The SHL selected New York Night D Tuomas Nurmi as its Player of the Week. The Finnish-born blueliner was on fire this week, putting up 10 points (2 goals, 8 assists) on the week. Nurmi’s big-scoring weeks nearly doubled his season point total (from 12 to 22) and earned him a promotion back to the Night’s top defensive pairing.
Nurmi scored at least a point in every New York game in the week. His most impressive performance came on Wednesday, when he scored a goal and added two assists in the Night’s 6-5 overtime loss to Dakota. On Tuesday, Nurmi had a pair of assists to help New York to a stunning 7-4 thrashing of Michigan.
“Tuomas is an offensive-minded defenseman, but he doesn’t neglect the other end,” said Night coach Nick Foster. “He’s a tough, diligent, capable player and he has a terrific motor. He’s really shown me something.”
Hershey Bliss D Ruslan Gromov is an old-school, hard-hitting blueliner. His aggressive, take-no-guff approach to the game has won him both admirers and detractors. On Saturday, in an otherwise unremarkable 5-2 win over the New York Night, Gromov’s physical play went over the line and earned him a one-game suspension.
Gromov has been vocal about his lack of respect for New York’s speed-and-offense-based game. In the past, he’s said of New York’s game, “That’s not hockey; it’s figure skating.” Almost from the drop of the puck, Gromov sought to intimidate the Night with his physical play. He targeted one of New York’s more physical players, D Tuomas Nurmi, with a series of slashes and rough checks. About a minute into the game, a frustrated Nurmi shoved Gromov in the chest. Gromov responded by punching Nurmi in the side of the head. The two wound up dropping gloves and tussling for a couple minutes before being separated and assessed matching majors.
“I do not know what his problem is,” said Nurmi of Gromov. “He seemed like he is a crazy man.”
Later in the first period, the Night established possession in the offensive zone and began peppering shots at the Hershey net. New York F Elmer Sigurdson, Jr. tried to set up a screen in front of the crease. Gromov responded by drilling him in the back and riding him down to the ice, and was whistled for interference.
Early in the second period, Sigurdson tried to get even by laying a hard open-ice hit on Gromov. The Hershey defenseman popped up and flung Sigurdson into the boards, earning another two-minute penalty for roughing. The two seemed destined to scrap, and six minutes later, Gromov jumped Sigurdson on a faceoff and the antagonists began trading blows, resulting in another pair of fighting majors.
Gromov finally crossed the line early in the third period, when he rammed Night C Phil Miller in the stomach with the butt end of his stick. That earned the defenseman a double minor for spearing and a game misconduct from referee Brandon Fosse.
Gromov claimed that his spearing of Miller was unintentional, but showed no remorse for his actions. “I play a physical game,” the Bliss blueliner said. “If the other team cannot handle that, they should not be playing hockey.”
The league wasted no time slapping Gromov with a suspension. “While we don’t object to physical play in this league,” said SHL Commissioner Perry Mitchell, “there’s a difference between hard play and assault. Gromov’s actions were reckless, unprovoked, and dangerous. He could easily have injured someone with that kind of play. We don’t want to discourage him from playing hard, but he’s got to know where to draw the line.”
Gromov appeared undaunted by the discipline. In his first game back from the suspension, he got into two fights and racked up 12 penalty minutes. “I only know how to play one way,” said Gromov with a shrug. “I cannot change that.”
When Nick Fostersigned on to coach the New York Night this offseason, it was widely assumed that he had a mandate to make changes, potentially sweeping ones, in order to mold the team into a contender. With the team mired in the Eastern basement with an unsightly 3-7-0 record, Foster held a press conference on Friday to suggest that those changes might be coming sooner rather than later.
“I’m not the kind of guy to beat around the bush,” said Foster. “And right now, I’m looking at a team that’s not built to compete, and a team that’s not as good as they think they are.”
These statements were a major departure for Foster, who has responded to most personnel questions so far by saying that he’s “still evaluating.” But he hasn’t been shy about making moves, and sources close to the coach say that he’s fed up with the team and weighing a major housecleaning, possibly including trades of some of the team’s biggest names.
