“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.

Interview of the Week: Zeke Zagurski

This week’s interview is with Saskatchewan Shockers G Zeke Zagurski.

Zeke Zagurski

SHL Digest: We’re here this week with a longtime SHL netminder, Zeke Zagurski of the surprising Shockers. Zeke, thanks for talking with us.

Zeke Zagurski: Thanks for inviting me. We usually don’t get chosen for much, so this is awesome!

SHLD: With the way your team has been playing, it’s well-deserved. How does it feel to be a contender at last?

ZZ: It’s honestly amazing to finally feel like we have a real chance. It’s great to see the guys working together to get the wins.

SHLD: What do you think has been the secret to your success this year?

ZZ: I think we have a strong team that is finally playing at the same pace as each other

SHLD: Do you think your new coach [Morris Thompson] has helped with that?

ZZ: Certainly.  He really prioritizes teamwork and even has us do team bonding exercises pretty often.

SHLD: Oh yeah? Like what?

ZZ: You know that activity where you lean back and the other person is supposed to catch you? Well we tried that… it didn’t go well. We also lifted up Chris [Oflyng] with one finger each, which was super cool.

SHLD: Sounds interesting! I hope no one got hurt doing that.

ZZ: Well no, but my boy Troy [Chamberlain] did end up catching someone who wasn’t his partner. Barnesy [Wyatt Barnes] really wasn’t supportive of those trust exercises.

SHLD: Understood.  Now, you yourself have a reputation for being… a little weird. Do you think that’s fair?

ZZ: Yeah, probably so. But honestly, once you get out here and spend a night with our owner [Heinz Doofenshmirtz], who wouldn’t be?

SHLD: You raised a lot of eyebrows earlier this year when you ate a hot dog on the ice during the middle of a game. What was the story there?

ZZ: Well, I was hungry, I always wanted to try one of the hot dogs they sell in the stands. One thing led to another, and I paid a fan to slip me a hot dog as I came out of the tunnel. I stuck it in my water bottle for safekeeping, and I was good to go.

SHLD: Cleverly done! Coach Thompson probably wasn’t too happy about that, though.

ZZ: Not too much. I was suspended from making contact with fans for a month. The man didn’t even let me finish my hot dog!

SHLD: Not fair!

ZZ: I know, right? I mean, how am I supposed to focus on playing hockey when there’s an unfinished hot dog just sitting there waiting for me?

SHLD: It must have taken real inner strength.

ZZ: You have no idea.

SHLD: That’s not your only quirk. Your teammates say you prepare for games by locking yourself in a toilet stall and screaming the words to “I Feel Pretty.”

ZZ: Why, of course! Julie Andrews always knows how to hype me up.

SHLD: So, back to your team. Next week is the trading deadline. Are you hoping for a big trade, or do you hope the Shockers stand pat?

ZZ: I think we have an awesome team already, but I am always up for getting a fresh face to keep us on our toes.

SHLD: Any preference on what kind of player you get? (Not a goalie, presumably.)

ZZ: I would say it is never a bad thing to get more help with defense. Less work for me is something I am always up for.

SHLD: Makes sense. Well, that will do for this week. Thanks for your time, Zeke, and good luck the rest of the season!

ZZ: Thank you! And to our fans: thanks for sticking with us, and this is our year. V-A-N-D-Y!!!!

Shockers Dealt Tough Loss Amid Tight West Race

At the midway point of the season, both the East and West divisions are more competitive than usual.  Four clubs in each division have a real shot at the playoffs; on the flip side, no team is so dominant that their postseason trip is essentially certain.  It’s anybody’s game, and that’s exciting for the fans, as almost every game has potential playoff ramifications.

On the other hand, it can be frustrating for the teams, especially when stretches of strong play don’t create any separation in the standings.  And when a team suffers a particularly tough loss, it stings even more knowing that the line between making the playoffs and watching them on TV appears so thin.

