Former Blaze coach Weber moves on to his next challenge…

Chuck Weber famously took the Coventry Blaze to two play off Championship finals in his one and half year tenure with the club.  Known for his extensive knowledge of the game, and exact attention to detail, the 44 year old left a lasting impression with not just Coventry Blaze fans but the Elite League in general.

After leaving the Blaze, Weber accepted the role of Assistant Coach with the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League a team he was the Head Coach with back in 2010-11.

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However it wasn’t to be a fairy tale reunion, the ‘Amerk’s’ failing to make the play offs for the third consecutive term finishing with a disappointing 0.441 PCT after struggling with a bitter run of injuries throughout the season.

On June 30th it was announced that former player and assistant coach Chris Taylor would be taking over from Dan Lambert as Head Coach of the Americans.  This in turn led to assistant coach Weber seeking ‘new opportunities’.

Today, the new opportunity is confirmed with Chuck Weber back as a Head Coach with the Atlanta Gladiators.  The Gladiators, formed only in 2003, announced back in 2015 a two year affiliation with the Boston Bruins of the NHL and the Providence Bruins of the AHL.  A deal that was extended in February this year for a further two seasons.

The Gladiators will prove to be a formidable challenge to the American coach.  They last qualified for the play offs way back in 2012-13, and with just 27 wins in 72 regulation season games last season, the only way is up for the new Head Coach born a just few miles from the Niagara Falls.

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Of interest to Elite League fans maybe, and certainly to ones in Glasgow is that Weber immediately inherits a former EIHL player in 26 year old Cody Carlson, the ex Braehead Clan D man who scored 15 points last season, signed with the Gladiators in mid July.

Former Gladiators players also include Sheffield forward Colton Fretter who sits second in the all time points per game for the franchise with 1.321, and also former Steeler favorite Guillaume Desbiens who notably scored 33 goals for the Gladiators in season 2005-2006.  Other notable former Gladiator players with EIHL links include Jeff Mason, Michael Forney and Matt Francis.

So, the next challenge for this two time Kelly Cup winning Coach is laid down in front of him.  It is one he will relish. Weber is hugely ambitious but also a modest, humble man and after working his way up from being a ticket seller in the back office, to coaching in both the AHL and KHL, this may just be exactly what he needs to set him on his way to the bright lights of the show.

Good luck, Coach.

Chuck Weber, discussing the road to Coventry.

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Over? It hasn’t even started yet!

Not over, not over, not over yet….

The headline doesn’t refer to the 2007 classic* performed by Grace, but of course to the Elite League title race.  One glance at it and it confirms that it’s getting awfully tight at the top.

(* arguably)

We are now entering squeaky bum time. Of that there is no doubt. This is where coaches earn their money.  This is where the big players must show up and the smaller players must become bigger players.

A handful of points separate the three teams vying for the top spot.

Cardiff 49 points from 32 games.

Belfast 46 points from 33 games.

Sheffield 44 from 31 games.

Cardiff are quite rightly red hot favorites to win the coveted title.  They have led the league from mid-October and are cemented in the driving seat, for the second times in two years it’s their trophy to lose.

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Cardiff GM Todd Kelman, hoping for more silverware come the end of the season.

 

The whole organisation in Cardiff will have learned from last year, from the cleaner to the Head Coach to the owners.  From the players to the media guys to the hot dog seller.  No one will want to go through that experience again.  Take one game at a time, will surely be the adage in South Wales right now.

Nottingham, surely out of the title race, despite a recent impressive rally and historic continental cup success, are clinging on for dear life to the coat tails of the three clubs above them in the Elite League.  But whilst in all seriousness they are probably out of the race for the Elite League they will surely influence where the Elite League Trophy ends up this season?

Of the 22 games left in the Panthers season, 45% (10) are against the top 3 teams in the league.  Perhaps significantly in the silverware race, they play Cardiff four times, whilst they come up against Sheffield and Belfast three times.

Twice they will take on their bitter Yorkshire rivals at home, whilst they play in Belfast twice in a double header in March which is the beginning of a 5-game run away from the National Ice Centre.  Can Nottingham win the Elite League, surely not, but can they influence where it goes?  You can bet your last pound on that.

Belfast Giants, a fantastic organisation, are right in the mix and currently sit in second place.  With Derrick Walser, not only do they have a capable guy at the helm, but probably the best D man in the league.  They are consistently impressive, and are a fantastic unit away from Belfast.  Walser can take his guys very close, their final two games of the season are in the Welsh capital, a mouth-watering prospect or potentially a huge anti-climax if Paul Thompson and his Sheffield charges have their way.

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Derrick Walser, arguably the best defenceman in the Elite League, but can he steer the Belfast ship to the Elite League title?

Thompson finds himself the odd one out of the three coaches chasing for the League title.  Firstly and significantly perhaps he is the only non-player coach chasing the title, and secondly of course he is the only one to have won it before as a player or a coach.

Knowing how to win a league title in any sport is a ‘leg up’ straight away.

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Are third place Sheffield ready to pounce?

Thompson has been harder than ever on his team.  Tyler Mosienko was allowed to leave Yorkshire without barely a whimper.  Jesse Schultz was then released and not replaced as of yet, with the finger pointed at a lack of secondary scoring being the reason, despite the Canadian going at very nearly a point a game. Thompson was probably making a point to his team.  Forget the fact the Schultz release was after losing to arch enemies Nottingham, the ex-Blaze Coach was making a statement.

By releasing Schultz, he was instantly putting more emphasis on his forwards, more responsibility and more accountability.  It could very well turn out to be an absolute master stroke.

Should the Yorkshire club make it three league wins in three seasons, not many will point to the 30th December when Schultz was released and say, “that was a pivotal point in our season” however Thompson may well do?

As previously mentioned Paul Thompson has one thing over Andrew Lord (Cardiff) and Derrick Walser (Belfast) – he knows how the Elite League is won.