“Nick was hoping that this was a champion in the rough, one that just needed a few tweaks and a new voice in charge,” said the source. “But he’s quickly figured out that he’s got a team full of lazy, undisciplined egomaniacs, and that the best solution might be to take a fire hose and clean out the locker room. The hard part will be getting ownership on board.”
It took Foster all of four games to decide the Night needed a kick in the pants. After getting shut out by Quebec 1-0 last Wednesday to fall to 0-4-0, Foster called for an unscheduled practice on their off day Thursday. RW Daniel Bellanger and D Teddy Morrison skipped the practice, and Foster responded by benching both of them for the next day’s game, in which the Night finally recorded a win in an 8-5 romp over Hamilton.
As New York continued to struggle in Week 2, Foster continued tinkering with his lineup. He booted D Tuomas Nurmi and RW Rick “The Stick” Nelson off the top line, while promoting RW Ivan “Trainwreck” Trujwirnek and D Shane Gladchuk up to that line. He benched D Jean-Luc Aubin for a couple of games as well.
After Friday’s 4-3 loss to Hershey, Foster finally sounded off publicly for the first time. He didn’t call out any players by name, but team sources say that the coach is especially disenchanted with Nelson, Bellanger, and goaltending duo of Jesse Clarkson and “Jersey Mike” Ross, who have been roughly equally ineffective.
Foster is reportedly weighing benching Nelson and demoting Bellanger and either Clarkson or Ross to the minors. “We’re not going to get anywhere unless we try something different,” the coach said at his Friday press conference. “We’ve been trying the status quo for two seasons, and it’s gotten us nothing but mediocrity.”
The grand plans of Foster may meet resistance, however, from owner Marvin Kingman. Kingman is eager for a Vandy, but he reportedly believes that the Night can get there with the current roster. “He spent a lot of money on these guys,” said the team source, “and he want to keep them around.”
Asked on Friday if he expect Kingman to object to his planned shakeup, Foster responded, “Ownership wants to win, same as I do. We’re all looking for results, and I’m going to keep making moves until we get there.”
Assistant coach Biff Lombardi, who was a finalist for the head job, thinks Foster is on the right track. “Let me tell you, Nick’s not afraid of nobody,” said Lombardi. He’s not about talk; he’s all about action. Everyone’s going to need to get with the program, or they won’t be around long.”
In a move that comes as a surprise to few, the New York Night fired coach Preston Rivers. The move came at the end of a season of acrimony and disappointment, as the Night slogged to another mediocre season and an enormous and public rift developed between the coach and several key players.
“The only shocker was that he made it all the way to the end of the season,” said one player.
Rivers finishes his New York career with a record of 54-61-5, not nearly good enough for an organization that makes no secret of its lofty aspirations. Night GM Royce McCormick focused on the record as the prime driver behind the firing of Rivers. “Our goal is championships, nothing less,” said McCormick. “Preston failed to deliver on that expectation, so we decided it was time for a new voice to get to that next level.”
According to team sources, though, Rivers’ record wasn’t the real cause f0r the dismissal; rather, it was the fact that New York’s star players were increasingly open in their disdain for the coach. It started in midseason, when D Tuomas Nurmi claimed that Night players were being harassed as payback for Rivers’ boasting and taunting. Later in the season, RW Rick “The Stick” Nelsonbashed his coach and called for him to be fired. The feud ultimately escalated to the point that Nelson and Rivers nearly came to blows in the locker room, after which the star winger left the team for three games. It took McCormick’s intervention to get Nelson to rejoin the team.
The situation went from bad to worse over the final week of the season. The entire team boycotted a mandatory practice on Monday as a show of no confidence in Rivers. The coach stopped addressing the team in the locker room before or after games, preferring to lock himself in his office. RW Daniel Bellanger went home to Montreal with two games left in the season. G “Jersey Mike” Ross refused to take the ice for the final two games, although he did attend the games. And the entire team just went through the motions in the last game, a 6-4 loss to struggling Saskatchewan.
