Between The Gutter And The Stars

(all I ask is that if you’re reading this, read the whole post at once before reacting. Warning-there is swearing)

Part I: In The Gutter…

“But it was not your fault but mine
And it was your heart on the line
I really fucked it up this time
Didn’t I, my dear?”

Mumford and Sons: “Little Lion Man”

Well, that’s that then.

The Coventry Blaze lost to the Braehead Clan tonight, Jade Galbraith scoring the winner with 36 seconds remaining after the Blaze had led twice. At the end of the game (which incidentally I wasn’t at) there are reports of Blaze players going after Clan players, non-handshakes, non-acknowledgement of Blaze fans and most importantly, rage.

Rage of the players, who know that they had the chance to progress and that they had every hockey fan in Coventry behind them, and lost in the cruellest way possible. Rage of the fans, who reacted with comments on Twitter like “Well, that’s the season over”, “this team is another joke” and “it’s a team that can’t play for sixty minutes”.

The after-match reports (again, I stress I wasn’t at the game so didn’t see any of it) weren’t that nice to read. Following the game on Twitter was agonising, as updates went back and forth, and Blaze failed to convert a 5 on 3 powerplay at the end of the second, gave away leads twice and then had their old nemesis Jade Galbraith rip their hearts out at the end.

This is the lowest point of the 2012/13 Blaze season, bar none. A team that promised so much in September is making the journey back from Scotland tonight full of anger, recriminations, and wounded pride. And they’re coming back to a fan-base that has swung from pride and joy in their team to one lining up to stick the knife in while they’re down, everyone picking their own individual targets and some even going so far as to question Paul Thompson’s position of coach.

In short, all that we feared would be unleashed by a Blaze loss-a veritable apocalypse of anger, self-recrimination, criticism and self-loathing-is poised to break upon the team the moment they get back.

And the 2012/13 season stands at a crossroads. The Blaze fans can turn on their team and accept that all is over til April and there is no way to change things.

Or they can fight back.

Part 2: …But Looking At The Stars

But I will hold on hope
And I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck

And I’ll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I’ll know my name as it’s called again
Mumford & Sons: “The Cave”

Coventry is not a nice place to be in hockey terms right now. There’s sniping back and forth, questions about effort, anger, cynicism and mistrust. After the beginnings of a new dawn in the first half of the season, injuries and player departures have smashed the Blaze sideways like flotsam on a storm-tossed sea. Blow after blow has worn down the fans, players and pundits like me to the point where nothing is greeted with optimism any more.

Tonight, if we want, can put the tin lid on the season. The fans can give up on the team, and we can swing into a cycle similar to that seen in 2010/11 and 2011/12.

And this would seem to be the way things are going. But y’know what? That giving up on the team just because things aren’t going brilliantly? That’ll pretty much make us harsh, fickle-all too ready to turn on our team when things aren’t going their way.

In short, it’ll turn us into Nottingham Panthers fans.

I don’t know about you, but fuck THAT for a game of soldiers.

Look, there is no way I can be called a happy-clappy fan. I pride myself on being a play-by-play guy/pundit who’s objective, and not willing to blindly support the Blaze wherever they play. I’m angry at the Blaze loss to Braehead too. I’m hurting right now, just like everyone else is. I’m tempted to look at the league table, look at recent results and let my cynical head kick in. I’ve been criticised for it in the past-criticised for not being “supportive” enough. And sure, I saw the result and was all ready to stick in the knife and leave the hopes of the 2012/13 season bleeding and dying on the floor as so many others are doing.

Then I remember what this team has. The speed and vicious shot of Brad Leeb. The heartstopping skills of Shea Guthrie. The offensive artistry of Greg Leeb and Mike Schutte. The sheer tenacity of Dustin Cameron. The raw power of Mike Egener, Benn Olson and now, Adam Henrich. The pure dogged workrate of the Brit-pack, often outdone in salary and experience by those of other teams, but rarely outgunned in the heart department. And a hundred other things.

Oh, and of course, and as a minor incidental, the MOST SUCCESSFUL COACH IN ELITE LEAGUE HISTORY.

This, Blaze fans, is a bloody good team going through a nightmare patch. It’s a team that performed MIRACLES when shortbenched earlier in the season. It’s a team that we KNOW can perform when it wants to.

