Champion Pistols Look Poised to Repeat

Last season, the Hamilton Pistols delighted the Greater Toronto Area by claiming their first-ever championship.  In the wake of their title — and considerable roster turnover — some wondered whether the Pistols would be up to the challenge of prevailing in the improving East and defending their title.  So far this season, Hamilton looks like they’re very much up to the challenge, and are well-positioned to defend their title.

“We’re not taking anything for granted,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “But we’re feeling good about where we are, and we’re confident that we can match up with anyone who wants to take the Vandy away from us.”

Over the first month or so of the season, Hamilton found themselves in close competition with the Hershey Bliss.  After that, though, they ripped off an 11-game unbeaten streak to establish a comfortable division lead.  They’re currently riding a 15-3-3 run.  They’ve survived their share of injuries, including to stars like C Calvin Frye and LW Steven Alexander.  It’s seemed that nothing can slow them down.

Steven Alexander

“Everyone in this room is focused on repeating,” said Alexander.  “There’s no slowdown and no slacking off.  We’re driven to keep the Vandy here.’

Last season’s success was built on the strength of their powerful offense, and the same is true this season.  Hamilton is tied for the SHL lead in goals per game, averaging an eye-popping 3.8 goals per game.  GM Marcel LaClaire has a knack for finding affordable veterans who produce outsized contributions, and this season is no exception.  The Pistols added RW Ben Summers and C Marco Venezio for a combined $1.5 million, and both players are providing bang for their back.  Venezio (9 goals, 13 assists, +8 rating) has stepped into the second-line center role that Eddie Costello filled so well last season, while Summers (16 goals, 16 assists, +15) has provided the secondary scoring threat that the team was lacking.  They have clicked brilliantly with linemate Magnus Gunnarson, who is on track for a career year (14 goals, 28 assists, +13).

“We have the best second line in the league, no question about it,” said Frye.  “And that makes us a really dangerous team, because nobody has an answer for our top six.”

At the other end of the ice, netminder Lasse Koskinen (17-7-4, 3.13 GAA, .914 save percentage) has rebounded from an early-season slump back to his typical elite level of play.  And when backup Ron Mason (8-3-1, 2.90, .912) is in the crease, the Pistols don’t miss a beat.

“Having Koski and Mase in net is great,” said Shields.  “We know that whoever’s got the start on a given night is going to give us a top-notch performance.  And knowing that, our guys are free to be more aggressive and maximize their scoring chances.”

Are there any warning signs for the Pistols?  They may not have lost much recently, but some of their losses have come against potential playoff opponents.  They’re 2-3-0 this season against Hershey; their last meeting was a 6-0 Bliss blowout at Chocolate Center.  And when the Pistols hosted the Western-leading Portland Bluebacks just before the All-Star break, the Bluebacks cruised to an easy 4-0 victory.

But Alexander says the Pistols aren’t concerned about those results.  “When it gets to be playoff time, it’s a different game and a different atmosphere,” the winger noted.  “We’ve been tested in the battle, and we’ve come out strong.  And we’re going to do that again this year.  Just you wait.”

Pistols Mascot Invites Foster, Night to “Fist City”

At this point, it’s well-known around the league that the Hamilton Pistols and New York Night don’t like each other.  The teams have been feuding for multiple seasons.  The rivalry was initially sparked and furiously stoked by Night coach Nick Foster.  The New York organization has also played its part in kindling the dislike, particularly during last season’s “Canada Night” promotion.  The Pistols have lobbed their own barbed remarks and occasionally gotten physical, but have generally preferred to let their play do the talking.  Foster’s recent jabs at the team’s new mascot, however, seem to have crossed the line, and the Pistols finally went after the New York coach and his team in a memorable in-game skit.

Crosscheck

The Pistols debuted Crosscheck, a friendly orange creature, as their new mascot about a month into the season.  Foster saw it for the first time shortly before the All-Star break, and wasted no time making fun of it.  Foster called Crosscheck a “freaky inbred Teletubby” and claimed that it represents a typical Pistols fan, because “it’s fat, missing most of its teeth, and it looks like its family tree is a straight line.”  Pistols fans and players alike were outraged by Foster’s insults, and the team decided to respond in kind.

The Night came to Hamilton on Saturday, and the fans filled the air with boos when Foster’s name was mentioned during the pregame lineup announcements.  Before the opening puck drop, the Pistols dimmed the lights and cued up a video on the Jumbotron.  It began with some clips of Foster’s descriptions of the Hamilton mascot.  Then, after a pause, it showed Crosscheck sitting in the office of owner Cory Blackwood, Jr.  The owner assured Crosscheck, “Listen, whatever you want to do, the organization is behind you.  I think it’s time you got even.”

