beat us out?’ I said, ‘Okay, this is the trade. Sure you want to do this?’ There was a beat at the other end, then, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’” Hershey shipped D Vitaly Dyomin and F Glenn Reichler to New York in exchange for winger Lee Fleming and D Alvin Catlett.
In Dyomin, the Night pick up a rugged stay-home defender who instantly becomes the hardest hitter in their blue-line corps. “Everyone knows we like high-flying firewagon hockey, but we’ve had to be honest with ourselves,” said McCormick. “We realized that we need a little more grit if we’re going to make a run at this. Vitaly’s a grinder, but he’s also a capable puck-handler (3 assists in 37 games) who will fit well into our offense.”
Meanwhile, in Fleming, the Bliss add a scoring winger (7 goals, 3 assists in 35 games) who can slot in on the second or third line, hopefully providing some badly-needed offense on those line. “Lee’s a veteran guy with a polished game,” said Hershey GM Scott Lawrence. “He can create his own shot, or he can facilitate for our other guys.”
For New York, the hope is that Dyomin’s added defense can help sustain the Night’s recent winning streak and allow them to take out Washington. For Hershey, about to get a huge offensive upgrade in the return of LW Lance Sweet from a lengthy injury, coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber is betting that the Bliss will develop a newfound scoring surge that will help the team shoot up the standings.
The primary question is whether the deal comes too late for both clubs. New York has spent much of the season floundering at the bottom of the East; even with their recent winning run, they remain below .500 and trail Washington by 11 points. As for Hershey, they have plummeted in the standings in Sweet’s absence, and even a late streak might not be enough to catch the Galaxy.
“We’ve got to get everyone back healthy and take our best shot,” said Barber. “The rest will sort itself out.”