And right now, it’s a team that’s backed up into a corner, hurting and beset by wolves of criticism from all sides. The players and fanbase of the Nottingham Panthers are coming into town this weekend ready to pick over the bones of a team and fan-base they think is there for the taking, ready to lord it over us and the team in their own barn and revel in our self-destruction that they’re sure is coming after tonight.

And as a fanbase, staring at the team and Coventry’s pride wounded and bleeding in front of us, we have two choices. We can either join the ravening pack of Panthers and tear it to shreds, or we can cross the barricades, hold out a hand and say “look, lads. You lost on Tuesday, sure. Things look bad right now. But we are Coventry, the Sky Blue City, and we are with you”.

And then we can turn round to the pack of hungry wolves that we could have chosen to be a part of, stand shoulder to shoulder with the players at the door to the Skydome and say “We are Blaze. Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough”.

Me, I’ve already made my choice. It might not seem like it but at times like this, my wounded pride is bleeding blue.

Now, ahead of Nottingham on Saturday, it’s up to everyone reading this to decide which side they’re on.

Into battle, people.

I am a Coventry Blaze fan. And still proud.

And you are not alone in this
As brothers we will stand and we’ll hold your hand
Hold your hand

Mumford & Sons: “Timshel”

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Do Or (Maybe) Die: Why Tonight Is The Most Important Game Of The Season So Far

Tonight, the Blaze play Braehead in a Challenge Cup quarterfinal second leg up in Scotland, after the first leg saw them draw two-all at the Skydome last week.

This game might only be a quarter-final, but it might as well be the playoff final due to the amount riding on it.

If Blaze don’t put in a performance tonight, their season could well be over, two months before it actually is.

Stuart Coles at Sky Blue Hockey makes an eloquent argument as to why a win is crucial for momentum, and discusses the impact a loss could have on the mental mindset of the players, which you can read here.

My argument is similar, but I’m choosing to find something optimistic ahead of the trip up in a place many may not have looked. And also discuss why I, too, think this game is beyond massive for the Blaze.

On Saturday night in Nottingham we saw evidence of the pop and fizz begin to come back. Sure, the team lost heavily (conceding eight goals to Nottingham for the second time this season) but at least we saw open, incontrovertible evidence that they cared, in Peter Hirsch’s rage and Dustin Cameron’s fury.

We saw a team that showed publicly in an unmistakable fashion that they felt as wound up and sheer pissed-off with the struggles of the past few weeks as the fans were. And that meant a lot.

Tonight, we see the Blaze travel up to a rink in which they’ve hardly ever won, against a buoyant team who are building under a new coach and becoming more confident again by the day, with a new signing making his debut in Matt Schepke and a crowd who think they can definitely turn a tricky tie into a win.

The Blaze, meanwhile, welcome Adam Henrich to the lineup. Henrich is a player who’s been presented already as a player who’ll help turn the season back around again, enabling the weary to rest their accumulated injuries, take the pressure off and most importantly make it a lot easier for his teammates to put the puck in the net with the regularity we know they can.

Given the expectations Blaze fans are already placing on him, it’s a good job he has broad shoulders.

Henrich looks quality…prolific in Italy’s Serie A, a solid scorer in the AHL and built like a brick outhouse, too. But his Blaze debut comes in a game that is the biggest of the season by a long, long way.

Win it, and maybe the momentum will begin to build towards a playoff run. Braehead is a tricky place to play at the best of times, and if this team can go there and get a result then the fans will begin to get back behind them, the belief will build and there is the chance of some momentum building before another confrontation with the hated enemy from Nottingham on Sunday at the Skydome.

Lose it, and it’s another blow to morale, another winnable trophy chance gone. Glasgow on a bus trip is a hell of a long way to travel when you only have your own thoughts and the shared pain of defeat for company-especially with the fans beginning to wonder if the team will slip as far as seventh. It’s potentially the kind of straw that can break a season’s back.

Braehead are a good team, but this Blaze team are better, especially with the addition of Henrich.

Come on, boys. Bleed blue. And keep the cup run going.

Good luck.

Desperately Seeking Something

Note-this post has been slightly revised to make the point clearer after I was accused of gratuitously attacking the team’s commitment. That wasn’t the point I was making-it was focusing on tonight’s game v Braehead being a massive game in the context of the season.

