Sunday, January 30, 2011


At the All star Break with Shawn Matthias

Shawn Matthias is currently in the midst of his third National Hockey League campaign with the Florida Panthers. This season, however, is slightly different, and much more exciting for the young centre. He has been with the club since the opening of training camp.

In his first two seasons, he was subject to the roller coaster ride experienced by most young players in the league: the old “call up, sent down” syndrome. In fact, in his first NHL season, he did the trip on four separate occasions between the parent club and the American League affiliate in Rochester.

“I’m having a great time here,” he told me after a recent game at the Bank/Atlantic Centre in Florida. He is living the dream of so many young Canadian hopefuls now closing out their seasons in North America. Come to think of it, in many parts of the world. With the advent of players in the game from around the globe, the level of competition has increased as well.

Matthias experienced gradual growth in his Ontario Hockey League career. He joined the Belleville Bulls in 2004, and spent the next four years with the team. In his rookie campaign, he dressed for 37 games, and recorded one goal and one assist. The following year, he picked it up a notch, recording 34 points. In his third season with the Bulls, he recorded 73 points in regular season play. More importantly, he led the team to the Memorial Cup finals with 18 points in 15 games. In 53 games in his final year with the Bulls, he tallied 79 points.

When we chatted recently, he reminisced fondly about his days in Belleville. “It was a great place to play. The fans were unbelievable. Please give my best to my billets, Bill and Phyllis Ferguson.” He then chuckled and added, “They hate it when I mention their names!”

In the most recent official blurb from the Panthers, it is noted that the team is enjoying success on and off the ice, and is nicely following GM Dale Tallon’s “Blueprint” for success. Dallon recently helped guide the Chicago Black Hawks to the Stanley Cup. His predecessor, Bill Torrey, was successful in building the New York Islander franchise in its heyday.

Matthias is approaching this year as another learning year. He is asked to play a lot of different roles on the team, and enjoys that aspect of the game. He has become a most proficient face-off artist. I remarked that he had won almost all of the face-offs he had during the recent game in Florida. He glared at me, raised an eyebrow, and stated, “I thought I had won them all!” That elicited a series of mumbles from this scribe.

The Panthers sit at the .500 mark at this time. They have been beset with a series of injuries, naturally affecting their success on the ice. Bryan McCabe is out with a broken jaw. Byron Bitz has been unavailable since training camp with a sports hernia. Chris Higgins has just returned to the lineup after missing several games. Dmitry Kulikov is listed as “day to day” with a rib injury. They are out of the playoff picture at this time, but with a string of victories, they could be in the hunt within the month.

They have a host of fine young prospects on the roster: Mike Santorelli, Keaton Ellerby, Michael Frolik, Kulikov,Evgeny Dadonov, and Matthias. Then there are several other younger players ready to step up to the big time: Erik Gudbranson from the Kingston Frontenacs, his teammate Quinton Howden from the Team Canada Juniors, Nick Bjugstad and Drew Shore from Team USA, and Joonas Donskoi from Team Finland.

It is a most competitive world. Every player in the NHL is aware of that. Matthias averages about twelve minutes per game, and has almost twenty points in less than fifty games at the Break. At six feet, four inches, he commands a fair amount of space on the ice. The Panthers can use his size, his fine hands, and his growing expertise to gain a foothold in their quest for a playoff berth this year. They face the Leafs and the Habs on the road right after the Break, play in New Jersey, then return home for two weeks. Needless to say, a most critical time for the Cats.

All Belleville Bulls fans wish him well.

James Hurst
January 30, 2011

Monday, January 24, 2011


Florida Panther Hockey

(Left to right) Jim Hulton, Jamie Pringle, David Hurst

With little difficulty, we were able to leave Fort Myers and reach the Bank Atlantic Centre in less than two hours. It does involve a route that goes due south on the “I 75” to begin with, followed by a dogleg to the left. Then it’s a matter of straight ahead through “Alligator Alley”.

