“Ministry of Fun” Raises Shockers’ Spirits

The Saskatchewan Shockers are the West’s answer to the Quebec Tigres: a solid team that has hung around the .500 mark all season, lurking around the edges of the playoff race but not quite getting over the hump into contention.

The attitudes of the two teams couldn’t be more different, however.  While Quebec seems downcast, having struggled with injuries and offensive stagnation – the latter serious enough that their star winger groused about it to reporters last week – the Shockers remain cheerful and upbeat.

What’s the difference?  It seems that the credit goes to a group of Shockers players who refer to themselves as the “Ministry of Fun.”

Zeke Zagurski

“Hockey can be a pretty intense business,” said goalie Zeke Zagurski, who is considered the Ministry’s ringleader.  “That’s why we spread nonsense and silliness wherever we go, to bring a little bit of balance to the whole thing.”

What sort of silliness does the Ministry engage in?  Some of it is garden-variety pranks and practical jokes: whoopee cushions, fake dog turds, dribble glasses and the like.  Some of their moves, though, require a bit more sophistication.  There was the time, for instance, that they hacked into the PA system at the team’s practice facility and started blasting “I Feel Pretty” in the middle of morning skate.  Or the time that they showed up for the team picture and slipped on Groucho glasses just as the shot was taken.  Or the time they burst into a flash mob-style dance in the middle of the airport.

The Ministry was the brainchild of Zagurski, a well-known eccentric.  He is dubbed the “Prime Minister,” and many of the group’s shenanigans stem from his fertile, if twisted, imagination.  Backup netminder Shawn Stickel was named Deputy Prime Minster.  Other Ministry members include C Elliott Rafferty (Minister of Foreign Affairs – “because he helps us meet women on the road,” according to Zagurski), LW Vonnie McLearen (Minister of Practical Joke Innovation), D Rennie Cox (Minister of Funkitude), and D Chris Oflyng (Minister of Silly Walks).

The Ministry initially formed in the 2019 season, after Morris Thompson was named head coach.  Thompson is a disciple of Michigan coach and noted disciplinarian Ron Wright, and he was hired in part to encourage a more serious and dedicated attitude from a team with a reputation for (often drunken) hijinks.  Several players thought that Thompson’s initial approach was too firm, and the Ministry was their form of civil disobedience.

“We’re not opposed to working hard or taking our jobs seriously,” explained Zagurski.  “But frankly, a lot of our guys have a couple screws loose.  This isn’t a team that’s going to react well to a drill-sergeant approach.”

Morris Thompson

When Thompson first figured out what was going on, he was furious and wanted to crack down on the players involved.  But after he cooled down, he decided to take a different tack.

“After I thought about it, I realized that if I went hard after these guys, I’d probably tear the team apart,” Thompson said.  “Especially since a lot of these guys are leaders in the locker room.  What good is it to win the battle and lose the team?  Besides, most of what they were doing was just goofy.  They were working hard and playing well, just blowing off a little steam afterward.”

So Thompson made the Ministry a deal: As long as they worked hard in practice and in games, he wouldn’t complain about their antics.  He even agreed that whenever the team won, he would designate a 15-minute period after practice where the Ministry could engage the locker room in whatever sort of lunacy they dreamed up.

The Ministry took the deal, and it’s worked quite well so far.  “Every once in a while, we’ll do something so ridiculous that [Thompson] will just kind of bury his face in his hand, like a frustrated dad,” said Zagurski.  “But he’s been good to his word: as long as we play hard and don’t embarrass the team too much, he lets us do our thing.”

Will the Ministry of Fun and their zaniness propel Saskatchewan into the postseason?  It’s too soon to tell.  But the team is playing solid hockey and having a good time, and that’s a good place to start.

Both Divisions Decided on Final Day

The SHL has had its share of close division races over the years.  Some of them have even gone all the way to final day of the regular season, such as 2016’s epic Washington-Hershey contest or last season’s showdown between Hamilton and Quebec.  But never before has the identity of both division winners been decided during the regular-season finale.  This season, however, the battles in both the East and West went the distance, setting up an epic slate of games on Saturday.

