Thursday, January 13, 2011
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.
January 12, 2011