They are serious about this. On a warm afternoon, you can see the gators sunning on the sides of the creeks alongside the highway. There are fences on the right hand side of the highway to keep the alligators contained. There are higher fencers on the left hand side to keep the panthers off the road. The alligators have learned to respect their situation; however, the same cannot be said for the panthers. According to the latest edition of the Fort Myers News Press, there have been two panthers killed on that stretch of road already this year.

A former Picton resident, Jamie Pringle, is an assistant coach with the Panthers. Pringle began his coaching career in the County, at one time wrestling with a Bantam House League team, with Jason Parks as an assistant coach. Darren Dayton, Mike Foley, Kelly Haight, Tyler Carter, David Hurst and a host of other county boys made Pringle’s life interesting at that time. He is in his third season with the Cats, following stints with Hockey Canada in its National Program, with the Belleville Bulls and with the Kingston Frontenacs.

Another assistant coach is also a familiar figure in the Belleville area. Jim Hulton coached the Bulls from 2000-2003, then moved on to coach the Frontenacs. The York University graduate also coached the Royal Military College Redmen for a year. A couple of stints in the OHL with Mississauga are also on his resume.

The Panthers have just completed a lengthy home stand. The last three game at home were enough to put head coach Peter DeBoer in the cardiac ward. All were lost by one goal: one on a shootout goal, one in overtime, and one in the last minute of regulation play. Mind you, the Panthers have won a slew of games this year by slim margins.

That does not alleviate the frustration for the coaches, the fans, and the players. After the second game, coach DeBoer had this to say: “We need to find a way to win a few of these types of games, and build on it. It seems that when we get the lead, the other team pushes back, and we don’t. It’s a matter of instilling some confidence in the players. With a break or two, we could have extended the lead. Then the players could loosen up a little bit, and play a little looser.”

The Panthers wrap up the first half of the season on Wednesday against the Bruins in Boston. The all Star game is on the 29th of February. They then face the Leafs on the first of February, and the Habs on the second. They return home on the eighth of February to face the Blues.

For those of you heading to sunny climes for a week or two this winter, a Panthers game should be a must. There are many great attractions at the rink itself, including a dozen very perky cheerleaders. Better still, the deal of a lifetime: tickets, hot dogs, sodas, for four people for less than sixty bucks! I wonder what the damage would be in Hogtown for the same deal, once you pay the scalper.

We chatted briefly with Shawn Matthias, the fine young Belleville Bulls’ graduate after the game. He was busy preparing for the three game road trip before the break.
We left Jamie Pringle in the midst of it: rounding up his kids to get them home to bed, and preparing to watch hours of video to help his team in the weeks to come.
All in all, a most worthwhile hockey experience in Fort Lauderdale. And right beside the largest Mall in Florida! (Oops! Maybe I shouldn’t have written that!)