He knows what it takes. He knows what to do and when to do it.  Not only does he know what to say, but he knows when and how to say it.

In his post-game interview after the epic overtime win in Coventry last Sunday, Thompson perhaps deliberately, left it until the end to say his most poignant words:

“We are coming, I like where we are right now, we are a team who are very experienced in being in the position we are, and we are getting better with it.

Words of warning maybe to anyone in listening in South Wales?

One thing is for sure, this League title is far from over.

Take it away Grace.

Not over yet

Author: Rob Plaister

 

Why Matt Marquardt is the man to take the Coventry Blaze to war.

The most complete Elite League performance from a Coventry Blaze player in a long time.

That’s the only way I can describe Matt Marquardt’s contribution on Sunday evening at the Skydome.

It was summed up perfectly by his celebration after his second goal of the evening.  A short fist pump, a yell of exuberance embraced in a face tightened with all the tension and grimace of a man who was trying to get his team mates kicking and screaming to the end.  The jump into the boards and plexi-glass chased by Robinson and Almeida. It was emotional stuff from the big Canadian.

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Marquardt scores his second goal of Sunday evening, Robinson and Almeida join the celebrations

Kicking and Screaming – remember that?  Something I used to say and write about Ryan O’Marra and his pivotal contribution to the Blaze cause down the stretch when we were triumphant in Nottingham at those memorable 2015 play offs.

There are remarkable similarities between both players, and the time spent with the Blaze.  Both on ‘school’ deals, both had relatively slow starts whilst they possibly struggled to get to grips with the quirks and the strains of the Elite League.

The travelling, the officials, the different ice sizes etc. – but with O’Marra, and now with Marquardt, they changed, altered, developed call it whatever you will, but they learned to ‘embraced the suck’ to shamelessly quote a former Blaze coach.

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Ryan O’Marra took Blaze kicking and screaming, now its the turn of Matt Marquardt

I don’t think Matt will have any issue with me saying his first half of the season, wasn’t as he had hoped it would be.  With the team struggling to find any sort of consistency, Marquardt at times cut a lonely figure on the ice.  Lines were changed, team mates came and went, wins were hard to come by.  But then things changed when Danny Stewart and the Coventry owners took a calculated gamble on the classy yet industrious TJ Syner, and his cousin, the likeable sniper that is Barry Almeida.

Stewart fiddled with his lines to try and find the perfect blend with his new guys, Marquardt was given an opportunity with the cousins, meaning captain Pietrus was paired with the impressive Bergman and Robinson – not a bad second offensive line.

Marquardt had finally found his place, a spot and a role he looks so comfortable with, he is now making such a huge contribution to this Blaze team that cried out, no screamed out, for the influence, skill, experience and power that ‘Mags’ brings.

This change instantly struck a chord with all it effected but none more so than Marquardt.  Overnight his game and persona improved, and it continues to rapidly improve.  Now we have the winner.  Now we have that fist pump coupled with the yell.  Now he can take us, kicking and screaming.  Now we have the guy who will do whatever it takes to try to get us the wins we need.  Blaze fans want the “whatever it takes” attitude.  In fact, they crave it.

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No caption required is there?

Now we have a guy going to the net, knowing that there is every chance of an opportunity coming his way.  Now we have the guy ready to battle with the likes of Fitzgerald and Nickerson in front of that net.

I will go as far as to say that the Marquardt we are seeing now, and will hopefully see until the end of this long season, can be as effective as the Chris Bruton we picked up this time last year.  The guy that will stick his neck out, and battle in front of opposing netminders for a sniff of a chance.  Marquardt can be that man for the Coventry Blaze.

The passion that this team perhaps sometimes lacked in the first half of the season is here now, and in abundance.  A great bunch of guys but maybe a little quiet?  Not anymore.   In fact, passion is probably the wrong word.  We maybe lacked a little bit of gumption, doggedness maybe a bit of grit? I am unsure to be honest but whatever it was, all I know is it isn’t missing now.

Marquardt is like the big brother to TJ and Barry.  Diminutive maybe in size, but certainly not in heart, the cousins would probably argue that they don’t need looking after, but look after them he does.  The first sign of a face wash, or a shove and the assistant captain is in the middle of things straight away.  Whilst his recent form, until this weekend hasn’t been particularly rewarded with the points he deserved – and we all know they don’t tell the whole story, he has been like a new signing for the team.  Here is the Chris Bruton we were missing folks.

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Marquardt’s team mate Liam Stewart, going to war for his club and team mate Ross Venus

A winning mentality comes from the top, from the leadership group and it filters down to all the guys below.  How proud were the Blaze faithful of Liam Stewart sticking up for Ross Venus on Sunday evening after the cheap shot from Coyle?  Stewart fought for his team mate, friend and club on Sunday night and in doing so epitomized what it means to play for the Coventry Blaze.

I get the feeling that this bunch of players are now ready to go to war.

Matt Marquardt can be the man to lead us into it.

Author: Rob Plaister

Picture credits and thanks to: Scott Wiggins

Of sticking together…

It’s time for us to stick together.

Every one of us, time for us to stick our chests out, get our heads above the parapet and remember what makes us a great hockey club.

Each other.
Losing games of hockey is horrible, we all pay good money in the hope, and with some expectation we will win every game we go to watch.

Struggling to score goals is hard to understand and accept, but no one knows this more than the people that are trying to put it right.

This isn’t the time for an idle speculative comment on Social Media, or taking photos of a paused TV screen, when the coach is looking down at his notes and questioning why he isn’t yelling instructions.

Cheap swipes are simply no good and no use to anyone. Social Media can be a wonderful thing, but it can also be the sharpest knife in the draw. Lets think twice before we decide to grab it to put it to use?

This is the time to pull together and be there for the players and the coaching staff that are hurting every bit as we are.