Just ask the Saskatchewan Shockers.  Under the guidance of new coach Morris Thompson, they’re playing smart, strong, disciplined hockey.  They’ve posted their best first-half record ever.  And yet, they’re mired in fourth place, remaining close but agonizingly far for a playoff spot.  Sasktchewan’s precarious position made Thursday’s mystifying loss, in which they played well against the Hershey Bliss only to lose in a 5-0 blowout, a truly bitter pill to swallow.

“I know it’s weird to say this about a game we lost by 5, but I thought we were the better team in a lot of the game,” said Shockers LW Troy Chamberlain.  “This game was just really weird.”

It’s hard to say whether Chamberlain’s claim that Saskatchewan was “the better team” holds water, but they definitely dominated the first period.  The Shockers came out firing, dictating the pace of play.  Aided by a pair of power plays, they outshot the Bliss 19-11.  “I thought we should have been up 2-0 or 3-0 after that,” said Chamberlain.

Instead, the game remained scoreless, thanks to Hershey goalie Brandon Colt.  He isn’t usually considered among the league’s top goalies, but he played like one on Thursday.  He made a dramatic kick-out save on a power-play blast by Chamberlain, bringing the crowd at Chocolate Center to its feet.  He also made a brilliant stop in the closing minutes of the period, robbing C Elliott Rafferty on a breakaway.  The Shockers also suffered some poor luck; on their two power plays in the period, they rang three shots off the posts.

Saskatchewan again got the better of the play to start the second, only to see Colt stymie them again and again.  Just after the nine-minute mark of the period, the Shockers got their third power play of the night when Bliss C Vance Ketterman was whistled for cross-checking.  Saskatchewan failed to convert yet again, managing only one shot, and the momentum seemed to shift toward the home team.

The game remained scoreless until late in the second.  With 2:31 remaining, Hershey RW Noah Daniels deflected a blast from D Steve Cargill and bounced it past Shockers goalie Zeke Zagurski into the net.  It was a fluke goal, but after seeing so many of their shots stopped, spirits sagged on the Saskatchewan bench.

“We couldn’t understand how we were losing when we’d played so much better,” said Rafferty.

In the third, the Shockers pushed hard in the early going, only to come up empty yet again.  Bliss C Justin Valentine banged home a rebound just until 7 minutes in to make it 2-0.  D Bruce Minnik went to the sin bin a couple minutes later, giving Saskatchewan its fourth power play of the game.  By this time, the Shockers were stressing out, shanking shots left and right and missing out on quality chances.

Twenty second after the power play ended, Bliss LW Lance Sweet and RW Christopher Hart broke out on an odd-man rush, and Hart beat Zagurski to give Hershey a three-goal edge.

The dam seemed to burst after that; the Shockers all but gave up, and Hershey scored twice more before the game mercifully ended.

The frustration in the Shockers locker room was palpable after the game.  Rafferty, who was denied at least three times by brilliant Colt saves, smashed his stick to pieces against his stool.  Zagurski opted for a different approach; he went into the shower with his equipment still on, sitting in soaked silence.

To make matters worse, the three teams ahead of Saskatchewan in the West standings (Michigan, Seattle, and Anchorage) all lost, costing the Shockers a rare chance to gain ground.

“In any season, there’s always going to be a few games you wish you could have back,” said Thompson.  “But this one was a knife to the gut.  When you get a 6-0 edge in power plays, you really need to win it.  This one really stings.”

Continue reading “Shockers Dealt Tough Loss Amid Tight West Race”

Frankly, Zagurski’s On-Ice Snack Draws Ire

Saskatchewan Shockers G Zeke Zagurski is not widely known around the league as a colorful character.  Within the Shockers’ locker room, however, the netminder has a reputation for being a little… well, quirky.  “Zeke marches to the beat of his own drum, that’s for sure,” said D Chris Oflyng.  “I mean, he’s not as crazy as our owner [Heinz Doofenshmirtz], but he’s his own kind of cat, definitely.”

Zeke Zagurski

Zagurski’s quirky side made a rare appearance on the ice, when the goalie was caught using one of his water bottles in a non-traditional way.

