“I don’t what Ron’s going to do now that he’s not coaching. Maybe he’ll go home and yell at his flowers until they grow.”
In recent seasons, the trend of individual goal songs has been spreading throughout hockey. Most NHL and SHL teams have an anthem that they play when their team scores, but now some teams are playing specific songs when certain players score. The Hamilton Pistols are the latest team to join that bandwagon, and it’s proven delightful to their fans… and annoying to their opponents.
The Pistols front office discussed the idea of individual goal songs during the offseason. They decided to start small, with an individual song only for their top scorer, Steven Alexander. “Alex is a generational talent, so if anyone deserves to have a special song, it’s him,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.
After discussing the idea with Alexander and considering some possible choices, the team ultimately settled on a techno remix of “Scotland the Brave.” (Alexander is of Scottish descent.) “It was the perfect mix: distinctive, energetic, and fun,” said GM Marcel LaClaire.
The Pistols rolled out the song at the home opener, and it quickly proved to be a hit. The song’s tempo and the quirkiness of the bagpipes were an infectious and irresistible combination for the fans. Several Hamilton diehards dubbed themselves “Clan Alexander,” and now come to the arena dressed in red-and-black plaid kilts and tams, and play “air bagpipes” whenever their hero scores.
So far, so good. But the song was such a hit that the team also began playing it as a third-period rally song. The song is accompanied by a cartoon of a kilt-clad Alexander clubbing opponents to death with his hockey stick. Naturally, the fans responded raucously to the prompt, raising the decibel level within Gunpowder Armory to deafening levels. This tidal wave of noise drew the ire of Anchorage Igloos coach Sam Castor this week.
In the third period of Tuesday’s game, the Igloos trailed the Pistols 4-3, but Anchorage went on the power play with less than two minutes left and a chance to tie things up. Castor called time out to discuss strategy with his team. Unfortunately, he found himself completely drowned out by the music and the roar of the crowd. The Igloos failed to score on the ensuing power play, and wound up losing the game.
“I’m trying to get my team on the same page for a critical PK, and I can’t even hear the words coming out of my mouth,” fumed Castor after the game. “I’m used to loud music and screaming fans, but this was another level. I ought to be able to have a strategy session with my team without having to use sign language.”
Castor claimed to have measured the sound level using an app on his phone; he said that it exceeded 130 decibels, roughly the same as a jet engine during takeoff.
Initially, the team blew off the complaint. “What, are our fans cheering too loud for you?” said Shields when informed of Castor’s remarks. After talking to the league office, however, the Pistols apologized and said they would lower the volume on the song somewhat.
“We’re not wanting to deafen anybody,” said LaClaire. “We just want everybody to have a fun time. But never fear, ‘Scotland the Brave’ is here to stay.”
Coming up to the midpoint of the season, the Anchorage Igloos expected to be comfortably anchored in a playoff spot. After a dreadful start to the season, the Igloos got onto their usual hot streak, and expected to keep the positive momentum rolling right into another Western Division title. But over the last three weeks, Anchorage has gone into a slump, winning only 2 of their last 11 games. Now, at the All-Star break, the Igloos are just barely above the .500 mark. If the season ended today, they would miss the postseason for the first time since 2016.
“Obviously, we’re not playing up to our expectations right now,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor. “There are definitely some areas of our game that we need to tighten up.”
Over the last week and a half, the Western clubs have traveled to the East for the first time this season. The road trip has been a fiasco for Anchorage. It began well enough, with a 3-1 win over Boston. But they haven’t won since. Their next four games were each agonizing one-goal losses. They managed to salvage a point on Saturday by tying Quebec 2-2, but in the process, they blew a two-goal lead in the third period.
“I feel like we’re getting some good looks, but we’re not getting the puck luck,” said LW Les Collins. “It’s frustrating.”
The numbers back up Collins’ statement. They’re continuing to generate as many shots as usual, but their shooting percentage has plummeted during their recent slump. Before they hit their current skid, Anchorage was converting over 10% of their shots; in the last two weeks, they’ve managed to score on just 6.3% of them. They had been averaging 4 goals per game; it’s been almost two weeks since they’ve scored that many in a game.