No one should be able to relate more than Blaze fans to the “Hockey Family” ideal, especially in this current time.

We stick together through thick and thin.

Paul Thompson summed it up last night after his side, the Sheffield Steelers, the favorites for the Elite League title, were beaten heavily at home to Cardiff last night
“That’s what real leagues are about” said the ex Blaze coach, when asked about the league standard improving every season

Those are the words of a man who has coached over 1000 professional games of Ice Hockey.

The Elite League is now a hell of a league to be involved with.

Edinburgh is a tough place to go, especially in the first three or four months of the season, so far they have beaten Fife twice, Braehead twice and Manchester Storm, anyone that thought going up there yesterday was two points in the bag, was badly mistaken.

This weekend see’s us go into battle in Belfast twice, and then we host Cardiff on the Sunday evening, it doesn’t get any easier does it?

But we have to do this together, back the boys, continue to support the club and the coach.
Any misapprehension that this guy doesn’t care is frankly preposterous.

The moment we turn on each other, we may as well pack up and go home.
The likes of Marquardt, Pietrus, Noble and Boutin will die trying to take us to a better place, and that’s all we can ask.

Rob

Of…Danny Stewart, Dundee Blaze, TV and the Altrincham Ice Dome blind spots…

So it’s here…

The Blaze season starts in earnest on Sunday with the Nottingham Panthers visiting the Skydome for the Challenge Cup, and the first competitive game of the season.

The Challenge Cup is a competition the Blaze have failed miserably in over the last few seasons and it’s something Danny Stewart will want to put right.

Writing prior to the Cardiff ‘friendly’ on Saturday I am loathe to tempt fate, but the Blaze are expected to be at full strength on Sunday.

Stewart has handled his roster admirably over the last couple of weeks. Leaving players out that needed to be, such as Cowley, Robinson and Noble, seems to have worked a treat.

Then not forgetting giving Brian Stewart a rest, and Renny getting the start in goal on Wednesday, in hindsight was a genius idea and one I don’t think many (including myself) saw coming.

Danny seems very confident in knowing how to handle his players, a clear indication and reference of this was the decision to let Marc Cantin play two games in his first 24 hours in the country, something many coaches may have backed away from.  Cantin wanted ice time and Stewart let him play.

Danny Stewart opted to rest Brian Stewart on Wednesday

It looks an exciting time for Coventry, James Pease and Danny have recruited well and with some luck we will improve greatly on last season. Let’s not get carried away, we will lose games, but it looks like we are going to have some fun for the next 8 months.

Dundee Blaze…

Many Blaze fans will be keeping a keen eye on the results in Dundee. Popular ex Blaze coach Marc LeFebvre may not have had the finest experience in his coaching career in Coventry, but he learned valuable lessons in his time here and certainly made lots of freinds.

I don’t think there is a true Blaze fan that doesn’t want ‘Favor’ to continue to do well with the Stars and after a promising first season with the Scottish club he will be looking to improve again.

LeFebvre of course has recruited two of the most popular ex Blaze players in recent seasons in Cale Tanaka and Craig Cescon.

Whilst it was maybe the right time for Cale to move on after 3 seasons with the Blaze, Cescon’s single season in Coventry never seemed enough for this writer.

A tough uncompromising character on the ice, and then the most amiable, funny likeable guy off it, I would have had Craig back in a heartbeat.

Craig Cescon, a former Blaze favourite

Tanaka and Cescon will quickly become favourites in Dundee and that can only be a good thing for the best dressed coach in the league.

TV or not TV – that is the question…

Elite League Chairman Tony Smith this week confirmed that the TV deal with Premier Sports has now finished and no contracts have been signed for the forthcoming season with the pay per view channel.

Every business has a worth and if the two organisations (EIHL and Premier Sports) just can’t work out a deal then it’s a shame but life goes on.

I know for a fact it wasn’t for the want of trying from the EIHL point of view. Many options were discussed but headway just could not be made during negotiations.

To quote someone involved  I spoke to yesterday “It’s very sad”. A short sentence but pretty much sums things up.

Aaron Murphy and Paul Adey working for Premier Sports

What I would add that knowing the guys involved from the League point of view they will be (they are) looking at a variety of options, and I don’t think British Ice Hockey will be off our screens for a long time.

If the league had undersold itself, or done a deal that wasn’t right for its member clubs they would not only have been doing a miservice to its clubs, but also to all of the fans who pay to watch Elite League Ice Hockey.

Storm coming maybe, but let’s be able to see and hear it…

Wednesday nights match up in Manchester was a cracking game first and foremost. Every fan will have gone home happy that’s for sure.  I just hope the owners of the rink start to back up the hard word of Neil Russell and his team.

Now the Altrincham Ice Dome isn’t the Sheffield Arena, I get that. But surely you have to make the best of what you have?

There are screens dotted around everywhere in the rink to back up the blind spots from where you sit. None of the ones facing the our side of the rink were working / turned on. Very frustrating.

For those that haven’t been to Manchester, there is a massive blind spot from where away fans sit (and I assume it’s the same all round the rink) which provided a comedy moment of sorts, when Robin Bergman scored a goal immediately after Blaze won the second period face off.

Boutin sent the puck to the left wing and Bergman shot home. Blaze fans were oblivious to this, we only realised we had scored when the players skates back to the bench!  Had the screens been working we could have seen the goal.

Altrincham Ice Dome

The sound system needs work too, muffled goal scoring announcements made it sometimes impossible to hear what was going on.

The was every reason last year to reserve comment, and what Neil Russell has achieved thus far is fantastic, but it’s time for the rink owners to back the club and make some investment to give Jon Hammond (how much energy has he got!?!) the best tools possible, and to present the Storm fans and visiting fans with the best experience possible.

Enjoy the weekend folks!

Is there now a missing cog in the Sheffield wheel?