Out West, the defending champion Anchorage Igloos entered the last day one point ahead of the upstart Seattle Sailors.  The Sailors finished their season on the road against the Saskatchewan Shockers, while the Igloos hosted the Kansas City Smoke for their finale.  The Sailors, who had already clinched their first-ever playoff berth, expressed confidence heading into the game.  “We know what we need to do,” said RW Vince Mango, “now we just need to go out and do it.”

The Sailors got off to a fast start.  Shockers D Rusty Anderson went to penalty box just seven seconds into the game, and Sailors LW Rod “Money” Argent cashed in on the ensuing power play to give Seattle the early lead.  Later in the period, D Bud Gatecliff banged home a short from the point to make it 2-0.  The score remained that way throughout the rest of that period and the next, and it appeared the Sailors were set to get the victory they needed.

In the third period, however, Saskatchewan got their game in gear.  In the opening minutes of the period, LW Troy Chamberlain emerged from a scrum in front of the net and tucked a shot under the crossbar to put Saskatchewan on the board.  Just 24 seconds after that, C Cyril Perignon deflected a slapper past the glove of Seattle goalie “Jersey Mike” Ross to tie the score.  A half-minute later, the Sailors reclaimed the lead on a short-side blast by D Hans Mortensen.  But Saskatchewan wasn’t finished; less than three minutes after Mortensen’s tally, Anderson tied things back up with a blast from the slot that got between Ross’s pads.  Both teams kept the pressure on, combining for 26 shots in the period, but the tie persisted through the end of regulation.

Going into overtime, Seattle had a choice: play defensively to preserve the tie, or go for the win?  For the Sailors, it was no choice at all: “We wanted the W,” said Mango.  In the first minute of the extra session, Mango nearly won as he ripped slapshot that dribbled through the legs of Shockers goalie Shawn Stickel, but the puck stopped on the goal line and Stickel fell on it before anyone could jam it home.  Finally, just over two minutes in, Chamberlain got loose on a breakaway and went top shelf to beat Ross and win the game.

“Missed it by that much,” said Mango, holding his thumb and forefinger just slightly apart.

With nothing to play for, the Igloos lost 3-2 to Kansas City, but still won the division.  The celebration was fairly subdued, as Anchorage is focused on winning its second straight Vandy.  “Everyone in this room isn’t going to be satisfied unless we go all the way,” said Igloos C Jake Frost.  “Winning the division is nice, but it’s not enough.”

Meanwhile, in the East, the Hershey Bliss entered the finale a point up on the red-hot Hamilton Pistols.  The Bliss expected to have the division clinched already, as they’d entered the final week with a five-point lead.  But they proceeded to drop two of their three games on the week, while the Pistols won all three of theirs.  Still, all Hershey needed to do to ensure that the division would be theirs was to win or tie against the last-place Boston Badgers.

Unfortunately for the Bliss, even though they outshot the Badgers 40-26, they were unable to take the victory.  Hershey was stymied by a brilliant goaltending performance from Boston backup Carson Wagner.  Then, with just over five minutes left in a tie game, Bliss RW Noah Daniels was called for a controversial interference penalty on Boston’s Pascal Royal, one that left coach Chip Barber and the Bliss bench hollering in frustration; they contended that Royal should have been penalized for embellishment instead.  Their anger only grew more acute when Badgers LW Lix Darnholm scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal.

“I only hope that the division doesn’t wind up turning on that call,” said Barber after the game.  “You’d hate to see that.  It would be like biting into a Hershey’s Kiss and finding out someone hid a Lemonhead in the middle: a sour ending to what should be sweet.”

Hershey’s loss opened the door for the Pistols.  Standing in their way were their bitter rivals, the New York NightNick Foster‘s club was officially eliminated from contention earlier in the week, but they relished the opportunity to deny the Pistols the title.