Their shooting drought has been paired with a smaller but significant dip on defense; together, it adds up to their current 2-6-3 slide.
One of the chief culprits of the team’s shooting woes, C Jake Frost, has been mired in a season-long slump. Thus far, he has only 11 goals on the season, just over half as many as he had at this point last season. Not coincidentally, his shooting percentage for the year is only 9.3%, about half his normal rate. He has fewer goals than second-line center Tom Hoffman, who arrived in Anchorage as a reclamation project in the offseason.
“I don’t know what the problem is,” said Frost. “I know defenses overload on me a lot, but they always have. I’m glad that we’ve got other guys who can carry the load, but I can’t help but feel responsible for the way we’re struggling right now.”
Overall, though, the Igloos don’t seem alarmed about their current predicament. “We’re not going to hit the panic button because we’re one point out of a playoff spot at the halfway point,” said Castor. “We’ve got a battle-tested group here, and we’ve overcome tough times before. We just have to get back to playing the way we know how.”
But the young and frisky Shockers, powered by the off-kilter of their “Ministry of Fun,” don’t intend to make it easy on the Igloos. The second half is shaping up to be an epic battle.
In recent seasons, the Anchorage Igloos have mastered the art of the slow start. For the last three years, the Igloos have stumbled out of the gate, prompting a round of stories about whether the team’s reign at the top of the Western Division was finally over.
In 2018, the Igloos were 12-13-0 at the end of the season’s fifth week. Last year, Anchorage got off to a dreadful 3-6-3 start and were still mired in fourth place with a sub-.500 mark as late as Week 5. But shortly thereafter, the Igloos took off on runs that quickly re-established them in their usual perch in the standings. In both seasons, the Igloos reached the SHL Finals, in ’18, they won their second Vandy.
This season, the Igloos’ season-opening swoon was their worst yet. After losing 7-3 to the Portland Bluebacks last Sunday, Anchorage’s record stood at 2-7-0. It was the worst record in the league, the first time that the Igloos had ever earned that dubious distinction. The roster underwent significant turnover before this season, and the West’s other teams have been growing stronger by the season. Was this the year that the Igloos were finally done as a contender?
And then, right on schedule, they turned things around. Saturday’s wild 8-7 win over the Washington Galaxy was the Igloos’ seventh win in a row. They’ve lifted themselves out of the basement all the way into a tie for second in the West.
There’s plenty of time left in the season, but given the history, odds are that the Igloos will once again finish with one of the league’s best records. So what’s with the lackluster starts? Veteran D Ted Keefe thinks he knows the answer, and he doesn’t like it.
Keefe spoke to reporters after Saturday’s victory about the team’s tortoise-like starts. He argued that because the team is so accustomed to deep playoff runs, they’ve become bored by the regular season.
“I think we take it for granted,” said Keefe. “We figure we can sleepwalk through the first couple weeks, or even the first month, and then flip the switch and bam, we’re back to the playoffs. It hasn’t burned us yet, but it’s a dangerous game, if you ask me.”
Keefe went on to point out that the West is a lot more competitive than it used to be. “In the old days, Michigan was the only one you needed to worry about,” the defenseman said. “But now Portland’s damn good, and Saskatchewan’s solid too. Even KC and Dakota are playing better lately.
“It’s not written in the Constitution or the Bible or anywhere that we’re guaranteed a spot in the playoffs. And there’s no guarantee that even if we do get to the playoffs, we’ll go all the way. If we want to win the Vandy, we’ve got to play Vandy-quality hockey all season long. Bad hockey builds bad habits.”
C Jake Frost, who has a habit of slow starts himself, disagreed with Keefe’s assessment. “I don’t think we’re taking anything for granted,” said Frost. “But I do think that when you go deep in the playoffs every year and have shorter offseasons, it takes a little while to play your best hockey. We’ll be there when it counts; I’m confident.”