Perhaps only your immediate family, but aside from those special people, nobody  in life is indispensable. That’s something we are taught early on in our first serious forays into life.

In Sport and in Hockey the old adage should still stick. Players get old, get slow, get fat, get bored and retire. They are replaced from the plethora of available players out there and life carries on.

Testimonials come and go, players shake hands and most head off into the real world to find a real job.

However, some are harder to replace than others. A few eye brows were raised in particular this summer when Sheffield Steelers legend Jason Hewitt decided to retire. He has of course since signed for Hull in the EPL.

It could be an easy assumption to make that Hewitt’s time was served and that it was time to hang them up.


Hundreds of games for the club he loves, goals, fights, more trophies than most players came ever dream of. All this on the back of a certain amount of limited ability.  That isn’t said in a derogatory manner and it’s certainly not a dig; I have every respect for Jason Hewitt and what he has achieved in the British game.

Hewitt – 33 in a few days time, it’s been said was a policeman of the Steelers dressing room. The go to man if a team mate had a problem. The fixer perhaps. The middleman between player and coach.  The guy who knows the club inside out. From the fans to the stewards to the sponsors to the owner, Hewitt would be the player to go to if a team mate had a question or a problem.

New imports come and go, new young British guys come in and it’s Hewitt along with captain Jonathon Philips that would have been one of the first to tell them how things are.  How things operate. What to say, what not to say.

But now Hewitt is gone and it’s arguably left a missing spoke in the Sheffield wheel. This is no over reaction to the Yorkshire teams results in Europe this week. It’s something I have pondered since I heard the news.

I saw Hewitt as a Russ Cowley type in Sheffield.  The Coventry player has said to me numerous times, “I don’t need an A or a C on my shirt for me to be able to convey my thoughts to others in the dressing room” and this I feel is the same with Jason Hewitt.

In rooms all around the Elite League when certain players speak, everyone listens. Tait and Cowley at Coventry, Adam Keefe in Belfast, Matt Keith in Braehead are four that come to mind. Hewitt was certainly a guy that can be included in this list.

Aside from Hewitt’s experience in the British game, there is his character and influence in the dressing room and generally around the Arena on Match days. I have been in his presence albeit watching from a far before and after games, and seen his energy and his obvious love for all things Orange.

A kind of human zebedee at times, he is a loud, brash and a naturally funny individual – a good likeable person who has earned the respect of his peers within the game.  A player opposition perhaps fans loved to hate, but that’s a begrudging respect.

Perhaps there may be a way back in to Sheffield for Hewitt later in the season?  They say never go back, but surely that wouldn’t be an opportunity he would spurn.

Is it something coach Paul Thompson would even need to give thought to?

Maybe not. In fact, I am sure it wouldn’t happen, decisions are made from both sides for various reasons, but I do wonder whether Sheffield will keep tabs on the Manchester born forwards situation in Hull.

Budgets of course play their part in this and time has to be called on everyone’s career, I understand that, I just wonder whether Sheffield could have waited another season or two before letting this cog drop off their wheel.

Indispensable – no.

Irreplaceable – maybe?

Of airport bus transfers, a well dressed gay guy and a moron….

The plane journey was innocuous. I slept half of it. Day dreamed the other half. My wife and daughter were sat behind me. Late evening flight, so we just want to get to our hotel and get bedded down for the night. In a previous life it would have been drop the bag and straight out on the town.

Plane lands and as we are at the front we are first off. The annoyance of an Airport connection bus awaits us. Damn things.

We get on and wait for it to fill. Quite a good place to people watch if nothing else.

Couple of lads get on, one about 6’5 and heavy set. About 35. Scruffy. Not your typical holiday maker. His mate is older, even scruffier. Smaller. Thick grey hair.

There is a guy who boards the bus with a really nice suit on. Young guy. 20-21 maybe. Suit is immaculate. In fact he is immaculate. Maybe Hugo Boss I wonder?  The grey haired chap is amused by the Boss wearing guy.

“What is is mate a fucking job interview?”

3 feet away from my 8 year old – classy.

The youngster sighs a reply “No mate just came straight from work”

Grey haired oaf retorts, and in doing so it all makes sense “We are Albion, playing Mallorca tomorrow ain’t we?”

Suit wearer gives a sympathetic smile and says “Oh well enjoy that”

“Are you Albion?” Comes the quick response. I am no CID chief but I have worked out this guy has had a few beverages. I am guessing his holiday started a while before mine.

I feel a bit sorry for the youngster, the coach is still filling up, he doesn’t want to converse, and he doesn’t want to piss off a drunk football fan with a giant as a mate, who bizarrely hasn’t said a word. The mute giant. Or mutant giant?

The reply is short, but there is a tremendous element of incredible self belief about it, cockiness maybe, I drop my head when I hear it for fear off the Albion fans response, but I am ecstatic at the same time “No, I don’t care too much for football, I am here with my boyfriend for a nice relaxing chilled weekend”

There is a stunned silence from Grey hair that seems to last a while. My dropped head now has a smug smile on it. “That’s ballsy, good lad”

The Albion fan reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small bottle of red wine and takes a gulp. It’s one of the kind that you buy on a plane. Revolting probably, but this guy is no connoisseur, that is for sure.  He necks the lot. Still no answer. Deep in thought he is. Trying to fathom an answer. Not sure if he is searching for humour. Breath hopefully.

I look to my wife, I don’t think she is really listening, she has arm around our daughter and is seemingly miles away, probably considering our plans for the next few days.

The drunk grey guy makes his next move. He has decided to ignore the suit wearers bold coming out statement, and gets off the coach. But he doesn’t go far. He has  decided to instruct people this is the coach for the airport.

“All aboard, on you get, we are Albion. We are all Albion, on you get”

Are we?

He is pointing to the bus as if people can’t see or know what this huge thing is. The guy has reached cretin status.