In the middle of the first period of Sunday’s season-opening game against the Michigan Gray Wolves, during a TV timeout, Zagurski reached for one of the two bottles sitting on top of his net.  Rather than squirting it into his mouth, however, the Shockers goalie unscrewed the top and shook the bottle until a foil-wrapped package fell out.  Zagurski then peeled back the foil, revealing a hot dog that he’d apparently smuggled onto the ice in the bottle.

“When we saw Zeke unscrewing the top of the bottle, we thought he was going to dump the water on his head,” said LW Troy Chamberlain.  “We were a little worried, like ‘Is he getting overheated? Is he sick?’  Then out comes this hot dog, and he starts eating it.  Then we were like, ‘Ah, that makes sense. Only Zeke would bring himself a hot dog to eat during the game.’”

Zagurski’s mid-game nosh drew the attention of Michigan’s radio broadcasting team.  “Something strange happening over in net for Saskatchewan,” said color commentator Blackie Sprowl.  “What’s Zagurski got in his hand over there?”

“Looks like it’s a… hot dog,” replied play-by-play man Philip Shelton.  “He’s eating a hot dog.  Folks, this is really happening: Zeke Zagurski is eating a hot dog while he’s on the ice.  I don’t know where it came from, but… wow.”

“I thought we were the only ones allowed to eat during a game!”  quipped Sprowl.

“So did I, but it’s snack time for Zagurski, apparently,” said Shelton.  “We can’t make this stuff up, folks.”

“He’s my hero!” said Sprowl.

Ron Wright

Wolves coach Ron Wright, on the other hand, was less amused.  He barked at referee Darren St. James to make Zagurski throw the frankfurter away.  When St. James declined to intervene, Wright lobbied St. James’ officiating partner Bernie Craig to assess the Saskatchewan netminder an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.  Like St. James, Craig refused to get involved.

Wright remained steamed about the incident after the game.  “I thought it was a disgrace,” Wright said of Zagurski’s midgame dog-scarfing.  “We’re supposed to be professionals, and this is supposed to be a serious game.  Instead, we’ve got a guy out here acting like a clown, and nobody does anything.  [Zagurski] has been in this league long enough to better.”

The coach called on the league to discipline Zagurski.  “Otherwise, why stop there?” the coach snapped.  “Why not wheel out a buffet table to center ice so we can all have a nice meal in mid-game?  Why not have Uber Eats deliver food to the benches?  If we’re going to be okay with eating food on the ice, why not let everyone in on it?  Seriously, is this a hockey game on an all-you-can-eat special?”

For his part, Zagurski (who made 35 saves, but lost 1-0) claimed to be mystified by the fuss.  “Goaltending is hard work, and I get hungry sometimes,” he told reporters.  He added that he’d been exploring his options for on-ice snacking for a while.  His original plan was to sew a pouch inside his jersey to hold some beef jerky, but “our clubhouse manager told me that would be an equipment violation,” so he opted for the hot-dog-in-water-bottle solution instead.

“Guys drink water on the ice all the time, and no one blinks an eye,” Zagurski concluded.  “I have one little hot dog, and suddenly it’s World War 3.”

Zagurski’s teammates confirmed that his appetite is indeed legendary.  “Everyone knows to hit the postgame buffet before Zeke gets to it,” said Oflyng, “or you’ll go hungry.  That guy’s an eating machine.”

The league did not discipline Zagurski, but SHL Commissioner Perry Mitchell sent a communique to the referees clarifying that goalies’ water bottles must contain nothing but H2O, and indicating that future incidents would be penalized.  “Zagurski’s actions weren’t technically in violation of the rules, but this isn’t a road we want to go down,” said Commissioner Mitchell.  “If players want to eat, they can wait until the intermission breaks or after the game.”

Zagurski agreed to abide by the commissioner’s ruling, but he asked plaintively: “Why is it a crime to be hungry?”

Continue reading “Frankly, Zagurski’s On-Ice Snack Draws Ire”