There’s a famous moment in Marcel Proust’s epic A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance Of Things Past) when the main character is transported back into his memory involuntary by a seemingly insignificant event (in the book’s case, the taste of a madeleine biscuit dipped in tea) and begins to remember all sorts of things he thought he’d forgotten about life, love and the way things are. The whole novel is effectively based on this conceit of a small event triggering memory and the ramifications it has, along with the changes it causes the narrator to make in his life in the present.

Now, you may ask yourself…why am I discussing one of the greatest works in French literature in a hockey blog? What sort of relevance does it have to us?

Well, on Sunday night, I had my own “madeleine moment” late in the third period of Coventry v Belfast. Up until then, the Giants, despite only scoring one goal due to another truly outstanding performance from Peter Hirsch, had looked fairly comfortable holding their lead, as the home team huffed, puffed and wove intricate patterns on the ice but could never quite find the killer touch.

They were clearly working hard-in fact at no point this season has it been possible to fault the work-rate of every single player-but the inspiration, drive and sheer energy that had endeared this team to their fans so much (and caused me to write this blog in December) was missing. Had, in fact, been missing since they’d lost Gerome Giudice, Shea Guthrie and Matt Beleskey (one to departure, one back to the NHL, and the other to injury).

In a brief passage of play in the third period, though, where hits flew in, the Blaze stuck up for each other and the hitherto-unruffled Garrett Zemlak had to work like a Trojan to keep the puck out of the net on shot after shot, the Skydome began to roar their team on just like they hadn’t for nearly a month’s worth of home losses and narrow wins.

For that few minutes, they looked like the angry, gritty team Blaze fans had fallen in love with.

But all too soon, aided by a controversial “goal/no goal” incident, they faded again.

This is a team that wants to win, holds itself to the highest standards. The frustration they clearly feel at not being able to find that killer touch is causing them to lose the very thing that made the team so successful.

Passes are going astray. Lines are being shuffled, and players simply aren’t connecting consistently. Some are trying to take the load on their backs and getting (understandably) frustrated.

Whether it be players, whether it be a change of approach, or whether it’s simply a team that needs to go out and get a confidence boost, this Blaze team is, right now at least, not the one we saw that ground out wins or lost with honour while shortbenched, or pulled off some sublime moments.

Maybe it’s sheer frustration. Maybe the return to full-strength and the miracles performed earlier in the season (and let’s not mince words-some of the wins and results the Blaze have pulled off this season have been SUPERB) the fans are putting too much pressure on a squad who have given more blood, sweat and tears to the cause already then many teams give in a season. Perhaps they, and media pundits like me, are in some way responsible too. Coventry hockey fans are notoriously unforgiving, after all.

Whatever the cause, though, there is a grain of sand in the gears, a scratch on the record, a ghost in the machine. There is a whole ton of effort and the commitment and passion of the players cannot be questioned, but something, somewhere, isn’t right right now.

No-one in Coventry (including me) is expecting this team to realistically challenge the likes of Nottingham at the top for the league title (although nothing can be ruled out)-but there is still a belief that this team is a trophy winning team…its proved time and again that on its day it can beat anyone.

Tonight, the Blaze play Braehead-a squad who have suffered their own major problems this season. The Clan have a new coach, fresh blood at the helm. They’re coming in rejeuvenated and wanting to impress in the Challenge Cup quarter-final…a team that know that perhaps the hockey gods have dealt them a crap hand, hit rock bottom and is now attempting to drag itself back up.

The Blaze are in a similar position (minus the new coach angle)-after the horrific 8-0 loss to Nottingham left the fans and players hurting and injuries and departures to key players smacked the team around once again, they are slowly making their way back to full power, and we’ve seen glimpses of that already on Sunday and in other games.

But tonight’s game is a massive one.

In training, you can bet the Blaze and Paul Thompson have been working their backsides off to work out whether it’s something they are doing, or something they used to have but don’t now that’s getting in the way of this team being all it can be. The team it was in October, November and early December. Now, they need support.

All of Coventry is hoping that they find the solution…if they do the second half of the season could be one that sees the team bloom just like the early flowers of spring.

Or they could be to the second half of the season what Braehead were to the first…a team that will spend the summer torturing itself with the two most poignant and yet futile words in sports.

If only…”

Let’s hope spring will bring a reflowering of this team’s undoubted talents after a harsh and unforgiving winter. It starts tonight.