The holiday makers smile nervously at him, apologetically almost. In this situation someone would normally use the expression “His mom loves him” but they don’t probably because right at this moment she probably doesn’t.

He gets back on the bus. I notice a drink spillage stain down his top. “Hope thats red wine” I devilishly think, before quickly realising it’s a Star Wars top which wouldn’t be of any value, unless sentimental, and I don’t think this idiot has much sentiment.

He has had a think and now starts with a new change of tactic to piss everyone off even more, he obviously thinks he is funny – at the moment he is the only person in the world that has that opinion

“You know what this is (he refers to the delay) don’t you” he asks no one in particular, he quickly tells us of the answer “They want our fucking passports back, well we are in English and we voted to keep the fucking things”

Not sure if he means the authorities in Mallorca, Angela Merkel in general, in fact I have no idea what he is talking about. I need my bed, it’s 1am and Albion yob is getting political – I think.

He continues like a drunk scruffy Nigel Farage who has been on speed for a week “Well we voted to come out because of tossers like  this, now they don’t like it. Fuck em”

The bus is now full. It pulls away and snakes it’s way to the terminal. Albion man is swaying. Searching for his little bottle of vino.

Never before have I been so relieved to feel a bus move.

Weat Bromich Albion play Real Mallorca at 9pm tonight. Good seats are still available.

A fresh start for the Coventry Blaze 

It was the 27th April when we finally announced Danny Stewart as the new coach. As much as I am a volunteer, I still see him as a boss.
There is something about Stewart that scares me. Not in a bad way. But when I see his number on my phone, I sit up. When I see his email address pop up in my inbox, it gets opened straight away.
It’s the way it has to be. Paul Thompson is the same. Numerous times I have had David Simms on the phone to me, only for him to cut the call short as ‘Thommo’ is calling him. Panic sets in the Brummies voice as he yells “Got to go Thommo is trying to get me” and the phone goes dead. He doesn’t even say goodbye!

All of sudden, I am completely insignificant to Simms. Or less significant then I ever was! But that’s the way it should be, its respect to his boss, his Head Coach.
From day one, Stewart has impressed with his attitude and clear thinking. Obviously this is a guy who will be nobody’s fool. Everyone in the Blaze camp will be certain of that, if they are not now, then they will be in the future.

From the fans to the players to the owners, everyone will be clear Danny is in charge.

Stewart is here to to compete, he isn’t here for a good time. He isn’t here as a stepping stone to something bigger or better, he is here to try to get the Blaze back to their rightful place within British Ice Hockey.

The Coventry Blaze are simply not an 8th place team. That was unacceptable to every fan that paid their hard earned money to watch the boys. Its Stewart’s job to change this, and it starts from the top down.
The words “compete” and “being competitive” are words fans will get sick of. I expect Stewart to use them in every Media Conference we do. But they are important words, and the roster is built with this mentality this in mind. We will compete. We have to compete.

The roster Stewart has put together has been impressive from the outset, its easy to get carried away with new signings, Elite Prospects only tells a fraction of every players story. Every player has filled a spot, and every player has their part to play in the system and structure.

It’s seemingly a completely different set of thinking to last years recruitment.  In retrospect, that’s great news.

Stewart has been thorough, patient and clever with the players he has put together. Today’s 5pm announcement goes further to prove this. I tweeted the other day about “their being only one Mike Egener”. Well Danny has found another one. A younger, quicker one – no offence Eggie.

Last season left a lot to be desired, let’s not pull punches. Let’s shoot from the hip, it finished in tears and at times, there were occasions through the season, where there was many a puzzled face. Lessons have been learned and the decks have been cleared. We start again. A fresh start for everyone.

It takes a brave, nay, stupid man to stand up and say, this season will be different. But I guarantee this group of guys that the feisty Canadian has put together will die trying to be the best. And that is all we can ask and all we can expect.

I am off to Mallorca with the girls tonight. A few hours after the new and final import is announced. How’s that for timing?

See you all soon.

 

 

Of Dads, Hockey jumpers and my worst week of every year…

I guess my story is the same as many, but today seems a good a day as any to share it.

My old man was a special guy, I suppose many say that, but he truly was a wonderful man.

I sometimes have a bit of an edge to me, a little bit of nastiness maybe, pushy, cynical, I can be over sensitive, I can over think and get anxious, I always think I know best even when I don’t.  My Dad was never like that; I can’t remember him ever saying anything particularly bad about anyone.  That’s not rose tinted spectacles, its just fact from what I remember and recall about him.

He didn’t like Villa fans much, but nothing worse than the odd “not them again” comment or something similar.  I think he lost his cool with me just the once.  Mom and Dad found out I had been shop lifting ‘Subbuteo’ stuff from Beatties in Solihull when I was around 13, I think it was a Norwich City team that I had had my eye on for a while and some corner flags and bright orange adidas tango balls – the ones they use in the snow?  Either way it wasn’t worth me taking the chance, however badly I needed them to complete my astro-turf pitch.

You don’t go out with 3 quid to your name and come back with £20 worth of stuff and get away with it.  At least you shouldn’t do.  I let him down that day, and he let me know that.  He didn’t shout.  He didn’t rant or rave. He just didn’t talk to me.  Completely blanked me for days.  My mom told me he had cried when I had gone up to bed that night.  They made me take it all back to the shop and apologise to the store manager.  Imagine that.  I learned my lesson.

Dad, some-what predictably took me to my first Hockey game.  A cold, damp, but raucous and energetic Hobs Moat Road to watch the Solihull Barons play in the British Hockey League in 1987.  A colleague of his at Solihull Council was backing up the regular net minder David Graham and invited anyone that wanted to go along from the office to see him sit (presumably) on the end of a bench looking bored and laden with heavy equipment for two and half hours. Clip boards and curious statistics were not the duty (Dan Green style) of the back up’s in those days, indeed I am not even sure if turnover’s and plus / minus stats were in the British game back then?

