Night’s Foster Calls Bliss “Soft”

New York Night coach Nick Foster, who has earned a reputation around the league for taking verbal jabs at opposing teams, seems to have identified a new target for this season: the Hershey Bliss.  New York traveled to Hershey to face the Bliss on Sunday.  After the Night sent the Bliss fans home unhappy with a 5-1 beatdown, Foster added insult to injury by firing some salvos at the Keystone club, accusing them of being soft.

Nick Foster

Foster wasted no time jabbing at the Bliss in his postgame press conference.  “Hey, I’ve got a mystery for you guys,” the coach told reports.  “Can anyone tell me how Hershey managed to luck into the Vandy two years ago?  All these old-time hockey types talk about how hard-nosed defense wins championships.  So how did a team like Hershey, who’s as soft as a roll of Charmin, manage to win one?  They must have bribed somebody.”

Pressed to elaborate, Foster cheerfully did so.  “I mean, look at who they’ve got.  Their top line is basically a boy band in skates.  Those cuties are afraid to muss up their hair, much less lose a tooth or get a black eye.  Their top blueliner [Reese Milton] plays with squirrels.  They had one guy who could fight worth a damn [Ruslan Gromov], but he retired.

“They’ll take a few cheap shots here and there, but challenge them to back it up, and they run and hide.  But if you so much as look cross-eyed at any of those cute little boy banders, they’ll cry and scream to the officials.”

Foster went on to claim that other teams shared his view of the Bliss.  “Everyone knows how soft they are.  Ask around the league, and people will tell you about it… off the record.  No one wants to say it on the record, because the league wants to make stars out of the boy-band cuties.  Apparently they think we can tap into the 12-year-old girl fanbase.  But I’ll say it out loud, even if no one else does.”

Justin Valentine

The Bliss responded with a few pokes of their own.  “I don’t know whether we bribed anybody or not, but I do know that we have a ring and [Foster] doesn’t,” said C Justin Valentine.  “And I know we worked and fought hard to get there.  Also, I don’t know why he keeps calling me ‘cute.’  I guess I’m flattered?”

“I’m mad that [Foster] seems to be biased against squirrel lovers,” said Milton.  “But if he or any of his players want to fight about it, I’m ready to go!”

“Everybody knows what Nick’s up to at this point, and I’m not interested in rolling around in the mud with him,” said Bliss coach Chip Barber.  “I’ll just say that there are plenty of fake tough guys out there, all talk and no action.  Our game is as smooth as melted couverture chocolate, and that’s how we like it.”

The New York coach went on to claim that his team now “owns” the Bliss, and predicted that his team will sweep the season series against Hershey.

“We’ve got plenty more games yet to come,” said Foster.  “It’s a long season, and it separates the men from the boys.  You’ll see.”

Continue reading “Night’s Foster Calls Bliss “Soft””

Kulkarov Finds Bliss in SHL

Nikolai Kulkarov

When Nikolai Kulkarov joined the SHL in 2016 as a draft pick of the Hershey Bliss, he was regarded as a promising prospect, a heavy hitter who also had the speed and agility to move the puck and contribute on offense.  He was also regarded as something of a mystery, a painfully shy young man who barely spoke English and spent most of his time either on the ice or in his apartment.

Now in his third season with the Bliss, Kulkarov hasn’t yet blossomed into the two-way star that some observers projected.  But he has blossomed considerably as a person.  His English is far from perfect, but he can now hold his own in conversations and interviews.  He’s also considerably more outgoing and free with his teammates.  According to the young blueliner, he owes his personal growth to a couple of men: teammate Ruslan Gromov… and Pat Sajak.

“I learn my English from ‘Wheel of Fortune,’” said Kulkarov.

In his first season with Hershey, the culture shock was nearly unbearable for Kulkarov.  “Everything is different in America,” said the young blueliner.  “Especially the big cities, like New York and Washington.  Hershey was smaller and more comfortable, but still difficult.  I was missing home very much.”  He hid in the shower after games to avoid questions from reporters.  His Bliss teammates tried to help by inviting him out to dinners and team gatherings, but Kulkarov almost always declined, afraid that he would be embarrassed by his limited English proficiency.  “I was scared I would say something dumb or mean by accident, and then they would hate me or not want me around,” he explained.