The video then showed a series of clips of Hamilton players beating up New York players, interspersed with shots of Crosscheck venting his frustrations.  In one scene, he threw darts at a picture of Foster’s face.  In another, he went after a punching bag with Foster’s picture taped to it.  In yet another, he played a special version of Whack-A-Mole where all the “moles” were made to look like the Night coach’s head.  The whole sequence was scored to Loretta Lynn’s 1968 country classic “Fist City.”  The fans laughed and cheered throughout; even some of New York’s players appeared to be watching with evident amusement.

Finally, after the video was complete, Crosscheck came charging out on the ice, wearing boxing trunks and gloves.  He stopped in front of the Night bench, waved his fists around, and pointed at Foster, challenging the Night bench boss to a throwdown.  Foster responded by laughing and blowing kisses, while the fans booed.  Adding injury to insult, the Pistols proceeded to shut out the Night 3-0 during the game, with backup netminder Ron Mason stopping all 42 New York shots.

Nick Foster

“I loved it!” said Foster after the game.  “The freaky Teletubby earned my respect out there today.  It might not be too bright, but it knows how to stand up for itself.  Again, I’d say that the weirdo seemed like a typical Pistols fan, except that it seemed to be basically sober.”

The Pistols, naturally, dubbed Foster a coward for declining Crosscheck’s invitation to fight.  “Crosscheck called [Foster] out like a man, or whatever it is,” said LW Steven Alexander.  “And Foster had a chance to back up his mouth with some action, but of course he wouldn’t do it.  I wish I was surprised.  Crosscheck is ten times the man that Foster is, and Crosscheck’s not even a man.”

One thing’s for certain: the Pistols are clearly not inclined to take Foster’s insults lying down.  Will the Night respond in kind the next time Hamilton visits the Big Apple?  As angry as this rivalry already is, it could be heading for an even greater level of hatred.

Continue reading “Pistols Mascot Invites Foster, Night to “Fist City””

East Captures First All-Star Win

Traditionally, the West has been considered the stronger of the SHL’s two divisions.  In recent seasons, however, the East has been getting stronger.  They’ve won two of the last three Vandys.  During the most recent round of interdivisional play leading into the break, the Easthad a winning percentage above the .600 mark.  One thing the East had never done, however, was win an All-Star Game.  This year, they hoped to walk into the Kansas City Smoke‘s Heartland Telecom Center and skate away with the win.

Apparently, the fourth time was the charm.  Powered by a hat trick from Hershey Bliss RW Christopher Hart, the East dominated the first two periods and survived a late rally from the West to claim a 5-3 victory.

“Finally, victory is ours!” shouted Hamilton Pistols RW Claude Lafayette, who handed out celebratory cigars to his teammates after the game.  “We’ve been waiting a while for this one.”

As befits Kansas City’s reputation for music, the pregame skate was accompanied by a string of songs with ties to the city.  The tunes spanned the decades, from Big Joe Turner and Charlie Parker to modern-day blues guitarist Samantha Fish.  During player introductions, the Western team skated out to Wilbert Harrison’s “Goin’ to Kansas City,” while the Eastern squad emerged to the theme from “Rawhide,” a nod to the city’s connections to the livestock industry.

Eastern coach Keith Shields was determined that his team get off to a strong start.  Last year, the West scored three times in as many minutes, essentially burying the East’s hope of victory.  “I wanted to do to [the West] what they did to us last time,” said Shields.  And that is essentially what his team did.

Hart opened the scoring just under two minutes into the game, streaking to the net and redirecting a shot from Pistols C Calvin Frye over sprawling Western goalie Ty Worthington.  Approximately one hundred seconds later, Frye got a goal of his own when Worthington allowed a juicy rebound on a shot by Hershey’s Lance Sweet and Frye stuffed it home on the short side.  Then around the six-minute mark, Hart and Sweet got loose on a breakaway, just as if they were on the Love Line back in Hershey.  Sweet faked a slapshot and passed it to Hart, who went top shelf to make it 3-0.

“The boys ran the game plan to perfection,” said Shields.  “I loved it!”

The West got one back on a strike from the slot by Michigan Gray Wolves C Hunter Bailes, but they closed out the first period trailing by two.  But lest the three-time champs get any ideas about rallying, the East got back on the scoring train at the start of the second.  Pistols LW Steven Alexander got on the board on a thundering slapper from the left faceoff circle to restore the East’s three-goal lead.  Then two and a half minutes later, Hart struck again, this time on a power-play wraparound shot that slipped between Worthington’s pad and the pole.

