Matty Soderstrom’s rookie coaching season in Coventry has been a baptism of fire.
Brought in with the thankless task of stepping into the shoes of one of the most successful coaches in British hockey, the affable Swede has been handed a gift which, after the initial optimism a new broom can bring, looks more and more like a poisoned chalice as the Blaze have failed to live up to preseason hopes, currently sitting sixth in the EIHL table and with the questions about Soderstrom’s position that had been voiced quietly in the offseason becoming clarion calls already for a new man to be given the job.
Last Sunday saw the fans finally lose patience with the team and the calls for drastic change begin, as an abject 3rd period capitulation saw the Blaze give up five goals in nine minutes at home to a rampant Fife Flyers squad and turn a 4-2 lead that was looking fairly comfortable to a 7-4 loss that one club figure described to me afterwards as “inexcusable”.
Soderstrom himself cut a haunted, disconsolate figure in the bar after the game-his team’s performance had seemingly clearly angered him, although he kept his thoughts to himself.
Other Blaze players weren’t so discreet-one player in particular repeating a mistake of last year and becoming involved in an ugly exchange of threats, insults and offers of a fight with a Blaze fan in response to criticism of his play on social media, possibly the worst thing you can do when you’ve been part of an epic collapse in the third period short of just openly “doing a Suderman” and publicly ripping your fanbase.
It’s made even worse when you bear in mind that the player concerned complained about private messaging from fans, while conveniently forgetting he did exactly the same thing (direct-messaging a fan with threats) last season.
These are volatile times for the Blaze organisation. After several seasons of dissatisfaction from the fanbase at many aspects of the club, the departure of Paul Thompson was supposed to signal a clean sweep, with Soderstrom finally getting his chance. PR in the off -season focused on the quality of the new players arriving and players spoke of their belief that this roster could “challenge for a championship, and play exciting, physical, committed hockey.
However, an off-season that saw two key players fail to start the season after already signing (in Mike Egener and Mike Schutte) wasn’t the best preparation and saw Soderstrom have to rejig his plans. The Swede was also fighting against constant claims that the team wasn’t his own…hardly the best start to the season. However, the PR remained relentlessly upbeat, as one would expect-and some Blaze fans even seemed to fall for the hype, particularly after a thumping 5-0 win away in Belfast.
Since winning 5 games to start off the season in September, though, the Blaze have lost 14 and only won seven, conceding 80 goals while only scoring 58 in the process. They’ve made an ignominious exit from the Challenge Cup group stages, being one of only two teams NOT to make the quarter finals, and have dropped to sixth in the league, ten points off the top and dropping, currently mired in a loss of form that has only seen them win one of their last six games and not win at home in a month.
During this time, we’ve only seen rare glimpses of a potentially excellent team mired in a mix of seeming self doubt, injuries and occasionally, as on Sunday, just straight under-performance, particularly from several of the most-heralded players.
Of course, there have been endless ways to justify the losses-the Blaze have suffered more than their fair share of injuries to key players early in the season, after all.
However, these excuses of “injury problems” and “not having the luxuries of arena teams” are ringing increasingly hollow with the returns of Mike Egener and Shea Guthrie and the seemingly desperate return signing of Gerome Giudice. Clearly, whatever issues are holding the Blaze back, it can’t be said that the owners haven’t at least tried to change things and offered financial help
However, with the cutting of the Blaze’s best defensive forward in Brian McMillin in favour of a Giudice who hasn’t exactly set the Skydome alight on his return and suffered two concussion injuries already, coupled with the form of the team being inconsistent even at “full strength”, is it a case of “needing reinforcements” by itself that’s causing the problem, or something more?
In fact, there should only be one thought driven into his players’ heads by Matt Soderstrom, over and over again until they’re saying it in their sleep.
There are no more excuses left.
This is a Blaze team that, on paper anyway, should be far better than it is. With the otherworldly scoring talents of Ryan Ginand already providing a stream of goals and that now reinforced by the talents of Shea Guthrie, coupled with Ashley Tait’s Indian summer of a season, this team should not be struggling as much as it is.
It’s plain for all to see, however, that there is something not right in the Blaze at the moment. Whether it’s the wrong fuel or the desire simply not burning hot enough, the team aren’t performing near to their full potential. Fans are picking on the lack of secondary scoring, but does this hold water? Brian McMillin received endless criticism for his slow scoring rate, but his “replacement” and fan favourite with many Giudice (who was supposed to be more dangerous offensively, we were told) is scoring slower still. (2 points in 9 games = 0.22 PPG, McMillin’s 8 in 24 = 0.33 PPG, with arguably much better defensive upside) and another big-name signing, Mike Henrich, has put up points but has been criticised for effort this season.
Fans are already beginning to turn on this season’s team and singling out Soderstrom for their ire, with a poll on Fire and Ice Forum saying that 37% of fans want him sacked already.
Couple that with the far more potentially serious problem of fans simply saying they’re not bothering to turn up to games in increasing numbers and the Blaze moving toward a tough home schedule that sees them play Sheffield, Braehead, Cardiff and Nottingham in the next four games and clearly the slump needs to be stopped now before the Blaze play themselves into real trouble both on and off the ice.
There is probably nobody out there who realizes this more than the players, but the game against Sheffield is now a game where excuses simply do not apply, whatever they are. Any more performances close to that of the third period vs Fife, and the team run the risk of losing their fans support and, eventually, their coach his job. And doing so sooner rather than later.
Not only that, they risk driving away the very fans they claim to need, through their own fault.
Granted, the club and players can point to injuries, playing with imports short, and even perhaps uncertainty over roster changes. But now, with 11 fit imports, the team have their full quota and can ice a roster that on paper can compete with other EIHL squads, even the top teams. It’s already proven that.
No excuses, Blaze. Time to stop looking for words to defend sloppy losses and bad play-because now, with the majority of players back from injuries, reinforcements brought in on forward and defence and competition to stay in the side once Adam Henrich returns as (what should be) a key motivating factor to play well this month as well as a management who’ve already shown the willing to make changes, there aren’t any left.
From now on, it’s time to stand up and be counted. Nothing else will do.
Otherwise, the Blaze dragon may already see its 2013/14 season and more seriously fan engagement with the team fall into a death spiral.