I’ll be at the Skydome, travelling in hope.

Good luck in your search, boys.

Chasing Dragons Vault: Lions Led By Donkeys

The preliminary GB squad has been announced for the final Olympic qualifiers in Latvia in February. Ahead of an analysis later today, and to set the scene, here’s a post I wrote for another website ahead of last years’ World Championships. Later today will come another post looking at this year’s team and seeing if much has changed despite their heroic efforts.

This is a post that it hurts to write.

The Great Britain national ice hockey team currently ranks just outside the top 20 in the world. Over the past few years it’s solidly established itself at the second tier of international hockey-that twilight world of teams who aren’t quite good enough to join the really good nations, but good enough to think that one day, they might.

This is quite impressive. However, it’s nowhere near where the team could be. And it’s nothing to do with the fault of the players proudly wearing the GB shirt.

British ice hockey off-ice is a murky world. It’s populated by a mix of dedicated and proud people genuinely working for the better of the sport and those who seem to see the whole thing as some sort of personal pride project.

It’s a world seemingly driven by ego as much as pure pride. An incestuous, closed world which is hard to get into and once in, harder to stay in and keep personal pride and principles intact-at least if you want to be successful. Knowing the right people and more importantly having influence with the right people and boards is key.

Individually, those involved in the running of the sport are often shrewd, engaging and passionate about their chosen calling. Over the past few years the GB management team, led by coach Paul Thompson and GM Andy Buxton, made huge strides towards taking the national team to a level they had only, briefly tasted once before.

What’s made more amazing is that they achieved these great results and took the team to the brink of qualifying for World Championship hockey despite being sabotaged at every turn. Maybe not intentionally but sabotaged nevertheless.

The ruling bodies of British hockey agree that one of the major problems with the GB team is getting the players together to play warmup games, training camps, obtaining icetime, and money.

However, the same ruling bodies are often populated by those running the British clubs-clubs that they’ve often invested considerable amounts of money into and want to see a return on.
The British leagues, unlike many of the top leagues in Europe, run continuously without breaking for international tournaments like many of the top nations in Europe. The reason cited? It would harm the clubs, who depend on regular incomes of one home game a week in order to pay their players and keep operating.

Oh-and the GB staff? They’re all staff drawn from British clubs, who draw whatever pay they get (often none, but sometimes a little) from those same clubs. National pride may be a wonderful thing, but cold hard cash will always win in a fight between club and country.

IHUK pleads poverty, hence the lack of funding. However, this is an organisation which makes money from every single ice-hockey player in Britain by insisting that they are registered (at 50 pounds a year for adults) to play the sport. It’s an organisation which can afford to have a chairman based in Canada.

It’s also an organisation which spends no money on promoting the national team or even the sport in the media. Coverage of the national team is even less than the meagre amount given to the clubs.

And yet somehow, it’s not the fault of the people running the sport that it has no coverage. Somehow, it’s acceptable for a national team to have no warm up games and play no matches in its own country for a year (and only two the year before that).

Somehow, it’s acceptable to select a coach who can’t even make the opening game of the World Championships because his club team haven’t finished their season-and select players who have the same problem.

These are not new problems-they’re problems that have gone on for many years and will continue to run as long as club hockey takes precedence over country hockey.

And with the same people running the national team board as run the Elite League board, that will not change any time soon.

It’s worse, however. Prominent figures in the British game have said that women’s hockey (a sport in which GB rank higher than their equivalent men’s team and is funded almost entirely voluntarily) isn’t important. Which is one way of alienating most of the population to the sport straight away…

People are calling for changes. However, I believe the chances of that happening are minimal…simply because there is no genuine impetus at the top levels to do so. The Buxton/Thompson regime and the strides made under it were the exception, not the rule.
Traditionally, Britain is not a nation that prides itself on mediocrity. But with those running ice hockey in this country, it seems that’s just fine as long as the clubs keep ticking along somehow.

Points For Puppies: Blaze Fans Help Your Four Legged Friends

It’s amazing what an idea can do.

Today I was looking at Twitter and noticed that the Boston Bruins blog Stanley Cup of Chowder, which a friend of mine is involved in, had set up a a thing called Trees for Goals, which basically means they’ll plant 50 trees for every goal Boston Bruins dman Andrew Ference scores in the NHL this season.