Instead, whenever he was not at practice or a game, Kulkarov stayed in his apartment or hotel room, reading Russian books and websites and listening to familiar songs from home, and calling his family for long and sad conversations.  “I thought very much about going home, maybe to the KHL,” the defenseman said.

Kulkarov might have given up and gone home if not for Gromov.  The veteran blueliner noticed the rookie’s reticence and began speaking to him in the clubhouse.  “He spoke to me in Russian and said, ‘Nik, I think maybe you are a shadow, because I only see you for games.’  He gave me the chance to talk to someone who understands.”  Kulkarov opened up about his homesickness, his anxiety about speaking English, and his difficulties adjusting to life in America.

“Ruslan said he would be my protector,” the defenseman said.  And Gromov proceeded to take Kulkarov under his wing.  He served as the young man’s unofficial translator, invited him out with small groups of teammates to get more comfortable, and gave him a suggestion to work on his English.

“He told me to watch television,” Kulkarov explained.  “Then I could hear English and learn to understand in private.”

So in addition to his twice-weekly English classes, the rookie started watching American TV shows for hours a day.  He quickly became a fan of “Wheel of Fortune.”  He was first drawn to the show by the bright and colorful set, but he soon became captivated by the show’s host, Sajak, and his easy banter with contestants.  “Pat looked very relaxed and comfortable,” said Kulkarov.  “He was cool.  I wanted to be cool too.”

So whenever Kulkarov found himself in an awkward situation or was struggling for a word, he tried to emulate Sajak’s cool.  “If I can be like Pat,” the defenseman said, “then I will not feel so uncomfortable.”

With Sajak’s example in mind, Kulkarov worked with Gromov to improve his speaking skills.  He practiced conversations and interviews with his teammate, and asked about things that he saw or heard that he didn’t understand.  “Ruslan was very patient with me,” said Kulkarov.  “Even if my question was dumb or I made silly mistake, he did not laugh or make fun.”

Today, Kulkarov is comfortable handling post-game interviews on his own, and he enjoys spending time with his teammates off the ice.  He still watches “Wheel of Fortune” when he can.  And he tries to pay forward the help that Gromov gave him.  When the Bliss drafted a Russian, C Yegor Nestorov, this season, Kulkarov took the young player under his wing.

“I want all players to know: life in America is not so scary,” said Kulkarov.  “There are many people here who will help you.  You do not have to be alone.”

2017 SHL Finals – Game 7

HERSHEY BLISS 4, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 3 (OVERTIME)

Coming into today’s winner-take-all Game 7, Hershey Bliss coach Chip Barber was honest about the challenge his team faced.  “It’s a heck of an assignment, that’s for sure,” said Barber.  “One game for all the marbles, on enemy ice, and we’re missing our top scorer,” Barber told reporters.  “How’s it going to come out?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that every man in here is going to give everything he has to win it.  We’re not holding anything back, because there is no tomorrow.”

In order to dramatize the stakes of the game, Barber placed a bag of marbles in every locker in the visiting locker room.  “This is it, we’re playing for all the marbles,” the coach told his players.  “And I know you’re all ready to go all in for the victory.”  One by one, each player stepped to the center of the room and tossed their marbles into a big bucket with the Bliss logo on it.

Next, injured captain Justin Valentine stepped up.  “I’m not going to be able to win it for us out there today,” Valentine said.  “So I need you guys to go out there and win it for me.  I’ve got total faith in everybody on this team.  I know you’ve got what it takes to win this one.  Let’s do it!”  Valentine then pulled out his iPhone and cued up the ’90s pop song “Tubthumping” by Chumbawumba, with its inspiring refrain “I get knocked down, but I get up again/You’re never gonna keep me down.”

“Maybe it was a little hokey,” admitted the captain, “but it put us in the right mood for the game.”

