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”