Even though the home team now trailed 5-1, the fans tossed their hats onto the ice to honor Hart’s achievement.  One of them was a cowboy hat; Sweet picked that one up and slapped it on Hart’s head.  The Hershey wing let loose with a “Yeehaw!” and fired his invisible six-shooters into the air.

West coach Sam Castor wasn’t willing to give up, in spite of the sizable deficit, and he directed his team to play a more wide-open style in the third period.  The East responded in kind, and the result was a frantic frame in which the teams combined for 47 shots.  The West’s relief goalie, the Portland Bluebacks‘ Jesse Clarkson, turned aside all 27 Eastern shots.  The Western offense, on the other hand, had more success against the East’s backup netminder, Mike Ross of the New York Night.  Less than four minutes into the final period, the West narrowed the deficit to two with goals from D Sebastian Pomfret and C Tom Hoffman, teammates on Castor’s Anchorage Igloos.  But Ross stopped the West’s remaining shots, and the East kept the action in the other end for long stretches over the last ten minutes, sealing their victory.

Hart’s three-goal performance made him the unanimous choice for All-Star MVP honors.  As a reward for the selection, the Bliss star received a Kia Seltos SUV, along with a gift package of barbecue sauces from some of Kansas City’s best-known joints.  “The last time we were in KC, I tried burnt ends for the first time,” said Hart.  “I’m looking forward to making some ‘cue of my own at home.”

In the victorious Eastern locker room, the players smoked their cigars and doused each other with beer and hard seltzer.  “Don’t mess with the Beast Division, baby!” shouted Alexander.  “The world turned upside down!”

The East will try to make it two in a row next year on home ice, as next year’s game is north of the border at Quebec’s Centre Citadelle.

Continue reading “East Captures First All-Star Win”

2020 SHL Eastern All-Star Roster

The roster for the 2020 Eastern Division All-Stars, as announced by coach Keith Shields, was as follows:

First Line:

LW: Steven Alexander, Hamilton.  Last year, the voting in the East was dominated by fans of the Pistols and New York Night, the latter of which hosted the game.  Without the draw of hosting and with the Night’s lackluster record this year, votes from the New York metro area dipped considerably, while backers of defending champion Hamilton came out in force to support their heroes.  Alexander was the league’s top vote-getter, earning his fourth straight trip to the game and his third appearance in the starting lineup.  Although the feisty winger’s numbers are not quite up to his career norms, he is tied for the league lead in goals with 21.

D: Clayton “Crusher” Risch, Hamilton.  Backed by the voting power of the Greater Toronto Area, Risch was the top vote-getter among Eastern defenseman, making his second All-Star appearance and his first start.  The 24-year-old is on track for a career season; he’s already scored more goals in the first half (8) than he ever has in an entire year.  He isn’t just an offensive force, either; he continues to deliver strong play in his own end.  His 73 blocks is the second-most among Eastern players.

C: Justin Valentine, Hershey.  In something of an upset, Valentine managed to hold off Hamilton’s Calvin Frye to make his first All-Star start since 2017.  Valentine is the leading man in Hershey’s famous “Love Line,” and he’s producing in line with his top season.  He’s currently in third place in goals with 20 and tied for third in points with 42.  He’s also among the top ten in plus-minus at +14, a distinction he shares with his fellow Love Liners.

D: Matt Cherner, Boston.  In another upset, Cherner surged into second place, ahead of Hershey’s Reese Milton and New York’s Dominic Sanchez, who have been the East’s starting defensemen in each previous All-Star Game.  Cherner reportedly benefited from a strong crossover vote, as fans from his previous teams in Dakota and Quebec cast ballots for him in significant numbers.  It’s his second All-Star appearance, and his debut representing the East; he showed up on the West’s roster back in 2018.  Like his fellow top-pairing blueliner Risch, Cherner has 8 goals and 28 points so far this season.

RW: Claude Lafayette, Hamilton.  The Pistols’ rabid voting base lifted Lafayette to his first ever All-Star start (and only his second overall start), appearing alongside his longtime teammate and friend Alexander.  Lafayette won his spot by less than 5,000 votes over Hershey’s Christopher Hart and New York’s Rick Nelson.  Lafayette is one of the league’s elite passers, and it’s no surprise that he leads the SHL in assists with 35.  His 42 points overall ties him with Valentine for the league’s third-highest total.