It definitely seems to have worked, as Hershey managed to eke out a 4-3 win in overtime to stun the Anchorage Igloos and win their first Vandy.

“We’ve been counted out so many times,” said Bliss LW Lance Sweet.  “But nobody in here ever gave up, nobody ever lost hope.  We believed in ourselves, and that carried us through.”

Hershey certainly could have lost hope after the first period, when the Igloos scored twice.  LW Les Collins got Anchorage on the board 10:31 into the game with a shot from the half-wall that snuck in under Bliss goalie Brandon Colt‘s armpit.  Then with 30 seconds left in the period, the Igloos got set up in Hershey’s end, and LW Jerry Koons deflected a shot past Colt to make it 2-0.  The crowd at Arctic Circle Arena roared its approval, thinking the game was in the bag.

“That was a real gut-check moment for us,” said C Henry Constantine.  “We knew we were about to let it slip out of our grasp.”

But Anchorage switched to a defensive, trapping style in the second period and they succeeded in slowing the game down and frustrating Hershey’s attempts to generate offensive momentum.  As the minutes ticked away, Anchorage’s two-goal lead loomed larger and larger.  The Bliss needed a hero.  True to the tenor of this series, help came from an unexpected source.

When Hershey acquired LW Vonnie McLearen at the deadline, they hoped he would give them the offensive jolt they needed to take the division title.  The deal didn’t quite work out as expected; McLearen struggled to mesh with his new teammates and managed only 2 goals and 10 points in 21 games with the Bliss.  He was a non-factor through the first six games of the Finals, failing to record a point and skating anonymously on a third line that achieved virtually nothing in its limited ice time.

But when the Bliss needed a spark in today’s game, it was McLearen who provided it, scoring a pair of goals in the span or 80 seconds to tie the game and stun the Anchorage crowd.  When three and a half minutes left in the second period, Hershey finally achieved sustained ice time in the offensive zone.  After failing to find a good look at the net in several tries, D Ruslan Gromov fired a hard slapper well wide of the net.  But McLearen shook free of his defender and deflected the puck past Igloos goalie Riley Lattimore.  Hershey was on the board at last.

But McLearen wasn’t finished.  Just over a minute later, the Bliss managed to break the Anchorage press, springing McLearen on an odd-man rush with linemates Sven Danielsen and Lee Fleming.  Danielsen headed for the net, faked a hard slapshot, then flipped the puck back to McLearen, who found the upper left corner of the net to make it 2-2.

“Just like that, it was like somebody pulled the plug on the crowd,” said Constantine.

Early in the third period, a visibly frustrated Igloos team committed three straight penalties, putting themselves on the defensive for the first several minutes, including a 5-on-3 situation for over a minute.  Anchorage managed to surivive the two-man deficit, but were still on the penalty kill when the Bliss took their first lead of the game.  D Nikolai Kulkarov, on a feed from – who else? – McLearen, fired a shot from the blue line that beat a screened Lattimore.

Igloos coach Sam Castor was sharply critical of his team’s play during the opening minutes of the third period.  “That was the only time in the series when we really fell down,” said Castor.  “We let the game get into our heads, and we played dumb hockey.  That isn’t like us, and it cost us.”

Kulkarov’s goal seemed to snap the Igloos out of their funk.  On the ensuing faceoff, Bliss D Pierre Chappelle took a double-minor for spearing Collins, and Anchorage cashed in on the power play.  C Derek Humplik tied it up with a laser from the top of the right faceoff circle.  The score brought the crowd back to life, and seemed to spur both teams on.  The second half of the third period was intense, as both teams went flat-out, setting up golden chances and making amazing stops.  Kulkarov fired up his team with a series of shot blocks that left him visibly pained but kept the Igloos from scoring the go-ahead goal.  On the other end, Lattimore made several brilliant stops, earning a round of stick taps from his teammates.