Igloos coach Sam Castor agreed with the spirit of Keefe’s critique, if not its specifics. “Our underlying numbers have been solid, even when we were losing,” the coach pointed out. “We were taking good shots, they just weren’t going in. And it’s taken some time to get the new guys integrated into our scheme.
“That said, I think Ted’s right to worry about losing our edge. If I ever get even a hint of our guys taking the postseason for granted, I’ll going to stop it cold. I’m not saying I’ll bag-skate ‘em till they drop, but they’ll get the message. There’s no such thing as a lifetime achievement playoff spot. You have to earn it every year, and our guys know that.”
If this year’s early swoon ends up being a temporary blip as usual, this will all be forgotten. But it Anchorage winds up missing the playoffs, they may wish they’d listened to their veteran defenseman.
Last year’s SHL Finals featured a heavyweight battle for the ages, as the upstart contender Hamilton Pistols faced off against the defending champion Anchorage Igloos. In the end, the bout went to the challengers, as the Pistols dethroned the Igloos in six games.
Many around the league believe that the 2020 Finals could feature a Hamilton-Anchorage rematch. After the first week of the season, the Pistols certainly appear to be on the path for a return playoff trip. Not so for the Igloos, however; they staggered through the worst opening week they’ve ever had.
In Hamilton, the Pistols kicked off their title defense in fine fashion. After a come-from-behind 4-3 win over Washington on opening night, the champs faced off against their Canadian rivals, the Quebec Tigres. The grudge match quickly turned into a slaughter, as the Pistols scored three goals in the span of just over four minutes in the first period and wound up winning 5-1. They then headed back to Gunpowder Armory for their home opener, a rematch against the Galaxy. This time, Hamilton rolled to an easy 4-1 win. Their winning streak came to an end on Saturday against Boston, but they came from behind thanks to a third-period power-play goal from LW Steven Alexander to salvage a 3-3 tie.
In virtually every category, the Pistols are at or near the top of the league. They’re leading the league in average shots per game (40.5), and tied with Michigan for the most goals (16). Their 26.7% power-play conversion rate is second in the league. Their 1.96 GAA is third in the SHL, and they’re allowing the fewest shots per game (26.5). All but three Hamilton skaters has recorded at least one point. Starting netminder Lasse Koskinen is 3-0-0 with a 1.67 GAA and a .938 save percentage.
“We’re picking up right where we left off last season,” said coach Keith Shields. “Nobody came into camp looking fat and happy, or wanting to rest on their laurels. Everybody showed up lean and hungry and ready to repeat. I couldn’t be happier with the way we’re starting things off here.”
In Anchorage, on the other hand, the first week of the season has been an utter nightmare. They opened the season at home against the Kansas City Smoke, who finished with the league’s worst record last season. It should have been a gimme game, but it wasn’t. Smoke goalie Rocky Goldmire stopped 41 Anchorage shots, and D Gary Hermine scored the go-ahead goal with less than two minutes left in the game to secure a 2-1 win for the visitors. After that deflating opener, they traveled down to Dakota, facing a Jackalopes team that is in the midst of a multi-season teardown. But instead of shaking off the opening loss, the Igloos found themselves by rookie netminder Lorne Mollenkamp, who stopped all 31 shots to stymie Anchorage 2-0. On Thursday, Anchorage traveled to Cadillac Place to face their old nemesis, the Michigan Gray Wolves. The old foes dueled to a scoreless draw through the first 40 minutes. But Wolves C Hunter Bailes scored early in the third period, and C Warren Marlow put the game on ice with another tally in the closing minutes, dooming the Igloos to another 2-0 loss. On Saturday, they had another shot at Dakota, and were eager to avenge their earlier loss. But the Jackalopes blew things open with a three-goal third, and Mollenkamp stumped the Igloos again, notching 29 saves en route to a 5-1 rout.
The heart of Anchorage’s opening-week woes has been their inability to light the lamp. They scored only two goals in four games; the next-worst teams (Hershey and Quebec) scored seven times. The Igloos are generating a decent amount of offense; they’re averaging 33 shots a game, which is solidly in the middle of the pack. And their defense remains solid; they’re allowing 28.5 shots per game, the second-fewest in the league.
