CHL Update: Banjax’s Firecracker Prank Leads to Prison

During their inaugural season in 2017, the CHL’s Utah Owls earned a reputation as a group of party animals.  Most infamously, they were banned from all the hotels in Muncie due to their repeated late-night hijinks.  “We’re basically a ‘70s rock band in skates,” said one Utah player.  (It’s worth noting that the Owls’ partying ways didn’t stop them from winning the championship that year.)

The good news for the Owls is that the CHL no longer plays in Muncie; the former Squirrels franchise relocated to Boise during the offseason.  The bad news is that the Owls’ hell-raising ways haven’t improved much with time.  In fact, things got so out of hand in Colorado Springs this weekend that Owls C Lloyd “Goofy” Banjax wound up in police custody overnight.

When the Owls arrived in town for Tuesday’s game against the Zoomies, Banjax and several teammates made a beeline for a local fireworks store, which they’d discovered on a previous trip.  Banjax purchased several dozen “jumping jack” firecrackers, along with a roll of string.  He then retired to his hotel room, where he tied the wicks of the firecrackers together with the string.  Then, at approximately 3 in the morning, Banjax and LW Chuck Alley laid the string down the middle of the hallway.  Then, hiding in the stairway, Banjax lit the end of the string, then watched as the jumping jacks exploded one by one.

The hotel management was alerted to the situation by a rash of irate phone calls from guests awakened by the noise.  (Although Banjax and Alley set up the firecrackers in the hallway where the team was staying, the explosions were loud enough to be heard throughout the hotel.)  Banjax was caught sneaking through the lobby with the lighter still in his hand.

This was not the first time that the Owls have caused trouble in this hotel.  The team was forced to apologize last season after starting a food fight in the hotel’s breakfast area.  “I’m proud to say that you can still smell the maple syrup we sprayed on the walls,” Banjax said months later.

But setting off fireworks is something else entirely, and the hotel manager was in no mood to be lenient.  He called the police, who arrested Banjax and charged him with disorderly conduct.  The center missed the game against Colorado Springs, but coach Wiley Kiyotie bailed him out before the Owls left town.

“Look, they call the guy Goofy for a reason,” said Kiyotie of his wayward center.  “But I do think he crossed a line this time, and he knows it.  I hope this was a bit of a wakeup call for him.  I’m all for guys having fun, but I’m not really up for bailing my guys out of jail on the reg, you know?”

Kiyotie and Owls management negotiated with the hotel, and they agreed to drop the charges in exchange for Banjax apologizing and paying to replace the rug, which was damaged by the blasts.  The Owls are also barred from staying at the hotel in the future.

Banjax admitted a certain degree of embarrassment over the incident.  “When you live out of hotel rooms all the time like we do, you go a little stir-crazy and want to have fun,” said Banjax.  “But from now on, I promise to try to keep it legal, okay?”

The center had another unorthodox idea to resolve the situation, saying that the New York Night (Utah’s parent club) “could always just promote me.  I think I’m good enough to deserve it, and I haven’t been banned from any SHL hotels yet!”

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CHL Update: Utah’s Francis Nets First-Ever Hat Trick

Ed Francis is the very definition of a journeyman hockey player.  The 29-year-old has spent his entire career as a steady but unremarkable depth defenseman.  After graduating from Lake Huron State in 2010, Francis spent a couple years playing in Switzerland before joining the SHL.  In four seasons split between Washington and Saskatchewan, he never made much of an impact, never scoring more than 7 goals or recording more than 11 points in a season.  He is known as a hard worker and a positive clubhouse personality (earning the nickname “Easy Ed” for his gentle demeanor), but he hasn’t been quite fast or talented enough to nail down a starting job.

Ed Francis

Francis was a free agent in the offseason, in a crowded market for blueliners.  When it became clear that he wouldn’t receive a major-league contract, he gave serious thought to retiring.  Francis had an open offer to become a high-school gym teacher in his hometown of Charlevoix, Michigan.  He and his wife Judy have two young children, and the thought of spending less time on the road and more time raising his kids held considerable appeal.

In the end, though, Francis decided “I hadn’t gotten the game out of my blood quite yet.”  He signed a minor-league deal with the New York Night and reported to their CHL affiliate, the Utah Owls.  Finally having a chance to play every day, the defenseman has found joy with the Owls.  And this week, he recorded an achievement he never imagined possible: he scored a hat trick in Utah’s wild 6-5 overtime win over the Idaho Spuds on Sunday.