 

Second Line:

LW: Lance Sweet, Hershey.  Shields mentioned during the lineup announcement that he has a great deal of respect for the Bliss, Hamilton’s fiercest rival.  His admiration came through in his picks, as he tapped three Bliss players (in addition to starter Valentine) to the lineup.  It’s the second All-Star selection for Sweet, who also appeared in the SHL’s inaugural midseason contest in 2017.  Sweet is a highly deserving choice; he leads the league in points with 44, and is in the top 10 in both goals (16) and assists (28).

D: Raymond Smyth, Hamilton.  Shields’ respect for Hershey was topped only by his affection for his own squad; the coach selected four players from his Vandy-winning, division-leading Pistols.  The veteran Smyth, though, is no homer pick; his 30 points are tied for the highest total among SHL defensemen, and his 26 assists are tied for fifth in the league overall.  He also leads the league in plus-minus rating with +17.  It’s Smyth’s third trip to the All-Star Game, making a reappearance in the lineup after a one-year absence.

C: Calvin Frye, Hamilton.  After Frye was beaten out by Valentine for the starting center spot, there was no doubt that Shields was going to tab his star for a spot.  Frye is only of only four Eastern players to have appeared in every All-Star contest to date.  Frye is tied with his teammate Alexander for the league lead in goals with 21, and his 43 points is the second highest total in the SHL.  “I’ll bet this is the last time for a long time that Calvin isn’t the starter,” said Shields.  “If he keeps producing the way he has been, he’s going to make it impossible for the fans to ignore.  He’s just a special, special player.”

D: Hercules Mulligan, Hamilton. It’s the third straight All-Star appearance for the 22-year-old Mulligan and the third appearance for a Hamilton defenseman in this lineup.  It’s the first time since 2017 that a single team landed a trio of blueliners on the roster; Michigan was the last team to accomplish the feat. The hard-hitting Mulligan brings an extra edge of the Eastern roster; his 68 blocks is sixth in the SHL and second on the Pistols to his linemate Risch.

RW: Christopher Hart, Hershey.  Hart joins his linemates Sweet and Valentine on the East roster.  Surprisingly, Hart is the only one of the trio who has appeared in every All-Star contest, though he has never started.  Like his fellow Love Liners, Hart is in the top ten in the league in points (39), assists (26), and plus-minus (+14).  “Last year, I had to carry the Love Line banner all by myself at the game,” said Hart.  “This time, I’ll be there with both my brothers, and that’s the way it ought to be.”

 

Third Line:

LW: Magnus Gunnarson, Hamilton.  At a loaded position, Shields tapping his own player again generated some controversy around the league.  Many felt that New York’s Chase Winchester or Boston’s Casey Thurman would be a more fitting choice.  But Gunnarson is having a strong season in his own right.  He has produced 32 points (13 goals, 19 assists) at the halfway point.  And when Alexander missed several games with an injury in the first half, Gunnarson stepped in and kept the Pistols from missing a beat.  It all adds up to an All-Star debut for the 24-year-old winger.

D: Reese Milton, Hershey.  It’s the first time that Milton won’t be starting in an All-Star Game, but the Bliss blueliner keeps his string of appearances alive.  Milton’s offensive numbers (8 goals, 17 assists) are a tick below his career norms, but he remains as defensively strong as ever; his 77 blocks are the most in the East, and he maintains a solid +8 rating.

C: Alain Beauchesne, Boston.  The 22-year-old Beauchesne receives his second straight All-Star nod; his selection marks the first time that the Badgers have had more than one honoree.  This was another somewhat controversial choice: Night fans argued that Brock Manning should have gotten the call, while DC fans clamored for Harvey Bellmore.   But Shields went with the youngster, who leads Boston with 32 points (13 goals, 19 assists).

D: Richard McKinley, Quebec.  The 21-year-old blueliner is the Tigres’ lone representative this year, and he makes his debut in the All-Star game.  Quebec is suffering through considerable offensive struggles this season, but McKinley is a relatively bright spot, having recorded 17 points (5 goals, 12 assists).  He also is tied for the team lead in blocks with 65.

RW: Jefferson McNeely, Washington.  Like the Tigres, the Galaxy have only one All-Star representative.  This season, the honors go to McNeely, who will make his third appearance in the game.  He is second on the Washington roster in goals (with 11) and points (with 27).  “Honestly, I would have given it to Harvey,” said McNeely.  “But it they want me to go again, sure, I’ll go.”

 

Goalies:

Lasse Koskinen, Hamilton.  In a season when many of the East’s traditional top goalies are having down seasons, Koskinen’s solid performance and Hamilton’s strong voting base combined to earn the Pistols netminder his third straight All-Star trip and his second start.  Koskinen struggled in the opening weeks of the season, but he has improved as the season has gone along.  His 15 wins are second-most in the SHL; that achievement appears to have overshadowed his somewhat-subpar 3.14 GAA and .915 save percentage.