Given those numbers, and their track record, it’s easy to dismiss Anchorage’s slow start as a fluke. But this is truly uncharted territory for the boys from Alaska. It’s the first time the Igloos have ever finished the first week without a win, and the first time they’ve ever been in sole posession of last place. And the problems start at the top; the Igloos’ first line of LW Jerry Koons, C Jake Frost, and RW Nicklas Ericsson – multi-time champs and All-Stars all – have recorded a dismal -8 rating.
“Come on, do you really expect us to give up just because we had a bad week?” said Igloos coach Sam Castor. “The puck luck hasn’t been on our side, and I fully expect that’s going to even out over the year. That said, we expect a lot better from ourselves. We’re accustomed to winning and competing, and we’ve got to take care of our business. I expect that we will.”
Can Anchorage turn things around and get back to the postseason? Can Hamilton keep up their strong start and earn the right to defend their title? Only time will tell, but the 2020 season is off to a fascinating start.
As the final seconds ticked away in the deciding Game 6 of the 2019 SHL Finals, the Anchorage Igloos hung their heads. Playing in front of their home fans at Arctic Circle Arena, the Igloos had allowed four third-period goals to turn a 3-1 lead into a 5-3 defeat at the hands of the Hamilton Pistols. It had been a tense, close series, with all the previous games decided by one goal and two of them going to overtime. But the series was ending with a clunker, a shocking embarrassment for the defending champions.
In the locker room after the game, the Igloos sat quietly and contemplated an uncertain future. Ten of the twenty players on Anchorage’s roster are pending free agents, and salary-cap constraints mean that several of them won’t be back. The roster is likely to look a lot different next season.
“This definitely isn’t the ending we wanted,” said C Jake Frost. “Especially knowing that this is the last ride for some of our guys, that’s tough.”
LW Les Collins, one of those free-agents-to-be, shared Frost’s sense of disappointment. “There’s a definite sense of unfinished business here,” Collins said. “Ending like this, it’s shocking. But I want to come back and help us get back on top next season.”
Some of the Igloos acknowledged that the balance of power was shifting within the league. For years, Anchorage and the Michigan Gray Wolves were the unquestioned class of the SHL. Recently, though, the Igloos and Wolves have been challenged within their division by the Seattle Sailors (who made the playoffs for the first time this season) and Saskatchewan Shockers, as well as by the Pistols and other teams in the rising East.
“For so long, we’ve been the favorites,” said LW Jerry Koons. “But now, there are other teams just as good as us. We can’t take it for granted anymore that we’ll be the best. The Pistols are a really good, really tough club. I don’t think this is the last time we’ll be facing them in the Finals.”
Coach Sam Castor struggled to reckon with his team’s collapse in Game 6. “This series was so close for so much of the way,” Castor said. “A couple bounces here or there and it’s a totally different conversation. But for us to fall apart like that in a must-win game, especially on home ice… that’s not like us at all. But Hamilton won this series, no question about it. They deserve to be the champions. For us, we’ll have to go back to the drawing board.”
Asked whether the team had lost its hunger for victory after its previous wins, Castor demurred. “I don’t think that’s true at all,” said Castor. “I didn’t see anyone here resting on their laurels. We came up against a very good team, and they came through when it counted.”
While some of the Igloos struggled with the outcome and contemplating the next chapter, co-owner Leslie Mills took a philosophical approach. “We gave it our all, and that’s all that you can ask,” she said.
(Hamilton wins, 4-2)
In the locker room before the third period of today’s Game 6, Hamilton Pistols coach Keith Shields looked for the right words to inspire his struggling team. After forty minutes of play, the defending champions Anchorage Igloos led the Pistols 3-1. The Igloos were just a period away from erasing Hamilton’s 3-1 series lead in the SHL Finals, setting up a winner-take-all Game 7 in Anchorage tomorrow. The momentum was firmly on the side of the champs, and the Pistols’ hopes for the Vandy were rapidly slipping away.