It was unusual enough that Francis was the first one on the board, receiving a pass at the blue line from RW Mickey Simpson and firing a slapshot past Idaho goalie Kelvin White less than 2 minutes into the game.  His tally was quickly forgotten, though, as the Spuds beat Utah netminder Corey Franklin-Lee three times in a five-minute span to take a two-goal lead at the first intermission.

The Owls quickly erased the deficit with a pair of scores early in the second period, only for D Brady Prussian’s slapper to put Idaho on top again.  But just past the halfway point of the second, Utah generated some pressure in the slot in front of White.  Francis crashed the net, picked up a deflection from C Gilles Valmont, and stuffed it over White’s catching glove for his second goal of the game, tying it at 4.

“At that point, I was just focused on the fact that we’d tied it up,” said Francis.  “I wasn’t even thinking about [a hat trick].”

At 1:25 in the third period, Francis fired another blue-line shot that RW Harris Wondolowski redirected into the net, giving the Owls a 5-4 lead, their first edge since Francis’ opening tally.

“A three-point game?  That was huge for me, probably my first one since high school,” Francis noted afterward.  “And it gave us the lead, which was great.”  Little did he know that the best was yet to come.

The Spuds didn’t go away quietly, as Prussian went five-hole on the power play to equalize the score again.  Somewhat surprisingly, neither team scored again in regulation, sending things to overtime.

About a minute into the extra session, Francis joined a three-on-two rush for the Owls.  “Usually on an odd-man rush like that, I don’t have the speed to be part of it,” he explained.  “But I happened to be in a good spot when Gilles picked it off and started going the other way.”

Valmont found RW Jake Grifka below the hash marks.  Grifka faked a shot, then slid a pass to Francis, who went top-shelf over a sprawling White to win the game as the crowd at Wasatch Arena exploded with delight.

It wasn’t until their hats began hitting the ice that Francis realized what he’d done.  His mouth flew open as his teammates lifted him up and carried him off the ice.

Francis still seemed in shock as he talked to reporters after the game.  “In my whole life, I never imagined I’d get a hatty,” he said.  “It never even crossed my mind, not in my craziest dreams.  It’s a good thing I didn’t know it was happening at the time, or I’d have shot it fifty feet over the goalie’s head.”

Owls coach Wiley Kiyotie was delighted by the unexpected achievement.  “Ed’s the kind of guy who really deserves a moment like this,” Kiyotie told reporters.  “He’s paid his dues, and he works his butt off and never complains.  A guy like that ought to get to be the hero once in his life, at least.”

Once his postgame interviews were over, Francis pulled out his phone and called home to Judy, the wife who’d agreed to stay back in Michigan with the kids while her husband chased his dream for one more season.  When she answered, Francis exclaimed: “Honey, you’ll never believe what just happened to me!”

Continue reading “CHL Update: Utah’s Francis Nets First-Ever Hat Trick”

CHL Update: Utah’s Garcia Demands Trade

Utah Owls LW Diego Garcia is having a very strong season.  The 26-year-old winger is in his second season with the Owls, having been demoted by the New York Night early in the 2017 season.  Garcia had a surprisingly solid season with Utah last year, posting 11 goals and 22 assists in 45 games.  This season, he’s done even better; he leads the team in points, posting __ goals and __ assists already this season.

Diego Garcia

You might think that with these kinds of numbers, Garcia would be a prime candidate for a mid-season callup.  But no promotion has been forthcoming, at least so far.  And that’s left Garcia wanting out.

“When they sent me down, they told me they wanted to see more consistent effort and performance,” Garcia said.  “So I go down and do a great job, and I’m still rotting away?  That’s crap.  If New York’s not going to use me, they should send me somewhere that will.”

Garcia has a rather checkered reputation in the SHL.  He’s considered a decent offensive talent, a good skater with a nice passing touch.  But he’s always been lackadaisical on defense, is not known as a hard worker, and is well known as a malcontent when things aren’t going his way.

He broke in with the then-Dakota Rapids as a third-line winger.  He lost his starting spot to Vonnie McLearen, however, and became deeply disenchanted with coach Harold Engellund and the organization.  After upsetting the coaching staff with his unwillingness to practice, he was traded to the Hamilton Pistols at the trading deadline in 2015.