The team announced the firing while Rivers and the Night were still in Saskatoon. Rivers did not fly back to New York with the team, avoiding a potentially awkward situation.
Predictably, the coach went down swinging. “I know everyone’s thinking they’ve seen the last of me,” Rivers told reporters. “But they’d better think again. You can’t keep a good man down, and you sure as hell can’t keep this man down. I’ll be back, unless I go to work for Mr. Trump’s administration. Either way, you haven’t heard the last of me.”
On paper, the New York Night are in decent shape at the season’s halfway point. They have one of the most powerful offenses in the league, particularly their high-scoring top line. They’ve combined that potent attack with just enough defense and goaltending to be competitive in most games. They remain within striking distance in the struggling East.
But games aren’t played on paper, and at ice level, things aren’t looking good for the Night. The team has gone into a skid over the last couple weeks, dropping their last seven in a row. Not only that, but there’s friction in the locker room as well, as one of the team’s stars publicly attacked the coach this week.
The comments were made by D Tuomas Nurmi, arguably New York’s top defenseman. He is strong offensively (being in the Top 5 in the SHL in assists) and, unlike many Night players, is also solid in his own end. Nurmi’s excellent play this year has been key to the Night’s relative success early in the season.
However, observers have noticed a curious trend in recent weeks: Nurmi has gotten into a lot of fights lately. In the last 11 games, the defenseman has racked up six fighting majors, including three this week alone. League observers found this odd, as Nurmi doesn’t have a reputation as an enforcer and almost never starts fights. After Friday’s 4-3 loss to Dakota, in which Nurmi got into yet another tussle, a reporter asked him about it. Nurmi’s response was an indictment of coach Preston Rivers as well as his teammates.
“I don’t like fighting,” said Nurmi, “but I will do it when I must.” He then explained that other teams frequently harassed the Night, and implied that Rivers’ regular boasting and taunting was to blame. “We have a coach who acts like a bully,” said Nurmi. “He is always shouting about how great he is and how bad the other teams are, and it paints a target on our backs. Some teams are good enough to get away with this boasting, but we are not.”
Nurmi added that he found himself in so many fights because his teammates refused to do it. “Other teams push us around and wait for a response,” said Nurmi. “Everyone looks down and runs away, so they keep doing it. I must fight back, because someone must stand up.”
Nurmi said that as long as Rivers is coach, “we will be targeted. And as long as no one else will stand up, I will continue to fight. I am taking the punches that other teams want to throw at our coach.”
Predictably, Rivers expressed no remorse and showed no signs of backing down when told of Nurmi’s comments. “Everybody wants to take a shot at the king,” said Rivers. “When you play in a market like New York, it comes with the territory. Being a New Yorker means being willing to scrap. Tuomas gets that, and more power to him. I wish more of our guys did.”
The coach’s bravado notwithstanding, Nurmi’s comments are the latest sign that Rivers’ act is starting to wear thin in the Night locker room. LW Chase Winchester implicitly agreed with Nurmi, saying, “There’s no doubt that we take a lot of garbage from other teams, and I know the things Coach Rivers says are a part of that. We know that it’s sort of a heel act to some degree, to get us fired up, but other teams don’t see it like that.” When asked if life would be easier for the Night if Rivers toned down his public comment, Winchester chuckled and said, “Gee, ya think? He won’t. He is who he is.”
Night GM Royce McCormick stood behind Rivers in a statement, saying, “We’re confident that we have a championship organization, and that Preston Rivers is the man to run it. The organization remains confident in him and the success yet to come.”
But if the Night stumble to a mediocre finish and Rivers’ mouth continues to cause problems for the players, will that change? According to an anonymous player, the coach may already have lost the team. “We all know that he’s a carnival barker,” said the player. “He’s always running his mouth and getting his name in the paper. We’ve learned to tune it out, but Tuomas is right: we wind up paying for what he says.”