Dad loved Hockey.  Loved it and was passionate about it. He didn’t get involved like his pushier son (see third paragraph) but loved it just as much as I do now. By the late 80’s we were going regularly and now presumably paying to get in.  I think it’s still the same entrance fee now as it was back then in Solihull!

Dad

The two of us in 1975 – note the Dave Schultz type moustache!

For anyone that was around Hobs Moat Road at that time will tell you, it was a special time.  The Barons were not particularly good, but the 89/90 season was a special one – we rallied late that season and somehow made the play offs (boy that sounds familiar!)

Hockey back then was 3 imports and in Sapergia, Chartrand and Shudra we had 3 of the best in the league at that time.  The rest of the side was average, and average at best.  Shudra was an Adonis in his first season in this country and obviously carried on in the same vein in Sheffield – at Solihull he rarely (if ever) left the ice.  I still have vivid memories of him going behind the net and leading the rush.  Fast, strong, skilled.

Sapergia, well, as David Simms will tell you, Brent was one of the best to ever play the game here.  Chartrand doesn’t need any words. 3 legends in the same team.  As a hockey fan, that was a good time to be around.

I remember standing in our normal spot, on the back bench to the right of the home bench.  I would need a wee (I was 13/14 years old) , and hold it and hold it until I could wait no longer, which is when I would leap off the bench and run as fast as I could to get to the toilet to get the job done and get back.  Hoping and praying the referee would call icing or there would be a dodgy offside.

There was no mistaking the sound of a Barons goal, and my worst fear was missing one.  Games back then were typically 8-5 or 7-6 most nights.  Don’t forget we had Solihull Council net minders.  I missed a few goals in my time, and went back with many a damp patch at the front of my jeans.  Was it worth it?  You bet it was.

Dad used to wear the same jumper to every game.  He purchased a bright red V Neck Jumper from Marks and Sparks and then invested in a big Barons cloth badge from the merchandise table and took both articles to Mom and presented them to her.

“Don’t be stupid David” Mom protested “You need to grow up a little bit, this ice hockey infatuation is getting out of hand” she continued.  Words I still hear to this day in my house come to think of it.

She relented in the end, and got the sewing kit out, and on the big round badge went. Slightly ‘skewwhiff’ but on it went all the same. Dad never went to a game without it on. An hour before we were due to leave, he would go upstairs and put it on.  Proud of his jumper he was.  It was certainly one of a kind. Original.  I wish I still had it, it would be on my wall next to my Ginand and O’Marra shirts.

The next few years were pretty bad financially for the Barons.  The monster that was the Sheffield Steelers was born and Messrs Wood, Simms, Thompson and Shudra cleared off up the M1 to the bright lights and an 8000 capacity arena.  Unthinkable at the time that Arena was.  The word monster is not used lightly.  Sheffield completely changed the game here in the UK.  Ripped it all up and changed all the boundaries.

We still went to Solihull, who had now dropped down a couple of levels.  Instead of Ron Shudra, we had Ian Pound, instead of Brent Sapergia we had Jimmy White (not the snooker player although “The Whirlwind” may have been just as good). Amongst the disarray Stevie Chartrand had managed to escape to France for a season and in his place we had a lovely guy called Dan Sweeney who replaced him.  Sweeney was a top guy, always stopped for a chat during the traditional Solihull post game skate around. It would take him an hour to leave the ice, as he always had time to speak to everyone.  Constantly giving bits of kit to adoring fans, he would leave the ice with hardly anything on.  No wonder the club never had any money with Sweeney not being able to say “Sorry guys I need to keep that”

For various reasons, Dad stopped going soon after this season.  But always kept an eye on the results.  Curiously he continued to wear his jumper round the house, and also in the garden when he was tending to his flower beds or lovingly mowing our torturous three quarters of an acre long garden.  I think it was because it reminded him of so many great nights. The jumper had a smell. He loved it. He was wearing it the night he shouted something to Shudra as big Ron nestled down for a face off down by us, Shudra looked up smiled and winked at him “Did you see that Rob, Ron heard me” Dad was like a little kid, nudging me, pulling at me arm to get my attention “Yes Dad, I saw it” I smiled.  Dad was my hero.  Even Ron Shudra seemed to like my Dad and I adored him.  Adored them both come to think of it.

Its my Dad’s birthday today and he died two days after it. He would have been 71 today. I miss him every day and I don’t mind admitting that I am bitter that Vicky (my wife) and Daisy (daughter) never met him or knew him, but I guess that’s life.  Therefore this week of the year, can be tough for me.

I was at the hospital with him holding his hand when he passed away.  Our last moment together was me telling him I would get him home soon.  He didn’t have the energy to reply.  Just rolled his eyes at me and smiled.

That’s the abiding memory that I carry with me of my wonderful Dad, but the ones I have shared above are not far behind.

The final four again, somehow!

Wow.  We made it again.  We made it to the final 4. Somehow!

If I had written that back in the dark days of November, you may have thought it more fitting for me to be carted off to the funny farm, as opposed to writing this.

Disaster of a start

I think back to a particular bad time of the season, as I say above, early November – we had had a disaster of a week early in that month, where we were ‘pummelled’ in Glasgow, Braehead shutting us out to the tune of 6, and then we went to Nottingham and ‘endured’ another shutout, this time losing 4-0, with big Paul Swindlehurst (who subsequently moved to Manchester Storm) scoring two of the Panthers goals.  Swindlehurst managed just one more goal in 48 games for Nottingham before being loaned to the Altrincham based club.

The Braehead game hurt me particularly.  It was the week after I formally took the Media role on for the club, and I drove home on my own from Glasgow that night shaking my head questioning my sanity?  The Nottingham game that came next, was probably the lowest we have been and the worst we have ever performed from memory under Head Coach Chuck Weber’s reign.