“I knew I didn’t want it to go to seven,” said Shields. “I knew our best chance to win was today, even having to come from behind.”
And so the coach, who is a devout Christian, talked to his players about the story of David and Goliath. “The Israelites were saved because one man was brave enough to take on this giant on the other side,” the coach said. “And with God’s strength behind him, David killed Goliath. Who among you is brave enough to defeat our enemy? If that’s you, step forward like David did.”
One by one, the Pistols stepped forward. Then they went out and staged the biggest comeback in Finals history, scoring four unanswered goals to take a 5-3 win and clinch their first-ever SHL title.
The first player to answer Shields’ challenge was, unsurprisingly, LW Steven Alexander. The winger has been Hamilton’s unquestioned leader since the beginning, a brave and ambitious player who discovered a new level to his game after tying the knot in mid-season. He got the team going in the right direction right from the opening faceoff of the third, marching down the ice and scoring just 16 seconds into the frame.
“Coach Shields had gotten us fired up with his speech, but someone needed to get our comeback started,” said D Hercules Mulligan. “And of course it was Alex. That guy knows no fear.”
Alexander got things rolling, but Hamilton needed another hero. Up stepped one of their oldest players. 33-year-old RW Kenny Patterson considered retiring after last season, before signing an extension with the Pistols to fill a hole on the second line. And when his team needed him most today, he came through with the tying and (ultimately) winning goals.
The tying tally came on a power play, as Igloos D Tony Citrone was penalized for tripping. Patterson stationed himself in front of the Anchorage net, absorbing hacks and slashes from defenders. And when D Raymond Smyth fired a shot toward the net, Patterson deflected it just beyond the reach of Igloos goalie Ty Worthington and just under the crossbar.
The go-ahead goal came on a similar tip play on 5-on-5 just over two minutes after the previous one. This time, it was D Clayton Risch firing from the blue line while Patterson stood in the slot. The puck bounced off Patterson’s stick and knuckled past a stunned Worthington. The Igloos protested, arguing that Patterson’s stick had been above the crossbar when it struck the puck. Upon review, though, it was deemed a good goal. The fans at Arctic Circle Arena booed, while the Igloos sagged on the bench.
“They couldn’t believe it,” Patterson said. “They’d been so sure they had this one in the bag, and then we came back and they didn’t know what to do.”
RW Claude Lafayette has been a close friend of Alexander’s since childhood and shares a line with the star. So it only seems fitting that he gave Hamilton an insurance goal with less than seven minutes left, finishing off an odd-man rush that Alexander started. The old friends wrapped each other in an embrace and screamed in celebration, while the crowd fell into a stunned silence.
The Igloos tried to mount a rally, but the fired-up Pistols overwhelmed them. Anchorage’s final push was thwarted when LW Jerry Koons took an ill-timed tripping penalty with three minutes remaining. A frustrated Koons slammed his stick against the glass and buried his head in his hands as he sat in the sin bin.
“I feel like I cost us the championship,” said Koons. “I took a stupid, stupid penalty at the worst possible time.”
As the final horn sounded, the Pistols raced toward their blue line to celebrate. They pounded each other on the back and shouted, “We won, we won, we won! We won!” When Commissioner Perry Mitchell presented them with the Vandy, Alexander took a long lap around the ice, tears streaming down his cheeks as he contemplated the team’s accomplishment.
“I have lived to see our glory!” said Alexander in the locker room, as his teammates poured beer and champagne over his head. “It’s been an amazing year for me, getting married and winning the title, and this is a new high. When our children tell our story, they’ll tell the story of tonight.”
Shields ran around the locker room, hugging his players and doing his best to dodge the beer showers. “Goliath is dead!” shouted the coach. “With our faith and our bravery, we stood up against our mightiest opponent and we took him down. All hail the heroes!”
A somber Sam Castor, coach of the Igloos, congratulated the victorious Pistols. “Make no mistake, they earned this title,” said Castor. “It was a hard-fought series, but they were the better team in the end. They deserve this.”