“If you can’t make it to the promised land, the next best thing is stopping your enemy from getting there,” Foster said.  “That’s the hockey version of the Golden Rule.”

The game unfolded at a furious pace: both teams combined for an astounding 43 shots in the first period alone, with Hamilton taking 26 of them.  But New York goalie Sherman Carter was in top form, turning aside all those shots except one, a slapper from Pistols C Henry Constantine that hit the crossbar and went in.  Night C Tom Hoffman answered with a bouncing shot that hopped over Hamilton netminder Ron Mason‘s pad, creating a 1-1 tie that would last the rest of the period.

LW Misha Petronov gave New York its first lead just five seconds into the second period, bringing the crowd at Neon Sky Center to its feet, razzing Mason with sing-song chants.  Those chants didn’t last long, however, as Pistols D Albie Glasco tied it up a mere 16 seconds later with a shot from just inside the blueline that got past a screened Carter.  Just under two minutes after that, LW Steven Alexander fired home a slapper from his favorite spot between the faceoff circles to put Hamilton back on top.

In the third period, it took Night C Rod Remington just 30 seconds to rip a shot just above Mason’s blocker to tie things up again.  The New York fans resumed their sing-song taunts of Mason, later adding Alexander to their chants as he shanked shots or fired them just wide. The Pistols thought they had taken the lead when C Calvin Frye scored on a power play at the midpoint of the period, but Foster challenged and sit turned out that Hamilton had entered the offensive zone offside.  When the tally came off the board, the fans roared with delight. Hamilton had a few grade-A chances later in the period, but Carter kept stonewalling them, and the score remained deadlocked at the end of regulation.

In the overtime period, the Night focused on grinding the clock as much as possible, and the game ended in a 3-3 tie.  Hamilton and Hershey wound up with the same number of points, but Hershey had more total wins, so they won the title.  (The same thing happened to the Pistols last season, as they ended up in a tie with Quebec on points, but the Tigres had more victories.)

True to form, the Night celebrated as though they’d won the division.  As the game ended, the New York players dogpiled at center ice.  In the locker room, they sprayed each other with champagne and blasted victory music.  “It’s a thing of beauty, it really is,” said Foster, wiping the bubbly out of his eyes.  “For us to prevent the Nutcracker and his gang of clowns from winning the division, it warms my heart.  It really does.  If they wind up having to play Game 7 on enemy ice and they wind up losing to those Hershey softies, I hope they’ll think of me.”

The Pistols, naturally, didn’t appreciate New York’s attitude.  “I thought the way they played in overtime and then their little post-game party was totally lacking in class and sportsmanship,” said coach Keith Shields.  “But then, that’s typically of the way they operate.  Fortunately, we’ve got enough talent that we can win in the playoffs with or without home-ice advantage.  And since [the Night] will be watching the playoffs on TV once again, they might see if they can learn something.”

Alexander was more blunt than his coach.  “I believe in karma,” he told reporters, “and that’s why I’m confident that Foster and his boys will never win anything.  They’ve got a loser’s mentality; any team that celebrates like that for a game they didn’t even win, for a playoff spot that they didn’t get, is just pathetic.  Enjoy the golf course, you [jerks].”

West Wide Open

Looking at the Western Division standings about one-third of the way through the 2018 SHL season, one thing is clear: the Michigan Gray Wolves are the overwhelming favorites to win the division title.  They’re already 12 points clear of their nearest competitor and are outscoring their opponents by nearly a 2-to-1 ratio.  Goaltender Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist and the defense remain as stingy as ever; even a serious injury to top blueline “Mad Max” Madison has barely slowed the Wolves down.  Michigan seems well on its way to nailing down that top spot.

But there are two playoff spots in each division this season.  And if first place appears all but sewn up, second place is up for grabs.  No team is out of the running, and no team seems to have much of an edge at this stage.

“It’s just a wide-open brawl, is what it is,” said Saskatchewan Shockers D Wyatt Barnes.  “A total pig pile.  No one knows what’s going to happen.”