Changes

The side that night contained a very limited Igor Bobcek (I picked his sticks up from Manchester on the way to Braehead!) who was basically doing us a favour and helping with some injury cover, Trimm and Lukacevic (who are both now long departed) and the unfortunate Steven Chalmers who left the club following injury.

Compare that side to that one that hammered Manchester in the last game of the season.  To do that, we need to add the names Brenden Walker, Boris Valabik, Kevin Noble, David Clements and Chris Bruton.  So to summarise…

Out: Bobcek, Trimm, Lukacevic, Chalmers

In: Walker, Valabik, Noble, Bruton, Clements.

Valabik, despite his detractors is very good D man, Walker can, and has spun a game on its head, and is capable of some sublime skill (example: That pass for Fishers ‘GWG’ in Sheffield) Noble is our heart beat and has improved all season, anyone that blocks that many shots are fine by me. Clements has had a great first season with us since coming over from Milton Keynes, and it’s a shock to me and others, that he isn’t involved in the GB set up, and to finish the list Chris Bruton is up there with the best players in the league.  No doubt about that.

Anger

It’s been a turnaround of huge proportions that’s for sure.   The Nottingham defeat was the most animated I have seen Chuck post game.  Animated is maybe the wrong word, he doesn’t get animated.  He ticks.  I don’t mean, as in a nervous twitch, I mean as in, like a bomb ticks.  It’s never easy going in for the post match interview when we have lost and that night in Nottingham, well that was the toughest one of the season.  There was pure emotion there, obvious frustration. Anger, yes Anger is the word. Chuck is always the model professional and has never ever turned an interview down, despite being on the wrong end of some serious drubbings this season.

Weber called the team out that night questioning the work ethic and he was right to do so “I can’t change work ethic, you can’t change that, if you don’t work, no system is successful” followed by “I like these guys, but just not as hockey players right now” The latter being the sentence that caught people’s attention at the time

Listening back, Chuck doesn’t actually sound that angry, but that’s just not his style.  I remember listening to Paul Thompson in Cardiff, angrily labelling his team a bunch of “homers”.  As much as Weber probably wanted to castigate his team in public, he didn’t go that far, but he got his point over.  He said the right things, and made his points very clear.  There was plenty of emotion there that night in Nottingham, that’s for sure.  Despite him keeping his cool on Audio.

Chris Lawrence

And so we moved on.  And we moved players on.  Chris Lawrence was a huge disappointment.  Weber told me one day “I watched him in Cardiff (for Panthers) the season before and he terrorised them, at one point 3 of them were chasing after him”. Lawrence was the big signing of the summer, the one we felt would carry us and win us games and for whatever reason, it just didn’t materialise.  1 point (an assist) in his 9 games was as bizarre as it was surprising and disappointing.  Could or did anyone argue with the signing at the time?  No chance.

Perhaps the 14/15 (63 points in 61 games) for Nottingham was an outstanding season for him, something of a fluke maybe?  Can you have fluke seasons?  Did Chris over perform all season in Nottingham, or did we just not suit him?  Was there something that Lawrence just didn’t get?  Lots of questions, but not many answers. Lawrence is a good guy off the ice, perhaps it was just a bad fit, a round peg in a square hole? Maybe.

Ned Lukacevic

Lukacevic, was a different story I feel.  An obviously talented guy, good hands, over 100 games in the AHL, but a certain languid style resulted in just 4 goals in 21 games, and a contract in Edinburgh was the end result for the fruits of his labour. If we had seen the Lukacevic that we saw that infamous evening in Tychy, I am certain he would be still be playing in a Blaze shirt.

 

Ned Lukacevic, had the best game of a short Blaze career in Tychy, Poland.

Ned

He was a different guy in Poland that night. He played a different way, if it moved, it was getting hit. Unfortunately, he couldn’t replicate this style or form in the Elite League for us.  Again, a good guy but good guys don’t always win you games of hockey.  Should Ned get a contract somewhere else in the Elite League next season (and it won’t be with Edinburgh), it will be his fourth different Elite league club in succession.  The options may be running out.

The Masterstroke

The signing of Jordan Pietrus turned out to be a masterstroke.  A little bit lost in Poland after a successful season there, we not only signed a Hockey player, we signed a good man.  That may sound strange but good people are key to a vibrant, successful dressing room.  The types that are ready to challenge themselves and each other.  The ones that are ready to go to war for each other. Eloquent, modest and intelligent, Pietrus is everything a mother wants her daughter to meet.  But then there is the other side to him.  The side that doesn’t get pushed around by the enormity of the likes of Zach Fitzgerald or Leigh Salters.  Pietrus is the biggest 5’8 guy I have ever known.

Jordan Pietrus “a masterstroke of a signing”

JP2

The reward of a two-year contract is absolutely just and well deserved.  You get out of life what you put into it. To again quote Coach Weber “What we do today, effects our tomorrow’s” That sums up Pietrus efforts in a nutshell.  Credit to James Pease for cementing Jordan on a two year extension.  It’s the best news we could have wished for.

Director of Hockey James Pease was a busy man during the season signing Igor Bobcek, David Clements,  James Isaacs, Jordan Pietrus, Brenden Walker and Chris Bruton.

Pease

Robbomania begins

Brett Robinson finally hit his straps towards the end of 2015, points then came thick and fast.  Always known as a late starter, it was a case of be patient and it will come, we were patient and so it did.

I did an interview with Brett around this time (December), and he explained to me in great detail, the difference between the ECHL and the Elite League. The traveling and how it takes its toll, how its totally alien for a player to sit on a coach for 6 or 7 hours to Dundee, jump off, play a game, then back on the coach for 6 or 7 hours, home, sleep, then play again.  In the ECHL anything over 2 hours, they fly, and fly the day before the game usually.