Garcia played more regularly in Hamilton, recording 8 points in 33 games during the 2016 season.  But the Pistols coaches soured on him, noting that he didn’t seem engaged when the game wasn’t close and, again, he showed inconsistent effort during practices.  As a result, he was sent to New York as part of the Rod Remington deal.  He seemed to click with the Night; their uptempo, offense-oriented style suited his approach, and then-coach Preston Rivers didn’t care much about practice.  Garcia recorded 2 goals and 13 assists in 21 games, and seemed to be on track for more opportunities in 2017.

Garcia was outraged, therefore, when he found himself exiled to the bench under new coach Nick Foster in 2017.  “I earned my shot with the way I played,” Garcia fumed to reporters.  “But bring in a new coach, and all that goes right in the garbage and it’s like I’m a rookie trying out all over again.  I’m not here for that [expletive].”  Garcia also alleged that he was being discriminated against because of his Hispanic origins.  “The Lazy Mexican is the oldest stereotype in the book,” the winger told reporters.  “Because I don’t look like your typical hockey player, I’ve got to work ten times as hard to get credit.  I’m sick of it.”

For his part, Owls coach Wiley Kiyotie is a Garcia fan.  “I know the stories about him,” the coach said, “but I’ve never seen it.  He’s always worked hard and played great for me.  Diego’s always done whatever’s been asked of him, and he’s been a great player for me.  He has a great nose for offensive, and he shows explosive bursts of speed.  I’m glad he’s on the team.”

Garcia stressed that he has no issue with Kiyotie or the Owls.  Rather, he’s anxious to get another crack at the big time.  “I don’t want to spend the rest of my career stuck in the minors,” he said.  “I know that I’m capable of doing a better job than some of those guys that have SHL jobs.  But it’s obvious that New York has given up on me.  So let me go before I get too old and lose my shot.”

Foster, for his part, claims not to have any animus against Garcia.  “I’ll admit, Diego didn’t make much of an impression when he was here,” the Night boss said.  “I’m always open to second-chance stories, though.  But where’s the opening?  He’s proven that he doesn’t want to be a reserve who only gets in a handful of games.  But all of our starting forward slots are basically locked down.  I’m not going to argue that he doesn’t deserve another chance, but I don’t have anywhere to put him.”

Night GM Royce McCormick declined to state whether he would accommodate Garcia’s trade demand.  “We’re always looking for deals to make our team better,” McCormick said.  “And if we see a way to improve that allows Diego to go somewhere, I’ll pursue that.  But we’re not just going to deal him for the sake of moving him.  We’re not in the charity business.”

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.”

CHL Update: Virginia vs. Utah in First-Ever Final

The first round of the Continental Hockey League playoffs is complete, and the final matchup is set.  One of the teams that made it to the championship was expected, a team that established itself as a contender early on and never looked back.  The other finalist is a surprise, a team that only emerged down the stretch and got hot at the right moment.

In the East, the Virginia Rhinos emerged from the pack early and never lost their lead.  In their first-round series, they faced off against the Maine Moose in a matchup of contrasting styles.  “Whoever dictates the pace of this series will win,” said Virginia RW Colton Jabril.  The high-flying, high-scoring Rhinos came in hoping to skate past the trapping, hard-hitting Moose.  As it turned out, though, the teams were in for a closely-fought series.  Virginia took Game 1, but Maine managed to slow down the pace of play and make it a physical game that included a pair of fights.  In Game 2, the Moose managed to dominate, outshooting the Rhinos 43-18 and winning it 3-2.  In Game 3, as the series shifted to L.L. Bean Center, the Moose scored three in the first period and never looked back, as netminder Guillaume Levan stopped 36 shots and won 4-2 to put Maine within a game of advancing.  Game 4 was a tense and tight matchup, as both goalies were at their sharpest.  But Moose C Jacob Cunniff took a costly delay-of-game penalty midway through the third period, and Rhinos C Tanner Brooks cashed in on the ensuing power play with what proved to be the winning goal in a 2-1 contest.  That set up a Game 5 for all the marbles back at Waterfront Center.  The Rhinos scored a goal in each of the first two periods to get the fans excited, but the Moose scored a pair of goals in the first five minutes of the third to tie it up.  Virginia needed a hero, and C Cyril Perignon was their man, stuffing home a rebound in the final two minutes for a 3-2 victory.