In the meantime, will any of Nurmi’s teammates stand up and fight with him? “I hope so,” said the defenseman. “My hands are becoming too sore.”
The Quebec Tigres are only a month into their existence as an SHL team, and they seem to be fast developing their first rivalry. The Tigres faced off with the New York Night at the Neon Sky Center on Wednesday, and the game quickly turned into a rough physical battle that included a couple of fights and nearly culminated in a line brawl. And based on the teams’ postgame remarks, the bad blood between the teams is likely to linger.
The game was chippy from the beginning, with multiple penalties being whistled on both teams within the first 3 minutes of the game. Quebec attempted to slow down New York’s fast-paced offense with heavy checks and aggressive defense, and the Night rose to the challenge. “We weren’t going to let [the Tigres] push us around and drag us into the mud,” said New York C Brock Manning.
The game remained feisty but contained through most of the first two periods. But things boiled over with 12 seconds left in the second, when Night D Tuomas Nurmi banged home a shot from the blue line to put his team ahead 3-2. Nurmi celebrated his goal vigorously in front of Tigres D Boris Zhzhynov. Although Nurmi claimed later that he was just excited, Zhzhynov felt that he was being taunted.
Zhzhynov responded by shoving Nurmi in the chest. The Night defender raised his arm in outrage, whereupon Zhzhynov dropped his gloves and began throwing haymakers. Referees separated the combatants fairly quickly, with both being assessed fighting majors and Zhzhynov earning an extra minor for instigation.
Zhzhynov and Nurmi went at it again midway through the third period. During an extended shift in the New York end, Nurmi drilled Quebec RW Stephane Mirac into the end boards. Zhzhynov responded by whistling an elbow at Nurmi’s head. Both teams quickly formed a scrum near the Night net, and for a moment it looks as though chaos would ensue. The referees, however, managed to separate both teams. On the ensuing faceoff, Nurmi challenged Zhzhynov to another fight, an offer the Quebec enforcer eagerly accepted. This time, the referees let the two battle things out for a while before sending them both off with matching majors.
The atmosphere remained tense but bloodless through the rest of the game, a 4-3 New York win. Night fans showered the visiting Tigres with popcorn and beer as they headed down the tunnel after the game.
After the game, Night coach Preston Rivers called the Tigres “a street gang in skates,” and accused Quebec coach Martin Delorme of purposefully incited violence. “It’s obviously a pattern with Martin,” said Rivers. “Last year in Michigan, he had a team that couldn’t keep up with us, so he’d turn our games into a bloodbath and try to win ugly. This year, same thing. The league should suspend him; he’s trying to ruin hockey. He’s not a coach, he’s a crime boss.”
Delorme responded in kind, accusing Rivers of hypocrisy. “That team is always puffing out their chests and screaming and taunting, and the officials do nothing,” said the Quebec coach. “But if our team so much as looks cross-eyed at them, Rivers is crying to the officials for a penalty. [The Night] can only play one type of game, and so they want the league to outlaw anyone who tries to play another way.”
Delorme added that he has “no respect” for Rivers and mocked him as “an empty suit. Behind his big mouth and his slicked-up hair, there is nothing, no brains. He is a carnival clown.”
Both teams lined up behind their respective coaches. The Night echoed Rivers’ description of the Tigres as a gang of thugs. “They can’t hang with us on talent, so they make it a brawl instead,” said Manning. “It’s sad, but it’s what you can expect for a limited team like that.” Meanwhile, Quebec C Drustan Zarkovich spoke for his team when he said, “If New York thought this game was ugly, wait until next time we play them. They don’t know ugly yet.”
For his part, Nurmi seemed puzzled by his role in the fireworks. “It’s strange to me,” said Nurmi. “I was just celebrating my goal, and [Zhzhynov] took it personally. After that, it’s like he was out to get me. To me it’s over, but I don’t know what he thinks.”
Zhzhynov, speaking through a translator, shot back: “Tuomas Nurmi is a punk and not a real defenseman. I am proud I stood up for myself and my team.”