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.
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.