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.”
“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.”
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.