“This team really showed what it was made of in this series,” said Rhinos coach Jeffrey “Swampy” Marsh.  “Maine’s a tough competitor, and they didn’t let up on us.  They did a good job neutralizing our speed, and we had to go in there and win it the hard way.  And we did it!”

Out West, the Utah Owls came into their division series as a heavy underdog to the Omaha Ashcats.  They were at or under the .500 mark for much of the season, and they finished 10 points behind Omaha.  However, they had a couple things going for them. They were hot, having gone 13-3-4 over their final 20 games.  And they had a secret weapon in net: top prospect Sherman Carter, who spent much of the season with the parent New York Night before rejoining the team in the final days.   In Game 1, the Owls walked into the Switching Yard and stunned the favored Ashcats, scoring the first three goals of the game and rolling to a 5-2 win, with Carter making 39 saves.  In Game 2, both teams failed to score in the first two periods.  Utah shocked the home crowd by taking a 2-0 lead in the third, but Omaha scored a pair in the final three minutes to force overtime.   The Ashcats and their fans assumed the tide was turning in the game and the series, but Owls D Jose Martinez scored the winning goal just over four minutes into overtime, pushing Omaha to the brink.  The Ashcats stayed alive with a 2-1 win in Game 3, but it came at a cost: top-pairing D Victor Addison went down with an upper-body injury.  Then in Game 4, Utah again put up three goals in the first period, and Carter stopped 37 shots to secure a 4-2 win and a 3-1 series victory.

“Anybody out there still doubting us?” said Owls coach Wiley Kiyotie.  “We may not look like the best team out there, but we’ve already slayed one giant and we’re ready to slay another.”

The best-of-seven finals series kicks off on Saturday at Waterfront Center.  “It’ll be a great series if you’re a fan of the color purple,” joked Marsh.

CHL Update: Inaugural Playoff Field Set

The first regular season of the Continental Hockey League, the SHL’s minor league, is now in the books.  (They finished a week ahead of the SHL due to the fact that they didn’t have an All-Star break.)  Now the league is looking forward to its first postseason.  The CHL will have a four-team playoff field, a setup that the SHL plans to adopt next season.  The division playoff will be a best-of-five matchup, with the winners facing off in a best-of-seven series for the league championship.  Here’s a preview of the first-round matchups:

Eastern Division

The Eastern playoff will feature a battle of contrasting styles.  The Virginia Rhinos got off to a strong start this season and never looked back on their way to claiming the division title.  The Rhinos built their success on the strength of a potent offense; their 223 goals were the most in the league by a considerable margin.  They had three of the league’s top 10 goal scorers in LW Yuri Laronov, D Blake Blacklett, and RW Colton Jabril.  Their high-octane offense is backed up by netminder Shawn Stickel, the league’s winningest goaltender, who went 30-16-1 with a 2.54 GAA and a .913 save percentage.  “We’ve got a mighty force here,” said Rhinos coach Jeffrey “Swampy” Marsh.  “Anyone who’s going to stop us is going to have to put up a hell of a fight.”

The Maine Moose might just be a team capable of giving them that fight.  The Moose are the best defensive team in the CHL, true to the spirit of their parent club, the Quebec Tigres.  They are well known for their slow-down style, which is focused on denying opponents offensive zone time.  Maine’s rigid defense allowed only 1551 shots, over 100 fewer than their nearest competitor.  They also have the leagues stingiest penalty kill, stopping 87.8% of power plays cold.  “We might not be the prettiest team out there,” said Moose coach Barney Flintridge, “but our style is darned effective.”   The Moose aren’t all about defense; they have scorers, too.  LW Aaron Knorr, who was the only player in the CHL to put up a four-goal game, scored 23 goals in the season; their top defensive pairing of Richard McKinley and Kirby Hanlon scored 18 apiece.  “Momentum’s been on our side,” said Knorr.  “If Virginia thinks we’re going to be an easy mark, they’re in for a shock.”