James Hurst
January 24, 2011

Monday, January 17, 2011


Baseball's Grapefruit League

They are gearing up for the baseball season in South West Florida, affectionately known as the Grapefruit League
Mind you, the players will not show up for about a month. Pitchers and catchers first, thank you, followed by the rest of the gang about a week later.
Preparations are well under way for the 2011 baseball season, at least the Spring Training aspect of the adventure. Tickets have been printed, locker rooms are cleaned and ready to go.
Fans lined up for hours a couple of weeks ago in Fort Myers to buy a chance to see their beloved Red Sox before they head north to Boston for the summer.
Naples resident Mark Griffiths was rewarded for his patience. At 10:00am on Saturday morning, they sold him the first tickets for the pre-season games. He was almost giddy as he raised his eight tickets in the air to signify the gates had opened.
He told me that he had been in line for eighty-four hours, having taken his position the previous Wednesday. We showed up at 9:15am, expecting to move into serious contention for reasonable seats.
“The first thing I am going to do is go home and have a hot shower,” he told me after carefully pocketing the tickets. He had snapped up Row 1, Seats 4, 5,6, and 7 for the game against the Yankees. That left me to wonder who got seats 1 and 2.
We were positioned down the street and around the corner at City of Palms Park, the site of Red sox baseball in the spring for the last twenty-five years. Time marches on, and the powers-that-be have decided to build a new stadium, with more luxury boxes to accommodate the Bostonians next spring. By the time we had reached the corner, with another hundred yards to go, it was time for lunch.
By late evening, almost three thousand tickets had been sold through the windows of the stadium. Another 25 000 had been sold online and by phone. Team sources indicated that ticket sales were the highest in six years. In 2007, more than 30 000 tickets were sold on the first day.
Griffiths did not hesitate when I asked him to name his favourite player. “Big Papi,” he beamed. “And I got tickets to see him on St. Patrick’s Day.”
The Minnesota Twins also warm up for the season in Fort Myers. They play their exhibition games at Hammond Stadium, and begin with three games against the Sox, two at the end of February and one on the First of March.
The Red Sox will play the rest of their games at a variety of venues in Florida: Tampa, Sarasota, Port St. Lucie, Jupiter, Port Charlotte, Bradenton, Clearwater, and Dunedin. They conclude with a game against Houston in Texas.
We managed to score tickets for games against the Orioles, the Phillies, and the Blue Jays in late March. I am embarrassed to say that it took me five minutes to get those tickets by phone, after waiting in line for more than two hours.
Team representatives distributed photographs of Wally, the team mascot, and Jonathan Papelbon, the fire-balling reliever. Papelbon has elected to involve himself in the arbitration process this spring, but will take the mound this summer when required.
Thomas Edison wintered here, beginning in the early part of the twentieth century. He had 120 palms transplanted from Cuba to line the main thoroughfare in Fort Myers. Since then, many other palm trees have taken root here: hence the city’s moniker “The City of Palms”.
A first class place to take in the great game of baseball, and yes, catch a few rays at the same time!

James Hurst

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Hockey---Southern Stlye!

Over the years, I have tasted hockey in the South. Almost twenty years ago, we watched Brent Gretzky with the Knights in Atlanta. Fifteen years ago, the Orlando Solar Bears played before miniscule crowds in Southern Florida, with Alan Bester tending the twine for the Bears.

The East Coast Hockey League has a team located between Fort Myers and Naples on the western coast of the state of Florida. The Florida Everblades play at the Germain Arena, just off Interstate Highway # 75.

If you happen to be in the area, and the opportunity arises, get to the rink. The hockey is exciting, and at a very high level. Both the Blades and the visiting Cinncinatti Cyclones would have little trouble disposing of any of the junior teams in the Canadian Hockey League. Great seats available for twelve bucks.

Players from this league move up and down from the American Hockey League. I am certain this fact drives coaches to distraction. Just when the coach finally has adjusted his lines, he will lose a key player. Understandably, injuries will also affect a team’s starting lineup.

The league is made up of two conferences, one in the east and the other in the west. From the north come the Alaska Aces, with the lone Canadian team, the Salmon Kings from Vancouver Island. There are three teams in California, one in Vegas, and the Grizzlies in Utah.

There are eleven teams in the east, with the Elmira Jackals from New York State to the Blades in Florida. Due to the vast area covered by the teams, there are often occasions when teams host an opponent for three straight games. I thought that would be a recipe for disaster, but when the Cyclones were recently in for their trio, such was not the case.

There were skirmishes in the third game, and some minor dustups, but no serious line brawls. Following the second game, I sat in on the interview with rookie coach Greg Poss of the Blades. A Wisconsin native, he played a few years in the American Hockey League after graduating from the University of Wisconsin. He recently coached several years in Europe.

His team had just lost the second game of the series. “We did not spend enough time in the offensive zone. We have to play simpler and smarter. We need to let them make the mistakes with the puck.” Certainly recipes for success.

Poss was joined on the bench by Brad Tapper, a familiar face to those of us who follow the fortunes of the Ontario Junior Hockey League. He coached the North York Rangers in the OJHL last year. He had spent parts of three seasons with the Atlanta Thrashers in the NHL before departing for Europe. He played for Poss while with the Nuremberg Ice Tigers.

Another familiar face was that of Mike McKenzie of the Blades. When I told him I was from Wellington, his eyes lit up and he remarked, “I remember that place!” He had experienced the wonders of the old Duke Dome as a Toronto kid in a playoff series.