After 60 minutes, the game remained tied.  Sudden-death overtime is one of the most nerve-wracking experiences in sports, and when it occurs in a deciding game, the tension ratchets even higher.  Both squads were running on fumes and adrenaline in the extra session.  “I think we were all dead on our skates at that point,” said Sweet.  “The only thing that kept us going was the stakes of the game.”

Perhaps fortunately for both sides, overtime didn’t last long.  Just over three minutes in, RW Tyler Cloude turned the puck over in the offensive end.  Danielsen corraled it and flung a head man pass to Fleming, who found McLearen on a breakaway.  The winger streaked toward the Anchorage net, deked a shot toward the right post, then slid it under a sprawling Lattimore for the winning goal.  McLearen celebrated his hat trick by collapsing to the ice and sliding into the boards, before bouncing up and into the arms of his teammates.

“It was a real mountaintop moment,” said Sweet.  “It’s the highest I’ve ever been in my life.”

Before the Bliss retired to the locker to spray each other with champagne and chocolate syrup, they shook hands with the Igloos and then received the Vandy from Commissioner Perry Mitchell.  The commissioner called Hershey the “never-say-die team” and added, “You showed the skeptics just what an incredible team you are, and you proved that you have the heart of a champion.”

There was no question who would get to take the ceremonial first lap with the trophy.  Valentine took his time skating around the ice, both to avoid aggravating his injured leg and to soak in the moment as long as he could.

“We went through a lot to get here,” said the captain as tears rolled down his cheek.  “Finally, we made it!”

Continue reading “2017 SHL Finals – Game 7”

2017 SHL Finals – Game 4

ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 2, HERSHEY BLISS 1

Coming into today’s pivotal Game 4, Anchorage Igloos coach Sam Castor insisted that it was not a must-win game for his team.  “Look, we’ve got to break serve,” Castor told reporters before the game.  “We know that.  They won one in our barn, so we have to win one in their barn.  What order we do it in doesn’t matter, as long as we do win one.”

Despite Castor’s statement, the coach must have been relieved that his team was able to prevail over the Hershey Bliss in a close contest, 2-1, and tie the series at two games apiece.  “Really good to see the boys take care of business today,” said the Igloos coach.  “I think this one really swung the series in our favor.”

After a couple of slower-paced, defensive games, the Igloos turned on the jets and dominated possession of the puck, outshooting Hershey 41-23.  “We hadn’t had a game yet this series where we’ve really been in control,” said C Jake Frost.  “This time, we were able to dictate the play.”

Although they were able to dominate the puck, the Igloos weren’t able to run away with the game thanks to the heroics of Bliss goalie Brandon Colt.  The Hershey netminder made a number of dazzling saves to keep the game close.  In the first two periods, the Igloos were only able to pierce Colt once, when D Dave Frederick put a rebound just inside the right post with five and a half minutes left in the first period.  The score would have been much higher if not for multiple acrobatic saves by Colt, as he bounced around the crease and made save after save.

“Colter was like Inspector Gadget out there,” said Bliss C Henry Constantine.  “Anytime there was a shot that looked like it was going in, he’d shoot out his arm or his leg and make a crazy stop.  He was keeping us in it.”

Bliss RW Christopher Hart tied the game eight minutes into the third period by whistling a shot just underneath Igloos goalie Ty Worthington‘s left pad.  The crowd at Chocolate Center came alive, and on the visiting bench, the Igloos became agitated.

“We felt like we’d been getting the better end of the play, but it wasn’t showing up on the scoreboard,” said Anchorage C Nile Bernard.  “We felt like the next goal was going to win it, and we had to make sure it was us.”

Bernard was right; the next goal did decide the game, and the Igloos got it.  The winning tally came from a somewhat unlikely source.  LW Ben Summers arrived in Anchorage this season as a free agent, and he quickly became a favorite among fans and teammates alike as a quality third-line contributor.  But the top line has driven the action for both teams in this series, so few were expecting Summers to be the difference-maker.  But with less than five minutes remaining in the game, he deflected a shot from RW Tyler Cloude past Colt for the go-ahead tally.  There were some anxious moments for Anchorage while the referees reviewed the goal, since Hershey argued that Summers had played the puck with a high stick.  But after review, the goal was upheld, and the Igloos celebrated.