 

Western Division

Ever since they emerged from the pack in the West after the first quarter of the season, the Omaha Ashcats have been regarded as perhaps the CHL’s best team.  They’re not a team with a lot of flashy stars, but they’re a team with impressive strength and depth, as their league-leading +49 rating attests.  They have the league’s top three in plus/minus (LW Kendall Bannon, RW “Action” Asher Ravenbloom, and C Dale Wilcox), with D Duncan DeShantz close behind.  “This isn’t a team that relies on star power,” said coach Randy Bergner.  “We get our strength from the fact that we play as a unit.  All for one and one for all; it may sound corny, but we believe it.”  Goalie Gus Parrish provides some veteran experience to back up a young squad (24-12-1, 2.72 GAA).  Small wonder that Omaha is generally considered the favorite to win the CHL championship.

It’s certainly not a surprise that the Ashcats are a huge favorite over the Utah Owls, who slipped into the playoffs with a less-than-breathtaking 31-24-5 record and are probably best known around the league for their rambunctious antics on the road.  Even though the Owls saw a couple of their top prospects, LW Sylvester Catarino and D Rocky Winkle, called up to the parent New York Night early in the season, they still held their own.  Utah’s greatest strength is their goaltending.  Veteran “Jersey Mike” Ross was the starter for much of the season and he was excellent, but prospect Sherman Carter rejoined the team down the stretch, and his numbers (2.30 GAA and .929 save percentage) suggest a player who could give the Ashcats fits.  But the player who really puts the fear of God into opponents is D Donald Duckworth.  He’s a two-way threat, the only player in the league to be in the top 10 in both goals (25) and penalty minutes (108).  “That guy’s just plain crazy,” said Owls C Lloyd “Goofy” Banjax.  “You look at him the wrong way, and he’s liable to knock you into next week.  If you make him mad, God help you.”  Utah also finished the season hot, going 13-3-4 over the final month.  If the Owls can keep their penchant for on-the-road revelry (which have contributed to their 12-16-2 road record, the worst by far among playoff teams), they might give Omaha a run for their money.

 

CHL Update: Owls’ Hotel Hijinks Earn Ban from Muncie

The Utah Owls have had a number of challenges as they’ve sought to compete in the CHL’s Western division this season.  They are geographically remote from most of the other teams in the league, which means that they’ve had to travel more than any team other than Albuquerque.  They suffered a blow early in the season when their parent club, the New York Night, promoted several of their best players.

Now the Owls face a new challenge: finding a place to stay when they play the Muncie Squirrels.  The hotels in Muncie issued a joint statement today banning the Owls from staying at their establishments due to “a pattern of disruptive and inappropriate behavior that has left us unwilling to host them going forward.”

The statement, which was signed by the management of every hotel in Muncie, provided a lengthy list of the many, many hijinks the Owls had committed during their stays in the city. Some of the highlights included:

  • Placing wake-up calls at odd hours for guests in other rooms
  • Holding water-balloon fights in the halls
  • Stealing the maid’s carts and using them to hold drag races in the lobby
  • Making mass quantities of waffles and then using them to play Ultimate Frisbee in the dining room
  • Falling asleep on the front desk
  • Holding howling contests in the stairwells in the middle of the night

The statement noted that the managers of several hotels where the Owls stayed had attempted to work with the team to get their players to cool it, to no avail.  They also noted that the Owls had refused to pay bills for cleaning services or damage caused by some of their more adventurous escapades.

“While we would like to be able to welcome the Owls to our hotels, we have learned the hard way that housing them will only lead to chaos in the halls, angry guests, and a very real risk of serious property damage,” the statement continued.  “Therefore, we have no choice but to bar the Owls from staying with us.”

By all accounts, the Owls are a rowdy traveling crew, and they have reportedly been barred from individual hotels in other places.  However, this is the first time that a team has been banned from staying in an entire city.

“This is just crazy,” said Owls coach Wiley Kiyotie.  “I know our guys like to have fun, and sometimes it gets a little out of hand.  But come on, you can’t kick us out of the entire city!”

Utah C Lloyd “Goofy” Banjax shared his coach’s outrage at the move.  “It’s not like there’s anything to do in Muncie,” said Banjax.  “So yeah, we usually wind up hanging around the hotel and raising a little hell.  But it’s not like we’re throwing our beds out the window and into the pool or anything.  Okay, there was that one time.”

Assuming the ban holds, the Owls have some lodging options, which Kiyotie said the team is considering.  They could stay in Indianapolis, which is about an hour away from Muncie.  They could rent a bus and have the team sleep there.  “And of course,” said the Utah coach, “there’s always Airbnb.”