At the start of the season, the Anchorage Igloos were heavily favored to make it to the playoffs.  Indeed, they’ve held down second place for much of the year.  But the defending division champs haven’t been playing up to their usual standards; in fact, they’ve struggled to get much above the .500 mark, and they haven’t won more than two in a row since the first week of the season.  “We’ve really struggled to find our rhythm,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor.  “We show flashes of our true form, especially against tough opponents, but then we sleepwalk against lesser teams.  We’re going to get more consistent if we’re going to make the playoffs.”

This week’s games demonstrated Castor’s point.  Anchorage put up a huge statement win on Sunday, stomping mighty Michigan 5-0.  But they followed up that effort with a pair of embarrassing losses, falling 3-1 to Dakota and 7-5 to Kansas City.  “I know the feeling in the clubhouse is that we’re the superior team,” said the Anchorage coach, “but we’ve got to prove that on the ice.”

Two points behind Anchorage are the Saskatchewan Shockers, who look ready to shake their hapless reputation.  They had a shot to take over sole possession of second place on Friday, but dropped a 5-2 decision to the Igloos.  The key to the Shockers’ success this season has been their defense.  Coach Myron Beasley has made a point of tightening up his team’s play in its own end, and his efforts are paying dividends.  Saskatchewan is limiting opponents to 29.3 shots per game, the fourth-best total in the league.  The improved defense has been a blessing for goalie Zeke Zagurski, who has historically faced a barrage of enemy shots on a nightly basis.  This season, he’s lowered his GAA to 2.52 while stopping shots at a .919 clip.  Backup Shawn Stickel has been even better in limited action, compiling a stingy 1.33 GAA and .929 save percentage.

Unfortunately, the Shockers’ defensive efforts seem to be taking a toll on their offense.  Saskatchewan has averaged 32.8 shots per game, solidly in the middle of the pack, but they’ve only scored 53 goals, third-worst total in the league.  “We’re not putting ourselves in position to get top-quality shots,” said LW Troy Chamberlain.  “We’re not getting the net-front presence we need to create chaos.  We need some more of those greasy goals that a team like Michigan is so good at.”

Saskatchewan is one point up on the Seattle Sailors, who are the Shockers’ mirror image.  The Sailors have a potent attack, having scored 75 goals already this season, led by RWs Elliott Pepper (13 goals) and Vince Mango (11).  However, their fast tempo and aggressive approach has led to a vulnerability on defense.  Seattle has given up 82 goals, the highest total in the league.  Part of the issue is their tendency to allow odd-man rushes (they’re allowing 37 shots per game).  They’re not getting much help between the pipes, either.  The Sailors have rotated between Rocky Goldmire (6-7-0, 4.12 GAA, .893 save percentage) and “Jersey Mike” Ross (3-3-1, 4.00, .883); neither has done enough to nail down the starting job.

“We need to spend a little less time on the fun stuff and a little more on the lunch-pail, building-block stuff,” said Sailors coach Harold Engellund.

One point back of the Sailors are the Dakota Jackalopes, having a bit of a surprising season under new coach Flim Dahlgren.  The Jackalopes had a good deal of success during the inter-divison round last week, winning five in a row against the East.  They’ve come back to earth this week, dropping three of their last four.  But for a team that’s widely assumed to be in a rebuilding mode, Dakota has been surprisingly competitive.  They’re getting a boost from two of the only remaining veterans on the team: C Lars Karlsson (tied for the team lead with 11 goals) and D Matt Cherner (whose 19 assists).  Karlsson and Cherner are widely assumed to be top targets at the trading deadline; if the Jackalopes remain in contention, GM Paul Mindegaard may have some difficult decisions to make.

Even the expansion Kansas City Smoke are only seven points out of second place.  To be fair, their relative success to this point has been driven largely by an unsustainble shot-conversion percentage (they’re scoring on almost 14% of their shots, by far the highest rate in the league).  That said, they’re seeing strong seasons from LW Pascal Royal (12 goals, 28 points), C Mike Rivera (13 goals), and rookie Zachary Merula (8 goals, 18 points).  “We’re definitely not expecting a playoff spot this year,” said coach Randy Bergner.  “But I’m really liking what I’m seeing out of the boys so far.”