Now, some people reading may think “pah, they get paid to play what’s wrong with them” But the difference is a big one. It’s something you have to train your body to cope with.  There is no set solution either, every player is different.  Eat, sleep, talk, listen to music, all different ways to kill 7 hours, but it can take many trips to work out, which works routine works best for you. Brendan Walker is another who has admitted to struggled with the traveling.

Happy New Year

Highlight of the season, pre play offs, was probably Nottingham away on New Year’s Eve.  Ironic, given my comments earlier about Nottingham being one of the lowest points earlier in the season.  We got a bit of luck that day, Dan Green stood in for Mika Wiikman, and we blitzed the Panthers in the first period.  Pietrus. Fisher, Robinson and the under rated Carl Lauzon all scored in the first period to send us in to the first break 4-0 up.  Robinson was 1+3 that day and was outstanding.  All of a sudden the Blaze were electric, on fire if you pardon the obvious pun.  

Nottingham gave our Man of the Match that day to a guy who didn’t get a point in the game. A shame as Robinson was worthy of a bigger pat on the back for his endeavours’ that day.  Still, its a ‘team game’ and that’s the first thing Brett would tell you.
The upturn in fortunes in our season, from this point on, is well documented, at one stage we were a bottom place team earlier in the season.  Things were never that bad last season, but there are definite similarities, and all of a sudden like last season, we clicked.  

Despite some setbacks since we have carried on clicking.  No team in the world wins every game. Eighth place was a disappointing finish, yes I 100% agree, however to get past Sheffield in the Quarter Finals show that we are far better team, than the final league table suggests.  

It was a monumental effort to get past Paul Thompson’s men.  This was no fluke either.  The ex Blaze Coach said we were the better team over the two legs, and we were.

Fair comparisons?

Last season we were possibly spoilt with some of the quality we had. O’Marra, Goertzen and Egener together with Brian Stewart maybe carried us at times – individually and collectively, but now I find myself looking at this team, and being able to compare certain players and their roles with those that won the play offs last season.

Ryan O’Marra / Jordan Pietrus

Steven Goertzen / Chris Bruton

Derek Lee / Drew Fisher

Steve Chalmers / David Clements

Justin Da Costa / Mike Quesnele

Goals

The one thing we didn’t have last season, that we do have this season, is goals.  Or at least we have found the net with more ease this season. Believe it or not we have scored 33% more goals this season than last season.  Which is why there is no comparison on offer for the free scoring Brett Robinson, and the highly skilled, hard-working Carl Lauzon, we didn’t have them or players like it last season in my opinion.  I mention 33%, the actual difference in goals scored is 43, which, yes you have guessed is the total number of goals these two (Robinson and Lauzon) combined have scored for Blaze this season.

Carl Lauzon, hardworking and free scoring

Lauzon

Jorgensen

Perhaps defensively we are not as good as last season’s Champions.  Jim Jorgensen for me is right up there with the best D men in the league.  His improvement throughout the season has been significant, and another reason why we have turned the season around.  He seems to have grown in confidence and relished the responsibility thrust upon him.

Valabik

Another key component of the Blaze D core is the big man.  Big Boris Valabik.  Boris pushes doesn’t he?  And pushes very close to the line. Seemingly officials are more than happy to give themselves one less headache, and to remove him from the game at any opportunity.  There have been plenty of misconducts. Some harsh, some not so harsh, but either way, Boris is a far better player for us than on the ice, than he is in the shower, and we need him to be on his best behaviour this weekend.  He has to play with an edge, I get that, and I am sure he has the experience to know just what to do (and what not to do – or say!) this weekend.

Bruton?  Yes please!

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the league came on the 4th February the day of the Bruton / Trimm trade.  The deal was done pretty quickly despite the odd snag here and there.  It was the perfect opportunity for us, losing a player who had possibly under achieved, and gaining, as I said earlier, one of the best players in the league.  

Bruton is everything I want in a hockey player, similar in style to Pietrus, Bruton is possibly a more polished player, that sounds harsh on Pietrus who never fails to give everything. Perhaps more experienced would be a better explanation, but I know ‘Pietey’ won’t mind my comment.  I won’t touch on the saga that unravelled around the trade, only to say Bruton handled himself with far more dignity that the now retired Chris Holt.

I hope Bruton is re-signed next season, and fingers crossed.

Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart had a tough first few months, perhaps it was the expectation of the previous season, perhaps it was a new team and particularly a new D core around him, perhaps it was just a genuine loss of form, but oh my, has the big guy bounced back.  It’s no coincidence that we have also bounced with the big man.

Brian Stewart, “Seemingly unbeatable when on form”

Stewie

When he is on form, we are close to being seemingly unbeatable.  This was always my theory as to why we would qualify after taking a 2 goal lead to Sheffield with us.  With Pinc in goal I fancied us to score at least 3, which meant Sheffield had to score at least 5 to tie the game and 6 to win it.  ‘Touch wood’, but when Brian Stewart is in this form, he doesn’t concede 6 too often and so it proved in “The house of steel” as my esteemed college Ed Kimberly refers to Sheffield!

This weekend, history repeating itself?

So, to this weekend, believe it or not the bookies make us joint favorites with our friends in Nottingham.  Its wide open isn’t it?  Any one of the four could win it.  Blaze have hit form, Cardiff are so strong and deep, similar to Nottingham. Defensively Nottingham are so good, and tough to score against, and Fife, well Danny Stewart and Todd Dutiaume have had a fantastic season, their highest league position for years, and I am sure they are proud of what they have achieved – they should be.

A Blaze v Fife final would be nice; I can think of a certain Canadian veteran up there in Fife that would really fancy that.  Will he get his chance, it remains to be seen, after this season, I would not discount anything?

Will we see Chuck Weber have the last laugh, I certainly wouldn’t bet against it?