It appears Ference saw the blog, liked the idea and said he’d join in, except that, due to a having a bit more money, he’ll plant fifty trees for every goal his team-mate Tyler Seguin scores. Given that Seguin’s one of the top young forwards in the NHL, that could cost him a few quid.

Now, me, I thought that it would be fun to have a similar hockey for charity’ thing for the Blaze. Given that one of the loves of my life is my family’s English Shepherd, Shea (yes, he is named after Guthrie) who we adopted as a rescue job from the Dogs’ Trust, I thought of the idea of a donation to the charity of 50p for every goal scored by a Blaze player of my choice (I picked Benn Olson, after the Trees for Goals template of picking a low-scoring player in the hope of encouraging a career year). As that seemed a bit cowardly, I added Brad Leeb, and set 50p a goal as the donation.

Then I posted the idea on Twitter. Didn’t expect any response-just thought it’d be a fun thing to do and maybe let the players involved know they were helping a charity by doing so.

Suddenly, my followers were messaging  saying “great idea, I’ll match it” or picking their own players. Within half an hour, my Twitter feed went mad. Fans were joining in, including ex-Blaze forward Gerome Giudice. Even Elite League ref Tom Darnell got involved, saying he’d donate 50p to Dog’s Trust for every penalty he called in his next time officiating the Blaze.

And suddenly, Points For Puppies was born.

The idea is simple.

From today (January 8th) until the end of the season, you pick a Blaze player (or, if you prefer, one from your own team) and commit an amount you’ll donate to be split between the Dog’s Trust and Guide Dogs For The Blind charity for every goal, or if you prefer, point they get. Chasing Dragons is doing 50p for every GOAL Benn Olson or Brad Leeb gets for the Blaze.

Frankly, the speed with which this (a casual idea and a quick post on Twitter that I thought would be lost in the crowd) has taken off has amazed me.

To join in, use the #pointsforpuppies hash tag on Twitter. I’ll set up a spreadsheet so people can follow how much they owe by Saturday, but this is very fluid right now as a casual idea has suddenly taken off.

Here’s how it works:

Here are the current (Jan 8th) points totals for the Blaze team from eliteprospects.com . To work out how much you’d owe at any point, simply subtract this amount from your chosen player’s current total at any time during the rest of the season, then multiply by your chosen donation-per-point to get your donation in pounds (1 for a pound, 0.5 for our suggested 50p donation, 0.25 for 25p, and so on):

                                         GP G   A   P

1. Mike Schutte (D) 38 11 32 43
2. Shea Guthrie (F) 32 14 23 37
3. Greg Leeb (F) 38 9 26 35
4. Matt Beleskey (F) 26 12 21 33
5. Brad Leeb (F) 37 18 14 32
6. Dustin Cameron (F) 33 15 12 27
7. Gerome Giudice (F) 26 8 7 15
8. Samuel Smith (F) 31 2 11 13
9. Benn Olson (D) 38 3 9 12
10. Russell Cowley (F) 15 5 6 11
.
11. Mike Bayrack (F) 18 5 6 11
12. Mike Egener (D) 36 1 10 11
13. Jerramie Domish (D) 20 2 5 7
14. James Griffin (D) 36 0 6 6
15. Ross Venus (F) 36 4 1 5
16. Dale White (D) 35 1 1 2
17. Josh Bruce (F) 9 0 2 2
18. Steven Chalmers (D) 37 1 0 1
19. Matthew Selby (D) 35 0 1 1
20. Josh Gent (F) 1 0 0 0 0
21. James Pease (D) 1 0 0 0 0
22. Kieran Papps (D) 1 0 0 0 0
23. James Preece (F) 5 0 0 0 0 |
24. Derek Campbell (F) 0 0 0 0

First column is games played, second is goals, third assists, and fourth total points. So, had this been running from the start of the season and you’d picked “50p per Mike Bayrack goal” you’d currently be donating 5 x 0.5 = £2.50. It’s that simple. 

If anyone wants to get their own team involved, then the template is simple-pick a player, and it’s 50p a goal or 50p a point (goals and assists) whichever you prefer. However,  it’ll need someone to organise it for other teams, cause keeping track of 200 players will be beyond me and it could get a little big for one person.

Keep an eye on the #pointsforpuppies hash tag for all the latest updates in the meantime…and let’s hope the goals start flying in. You might hear the odd bark of joy under the goalhorns if they do…