“Benny really came through for us,” said Frost.  “Just like he’s come through us all year.”

It was another physical game, with Bliss D Ruslan Gromov drawing the ire of some on the Anchorage bench after getting into his third fight in the last two games, this time going after LW Les Collins.  Castor indicated that he thought the league should consider suspending Gromov, because “he’s not playing hockey out there.  He’s trying to turn this series into a street fight.”  He paused, then added with a smile, “Of course, we’ve got the upper hand, so we’re not going to press the point.”

Do the Igloos really have the upper hand in a tied series?  Hershey coach Chip Barber reacted to Castor’s confident talk with a smirk.  “Sam’s a sly one, I’ll give him that,” said Barber.  “He’s walking around like M&Ms wouldn’t melt in his mouth.  But he’s more nervous than he lets on.  This is a wide-open series, and anyone can win it.  He can’t talk that away.”

Continue reading “2017 SHL Finals – Game 4”

2017 SHL Finals – Game 3

HERSHEY BLISS 1, ANCHORAGE IGLOOS 0

If you’d had to identify the weak link for the Hershey Bliss coming into the SHL Finals, odds are you would have pointed between the pipes.  Critics of the Bliss frequently argue that Brandon Colt is not an elite goaltender, and that he wouldn’t be able to handle a top-notch offensive squad like the Anchorage Igloos.  And after Colt was beaten 5-1 in Game 1, it looked like the critics were right.

Since then, though, Colt has been brilliant — and that’s proven essential in a series that has proven to be lower scoring than expected.  After holding Anchorage to a single goal in Hershey’s Game 2 win, Colt was even better today.  He stopped all 34 shots he faced, allowing the Bliss to claim a 1-0 win and a 2-1 lead in the series.

“I knew Brandon would bounce back after that first game, but even I never expected him to stand on his head like he has the last two games,” said Bliss coach Chip Barber.  “Getting the kind of performance we’ve got from him is like finding an extra chocolate bar in your pocket.”

For his part, Colt credits his success to staying calm and focused.  “I’ve been studying meditation and mindfulness,” said Colt.  “In the chaos and energy of a playoff game, you need to be able to find that stillness and quietness inside yourself.  I’ve really been able to pull that off in the last couple games.”

This game was more physical than the previous one, with the Igloos setting a hard-hitting tone and Hershey responding in kind.  The first period was a bit rough, with each team taking a pair of minor penalties and neither establishing much of an offensive rhythm.  “I think we were both playing a little cautious,” said Igloos D Ted Keefe.  “Feeling each other out a bit.”

The pace of play opened up a bit in the second period, with both teams getting several quality chances but failing to light the lamp, as Colt and Igloos netminder Ty Worthington both made stupendous saves.  Later on in the period, the chippiness and ferocity of the game boiled over, with Bliss D Ruslan Gromov and Igloos D Olaf Martinsson dropping the gloves and trading blows.  “That was a real heavyweight bout,” said Hershey LW Russell Nahorniak.  “Just a couple of big boppers going at it.  Real old-school stuff.”

The Bliss managed to kill off a couple of minor penalties in the penalties with the help of some ten-bell saves from Colt.  After two periods, the game remained scoreless.

The game became even more physical in the third, as Anchorage tried to knock Hershey off their game.  But the Bliss stood firm and gave as good as they got.  “We can hang with whatever kind of game you want to throw at us,” said Bliss D Reese Milton.  “You want to fly up and down and play firewagon hockey, we can do that.  You want to bang bodies and play it rough, we can do that too.”

The minutes ticked off the clock, and still the game remained 0-0.  That changed after Igloos D Tony Citrone was hit with a minor penalty for holding the stick.  On the ensuing power play, Hershey C Justin Valentine crashed the net and deflected a shot past a screened Worthington for a goal that brought the Chocolate Center to ecstasy.

