CHL Update: Can Culp Win Goals Title?

Ask the typical CHL fan for the first word that comes to mind when he or she thinks of Utah Owls C Foster Culp, that word would probably be something like “crazy” or “goofy.”  Culp has a long history of off-kilter behavior, a history that has earned him the nickname “Bananas Foster.”  The last time Culp’s name was in the news, it was for taking a pre-game skate in Cleveland wearing a parka and a miner’s lamp.

One word that’s rarely been associated with Culp is “leader.” And yet, if the season were to end today, the goofball widely known as “Bananas Foster” would win the CHL goal-scoring title.

Foster Culp

“I can’t explain it either,” said Culp.  “I think we must have slipped into an alternate timeline or something.”

Arguably, Culp is being too modest.  Last season with Colorado Springs, Culp scored 29 goals, two less than the league lead.  Last year’s co-leaders, Idaho’s Brady Prussian and Oshawa’s Elvis Bodett, are both currently playing the SHL.  And Culp seems to have taken his game up a notch this season; he’s already scored 25 goals with a quarter of the season left to go. Culp is two ahead of his closest competitor, Halifax Atlantics LW Jarmann Fischer.  Third place currently belongs to RW Harris Wondolowski, who was Culp’s Utah teammate until he was called up to the New York Night last week.  (It comes as little surprise that Utah currently leads the CHL in goals with 158.)

Still, the idea of Culp actually being the CHL’s leading scorer seems to amuse or alarm many of his teammates.  “I’m pretty sure that Culper leading the league in goals is one of the signs of the apocalypse,” said Owls RW Sylvester Catarino.  “If I see any dudes on horseback, I’m going to run.  That’s all I’m saying.”

Utah coach Wiley Kiyotie, on the other hand, thinks that Culp deserves more credit for his performance.  “Honestly, Foster’s got a lot of natural talent,” said Kiyotie.  “He’s fearless about getting to the net, and he knows what to do once he gets there.  From an offensive standpoint, he’s a really capable player.  Everyone tends to forget about that because he acts like a clown.  But he’s not just a clown; he’s also a good hockey player.”

If Culp does pull off the improbable, does he have a celebration in mind?  “Nothing too over the top,” Culp told reporters.  “Just me, my teammates, a couple hundred girls in bikinis with my name on them, and a thousand bottles of champagne.  You know, pretty low-key.”

Might the Night look at calling Culp up if he continues to produce at this rate?  GM Jay McKay wouldn’t say for certain, but he did say that “Foster’s performance is definitely getting attention here in the front office.  If he can manage not to get arrested or burn the locker room down in the meantime, then yeah, I’d say we’ll be having a conversation.”

CHL Update: Utah’s Francis Retires After Gruesome Leg Injury

When veteran SHL defenseman Ed Francis decided last season to sign a minor-league deal with the New York Night rather than retiring, he said he hadn’t “gotten the game out of [his] blood”.  He chose to stay in the game while keeping alive his slim hopes of making it back to the SHL.

Ed Francis

Francis’ time in Utah has proved to be unexpectedly eventful.  On the bright side, he recorded his first-ever hat trick last season.  The downside came this week, when the 30-year-old blueliner suffered a grotesque leg injury that ended his season and, he announced, his career as well.

Last Saturday, Francis and the Night faced off against the Minnesota Freeze.  With about six minutes left in the third period, Minnesota began an odd-man rush.  Francis pursued Freeze C Tanner Everest, who carried the puck across the blue line.  Everest faked a pass to LW Henry Van Alpin, then skated hard toward the net.  Francis threw himself to the ice in an effort to block the shot, but in doing so he caught Everest’s left skate.  The towering center tangled with Francis and went down in a heap.  They shot past the goal and slammed hard into the boards.

After a brief moment of disorientation, Everest rose up and skated away.  Francis, however, remained crumpled against the boards.  When the defenseman did try to move, he immediately noticed something disconcerting: “My leg was pointing the wrong way.”

Replays of the incident would show what happened: Francis’ right skate caught the ice just shy of the boards, and Everest’s full weight rammed into it.  This caused the Utah blueliner’s lower leg to shatter.

Several Owls teammates came over to help Francis up, but he waved them away.  “I could already tell something was really wrong,” Francis said.

Owls trainer Carey Clarkson rushed out to aid the fallen Francis.  As soon as he saw the defenseman’s right leg, he immediately waved for the stretcher.  “I could see the bone pressed up against the skin,” said Clarkson later.  “I was trying not to throw up on the ice.”

The arena fell silent as the fans recognized the severity of the injury.  Francis was hustled off the ice and to the nearest hospital, where surgeons quickly went to work reducing the swelling and reconstructing the bones in Francis’ leg.

Thanks to the quick work of the surgical team, Francis was stabilized and his leg was saved.  However, the surgeon informed him that while he should be able to walk unaided eventually, his odds of being able to play hockey again at a competitive level are virtually zero.

After discussing the situation with his family, Francis officially announced that he will be retiring.  “Obviously, this isn’t the way I wanted to go out,” said a visibly emotional Francis.  “But I’m not bitter.  The way I think about it, I consider myself fortunate that I had the chance to play the sport I love and get paid.  With the love and support of my family and God’s blessing, I will focus on my recovery.  After that, I can figure out the next chapter in my life.”

Owls coach Wiley Kiyotie spoke admiringly of Francis’ courage and his mentorship of Utah’s younger players.  “If anyone has the strength – on the inside and the outside – to recover from something like this, it’s Easy Eddie,” said Kiyotie.  “The entire Owls organization will be in Eddie’s corner as he goes through this.  And if he feels like coaching is something he wants to do later on, he’s always got a spot on my staff.  He’s been an unofficial coach of sorts these last couple seasons, and I’ve been grateful for his help.”

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!”

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!”

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