He told me he suffered with the rest of us following the national Junior team loss. “We played that night so I was not able to watch the game. Because of the result, I am almost glad I didn’t watch it.” Mckenzie had just received the nod as the league’s outstanding .rookie for the month of December. “I’m really enjoying it here,” he told me. Although one of the youngsters on the team, he did not shy away from the rough stuff, dropping the gloves in the third game of the series.

Jarod Skalde is the head coach of the Cyclones. He fondly remembered his days as a Belleville Bull. Incidentally he excelled with the Bulls, and had a fine NHL career. “I talk to Dr. Vaughn every year on Christmas Day. It is a yearly tradition. I really enjoyed my days in Belleville.”

We spoke briefly about the quality of play in the ECHL. “A lot of young players come into the league from college, or from the CHL expecting to find it easy going. They have drafted by NHL teams, and are sent here for seasoning. They quickly learn that the play is faster here, and a little tougher.”

Next week the Reading Royals head this way, again for a three game series. They lead the Atlantic Division of the eastern loop. Rob Kwiet, former Wellington Duke, led that team in plus/minus last year. He had moved on to St. Mike’s from the Dukes, then won the Memorial Cup with the Spitfires in 2009.

There is no “Whiskey Corner” at the Germain; nonetheless, a fine place to watch the greatest game.

James Hurst
January 12, 2011

Thursday, January 06, 2011


Just Another Game!

I am certain that Coach Dave Cameron had a strong inkling that something was amiss when he called “Time Out” after the Russian Juniors had potted their third goal to tie the game in the third period.
The Canadians had roared to a three goal lead to start the third period. They had the home field advantage, with ninety-two percent of the crowd in Buffalo, Ontario, firmly behind them. And then? And then? (That Buffalo, Ontario, thing is fairly cute. Then again, nothing is really funny during “The Morning After”. Sorry about that.)
The old Paul Simon song must have been ringing around Cameron’s head: “Slip sliding away… the nearer the destination, the more it’s slip sliding away.” Oh boy, was it ever!
More than 25 ex-patriate Canadians had filed into Ron Dao’s bar in Fort Myers, Florida to watch the game. There are 65 television sets in the place, with a sporting event on each one. To be honest, some “almost” sporting events: a little Nascar, some darts, billiards, ultimate scrapping---the things we pay big money to watch on “Sports” Channels.
There is one gigantic screen-front and centre. With by far the largest number of interested patrons in the place, I politely requested that the bar put the hockey game on that screen. No such luck. We were beaten to the draw by three fans from Kentucky who wanted to watch the Louisville-Seton Hall college basketball game. By the three minute mark of that game, the fans had lost interest. Something like 26-4 for Louisville.
So they graciously turned over the big screen to the Canadian faithful. Fred Martin led the Windsor contingent, by far outnumbering the rest of the party. Gary Newman represented the Ottawa Valley. Phil and Noreen Corey, faithful members of the Consecon Royal Canadian Legion, represented Wellar’s Bay.
As I am sure you can well imagine, faces began to droop in the third period as the Ruskies potted two goals eleven seconds apart. They had lost their first two games, one to the Canadians. No need to panic. Damn, they scored again! The game was tied. We watched Coach Cameron valiantly try to motivate the kids during the time out. To no avail.
With 1:16 left in the game, patrons filed from the arena. The Russians scored their fifth goal, and were on their way to Champagne and Grey Goose. The Canadian squad had been schooled by the Russians, and that was that. Same score incidentally, as the Russian-Wellington Dukes game the night before in Prince Edward County. Coincidence? I will leave that up to you.
In my last blog, there was a hint that something like this might happen. The Russians have always something in reserve, although it does not always manifest itself. On this occasion, it did, in spades.
The members of the Canadian team will wear silver medals. They will return to their respective teams throughout North America. For some, the experience will be the highlight of their hockey career. For others, just another bump on the road, another brick in the wall.
Would you mind passing the bottle of aspirin?

James Hurst
January 6, 2011

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