There’s plenty of time left in the season, and things could shake out in the coming weeks.  Anchorage could take control of the race; Dakota and Kansas City could fall off the pace; Saskatchewan or Seattle could get more balanced and go on a run.  But for the time being, the race remains a muddle.  “It’s up for grabs,” said Seattle’s Mango.  “Anybody could swoop in and take this.  This is a chance to show what we’re made of.”

CHL Update: Owls Shock Rhinos in 5 To Win Championship

Coming into the first-ever CHL playoffs, no one gave the Utah Owls much of a chance to win.  Although they had been hot during the last month of the season, they only finished a few games above the .500 mark.  They had few players among the league leaders in any category, and they were better known for their wacky hotel escapades than for anything they did on the ice.  The smart money suggested that the Owls would be easily knocked out by the Omaha Ashcats in the Western Division playoff; failing that, they’d be taken down by the high-scoring Virginia Rhinos in the finals.

By the time the playoffs were over, however, the smart money wasn’t looking so smart.  Utah stunned Omaha by winning the division finals in four games and making it look easy.  Then in the Finals, with barely more drama, the Owls defeated the Rhinos 4 games to 1 to claim the inaugural Howard Trophy as CHL champions.

“Nobody believed in us,” said Owls C Lloyd “Goofy” Banjax.  “Everyone was just standing around, waiting for us to fail.  But we showed them!  We showed everybody that we’re the best there is!”

In Game 1, Utah walked into Waterfront Center and pushed the pace, with the teams combining for 85 shots.  The Owls hammered the Rhinos 6-2, with six different players scoring goals for the Owls.  “I absolutely did not see that coming,” said Virginia goalie Shawn Stickel.  “We’d heard those guys liked to play fast, but we weren’t expecting that kind of crazy speed.  It’s like they had rockets in their skates.”  Not only did the Rhinos lose the game, they lost winger Nick Krombopoulos for the series with an upper-body injury.

In Game 2, Virginia seemed to restore order, downing Utah 3-1.  But both sides wound up losing a defenseman to injury; the Rhinos lost Ivan Ackler, while the Owls saw Boris Badenov go down.  The series shifted to Wasatch Arena for Game 3, where the Owls turned the tables with a 3-1 win of their own.  In Game 4, Virginia took an early 2-0 lead, only to see Utah tie it up with a pair in the second period.  RW Colton Jabril put the Rhinos back up with a tally two minutes into the third period, and it looked like his team was about to tie the series up again.  But Owls LW Mickey Simpson banked one in off the crossbar with 12 seconds left to send it to overtime, and then C Remi “Roadrunner” Gallert nabbed the game-winner 2:05 into OT to give Utah a 3-1 series lead.

“After that, we knew we had it,” said Banjax.

The Owls took care of business in Game 5, with F Diego Garcia scoring two goals to lead his team to a 4-1 win.  The infamously boisterous team managed not to lay waste to the arena; instead, they formed a dogpile on the ice and soaked in the joy of an unexpected victory.

Utah’s secret?  Goalie Sherman Carter.  The top prospect started the season with the Owls before earning a quick call-up to the New York Night, before being sent down for the final games of the CHL season.  He was the key to the Owls’ postseason success, putting up a 1.99 GAA and a .949 save percentage against the league’s highest-scoring team.  Unsurprisingly, Carter was chosen as the Finals MVP.

“Sherm has been nothing short of awesome for us,” said Owls coach Wiley Kiyotie.  “The only sad thing is that he’s probably not going to be back here next year.  He’s headed to the pros to stick next year, and I know he’s going to be special.”

In the midst of the postgame celebration, Banjax was asked whether he thought his team could repeat next year.  “Probably not,” said the Utah center.  “But then, no one thought we’d win it this year.  So who knows?  I can’t wait to find out.”