“Jersey Mike” Ross, New York.  With Shields in charge of choosing the East’s roster, is it a surprise that Ross is the lone Night player to make the All-Star squad?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  But the veteran goaltender, who is another first-time All-Star, has had a surprisingly strong season.  Believe it or not, Ross has the highest save percentage (.923) among starting goalies in the East.  After planned starter Sherman Carter imploded, Ross stepped in as the primary starter and has helped keep the Night afloat in the playoff race.

SHL Player of the Week – Week 8

Steven Alexander

The SHL selected Hamilton Pistols LW Steven Alexander as its Player of the Week.  On Sunday, Alexander became the second SHL player this season to score four goals in a game, joining New York’s Brock Manning.  Alexander’s four-spot came in an 8-4 rout of Dakota, the highlight of their 4-1-1 homestand.  With Alexander and his wicked stick leading the way, the Pistols reeled off an 11-game unbeaten streak, which was snapped on Thursday in a 4-0 loss to Portland.

Alexander’s four-goal performance vaulted him into the league lead for goals with 21.  At week’s end, he was tied atop the leaderboard with teammate Calvin Frye.  Alexander is also among the league’s top 10 in points for the season with 36.

“I’ve got to tell you, this looks like a team that’s ready to defend the title,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields.  “Success hasn’t spoiled us at all.  We’re still young, scrappy, and hungry.  And that starts with Alex.  He just doesn’t know the meaning of the word quit.”

Pistols’ Goal Song Raises Roof… and Complaints

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.

Steven Alexander

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.”

Continue reading “Pistols’ Goal Song Raises Roof… and Complaints”

Night’s Foster Roasts Pistols’ New Mascot

New York Night coach Nick Foster is a master at using verbal jabs to stir up rivalries with opposing teams and players.  Over the last couple of seasons, he has trained the bulk of his rhetorical fire on the Hamilton Pistols, turning that rivalry into one of the league’s most heated.

Crosscheck

The two squads faced off again on Sunday, and after a 2-2 tie, Foster took the opportunity in his postgame press conference to open up another front in his verbal war against his opponents from the north: he mocked the Pistols’ new mascot, Crosscheck.

The Pistols originally planned for Crosscheck to debut at the beginning of this season.  After they won the Vandy last year, though, Hamilton’s front office shifted their early promotions to focus on celebrating the team’s title.  The new mascot – a rather unusual-looking orange creature clad in a Pistols jersey – finally took its bow late last month.  It’s received mixed reviews so far; some fans find it fun and cheerful, while others seem to consider it creepy.

Foster’s first exposure to Crosscheck occurred during Sunday’s game, and he wasted no time opening fire on the new mascot.  “So I look up at the scoreboard for a second, and suddenly I’m staring at this freaky inbred Teletubby,” Foster told reporters.  “At first I thought I must be hallucinating, but I rubbed my eyes and it was still there.  I asked [assistant coach] Biff [Lombardi] if he saw it too, and he did, so it must be real.”

After bugging out his eyes in mock shock, Foster continued.  “Now, I know Halloween isn’t for another eight months, so what the hell is this?  Are they trying to scare kids, or get the adults to throw up in the aisles?  I know I’m scarred for life: I’m going to see his one extra-wide tooth in my sleep.

“I finally figured it out, though,” the New York coach concluded.  “This… thing is supposed to represent Hamilton’s fans!  Think about it: It’s fat, missing most of its teeth, and it looks like its family tree is a straight line.  Just like your typical Pistols fan!  It must be like looking in a mirror for them.  So now I get it.”

In the wake of Foster’s barbs, the Pistols and their fans rushed to Crosscheck’s defense.  “Crosscheck is one of us,” said coach Keith Shields.  “Crosscheck is all about fun and love of hockey, and certainly deserves better than Foster’s insults and cruelty.  If you insult any member of the Pistols family – whether it’s a player, a fan, or a mascot – you have to answer to all of us.”

Added LW Steven Alexander, “Crosscheck might be ugly, but it’s better to be ugly on the outside than ugly on the inside.”

Hamilton’s fans have bombarded social media with memes and posts supporting Crosscheck and attacking Foster.  “I think perhaps we owe our gratitude to Coach Foster,” said Pistols GM Marcel LaClaire.  “He has done more to unite our fan base behind our new mascot than anyone ever could.  For this, I am thankful.”