As the second half of the period wore on, Gromov got into another scrap, getting into it with Citrone.  Anchorage argued that Gromov started the fight and should have received an instigator penalty, if not being ejected entirely.  Instead, both players got matching minors, drawing howls of protest from the Igloos bench.  D Hans Mortensen continued to jaw with the officials until he was finally whistled for unsportsmanlike conduct.  That forced Anchorage to kill off a penalty in the waning minutes of the game, which irritated Igloos coach Sam Castor.

“You never want to see the refs decide the game,” said Castor.  “Calling a penalty like that, that late in the game… that’s inserting yourself into the story, and I don’t think that’s right.”

After Mortensen’s penalty expired with less than two minutes remaining, the Igloos launched an all-out assault on the Hershey net.  But Colt came up strong again, and the Bliss caught a break when C Jake Frost rang a slapper off the post with 45 seconds left.

With the Bliss holding a surprise lead in the series, Valentine urged his team to keep the pressure on.  “Let’s keep our foot on the gas and see if we can close this out at home,” Valentine urged his teammates.  “We can’t let [the Igloos] off the mat.  They’re too good.”

Castor remains confident that his team can turn the series around.  “The last two games could have gone either way,” the Anchorage coach told reporters.  “It so happens that they both went the other way, but we won’t let that get us down.  We’re still the better team.”

Continue reading “2017 SHL Finals – Game 3”

Hershey’s Gromov Gets Physical, Gets Suspended

Hershey Bliss D Ruslan Gromov is an old-school, hard-hitting blueliner.  His aggressive, take-no-guff approach to the game has won him both admirers and detractors.  On Saturday, in an otherwise unremarkable 5-2 win over the New York Night, Gromov’s physical play went over the line and earned him a one-game suspension.

Ruslan Gromov

Gromov has been vocal about his lack of respect for New York’s speed-and-offense-based game.  In the past, he’s said of New York’s game, “That’s not hockey; it’s figure skating.”  Almost from the drop of the puck, Gromov sought to intimidate the Night with his physical play.  He targeted one of New York’s more physical players, D Tuomas Nurmi, with a series of slashes and rough checks.  About a minute into the game, a frustrated Nurmi shoved Gromov in the chest.  Gromov responded by punching Nurmi in the side of the head.  The two wound up dropping gloves and tussling for a couple minutes before being separated and assessed matching majors.

“I do not know what his problem is,” said Nurmi of Gromov.  “He seemed like he is a crazy man.”

Later in the first period, the Night established possession in the offensive zone and began peppering shots at the Hershey net.  New York F Elmer Sigurdson, Jr. tried to set up a screen in front of the crease.  Gromov responded by drilling him in the back and riding him down to the ice, and was whistled for interference.

Early in the second period, Sigurdson tried to get even by laying a hard open-ice hit on Gromov.  The Hershey defenseman popped up and flung Sigurdson into the boards, earning another two-minute penalty for roughing.  The two seemed destined to scrap, and six minutes later, Gromov jumped Sigurdson on a faceoff and the antagonists began trading blows, resulting in another pair of fighting majors.

Gromov finally crossed the line early in the third period, when he rammed Night C Phil Miller in the stomach with the butt end of his stick.  That earned the defenseman a double minor for spearing and a game misconduct from referee Brandon Fosse.

Gromov claimed that his spearing of Miller was unintentional, but showed no remorse for his actions.  “I play a physical game,” the Bliss blueliner said.  “If the other team cannot handle that, they should not be playing hockey.”

The league wasted no time slapping Gromov with a suspension.  “While we don’t object to physical play in this league,” said SHL Commissioner Perry Mitchell, “there’s a difference between hard play and assault.  Gromov’s actions were reckless, unprovoked, and dangerous.  He could easily have injured someone with that kind of play.  We don’t want to discourage him from playing hard, but he’s got to know where to draw the line.”

Gromov appeared undaunted by the discipline.  In his first game back from the suspension, he got into two fights and racked up 12 penalty minutes.  “I only know how to play one way,” said Gromov with a shrug. “I cannot change that.”