Passing The Poisoned Chalice: Blaze Make Coaching Changes

“The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.”
Frederic Bastiat

“”Compromise”? The damned use that word in hell”

Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act III, s.II

Today the Matty Soderstrom Era in Coventry, which started with a mix of optimism and confusion, ends in acrimony and disappointment. The Blaze announced this morning that they’ve relieved the Swede of his duties, to be replaced by Sheffield Steelers assistant coach (and former Blaze player) Marc Lefebvre.

Blaze chairman Andy Buxton says in the release that this was a “necessary change” and that “The players all have to take a good look at themselves now as they will all be playing not only for potential contracts next season but also keeping their contracts until the end of this season. It’s up to them because we will be backing the new coach.”

While it can’t be denied that Blaze have made every effort to back Soderstrom this season on the playing side of things, and his team have not performed to the expectations that either he, the Blaze ownership or indeed the players themselves would have had at the start of the season, you have to feel sorry for the departing coach.

Soderstrom was handed a poisoned chalice from the start for his first head-coaching job…coming in to follow a team fallen on relatively lean times as a legendary coach finally cut ties and made the move on to new challenges three seasons after his last trophy, and then left to labour in the massive shadow of Paul Thompson. From the earliest press release, where it was made clear that the departing coach would “advise on recruitment” Soderstrom had to somehow stamp his own identity on the team under the perception in the fanbase (justified or not) that he was a compromise appointment, only keeping the seat warm for a possible Paul Thompson return. He also had to fight against a fanbase angry that the opportunity for a break away from the “country club” atmosphere many had criticised and the arrival of fresh ideas from a coach new to the club and the EIHL had not been taken, in favour of the “safe” view.

A nightmarish offseason that saw Blaze’s projected number-one D Mike Schutte pull out of a contract after being offered opportunities off-ice and the (thankfully now beaten) health problems of projected captain Mike Egener didn’t help matters, but despite this the first month of the season went well for the Blaze-there was optimism around the Skydome.

Then, the rot set in. Injuries began to bite, but even the healthy players weren’t playing quite as they were expected to. Big name signings brought in over the summer were put to shame by those playing through injury and still trying to play the same game they were used to despite the physical risk.

Week after week we saw Soderstrom quietly trying to change things on the bench, while stronger personalities appeared to take the lead and the dissatisfaction of the fans grew louder and louder. Promises were made by both coach and player after player that “it was time for accountability” and “time to build some momentum” after each win, but it never really happened.

Soderstrom looked like a haunted man, under pressure and marginalised by his team on the bench and with a group of players who seemed either not to be being coached or, if they were, who appeared to be simply unable or unwilling to put that coaching into practice at times.

The defining games of Soderstrom’s reign all came at the Skydome-firstly a third-period capitulation against Fife which saw the Flyers gleefully rip a lazy and uninterested opposition to shreds and score five unanswered goals to turn a 4-2 deficit into a 7-4 win. The second was more of the same-a 3-0 lead against Nottingham became a 5-3 loss as the Panthers simply stepped up a gear or two and the Blaze, for whatever reason, waved them by like a Model T being overtaken by a Ferrari. And finally, the horrendous first twenty minutes and nineteen seconds of Sheffield’s last visit tot the Skydome, which saw the Steelers rattle in six unanswered goals. To give credit to Blaze, they fought back hard in that one, scoring four, but as with many games this season, by the time the Blaze team turned up as a whole, the game was lost.

Sunday’s 5-1 thumping by Sheffield was seemingly the final straw, in a performance called “listless, uninterested, and unworthy of the jersey” by fans who made the trip.

Granted, as a rookie coach, Soderstrom made mistakes. But the Blaze players will have looked in the mirror this morning as they prepared for the first practice without him and several will doubtless have thought “there but for the grace of God go I”-as their failure to perform on the ice has finally cost their coach his job.

And so we move to the Marc Lefebvre era. “Furby” comes to the Blaze with a little more coaching experience than his predecessor-he was an All-Star coach in the Federal Hockey League (a league at the third-tier of North American pro-hockey, based in the Northeastern US and currently with four teams) and a half-season as assistant coach of the Sheffield Steelers. It’s not much of a résumé compared to some other EIHL coaches, but it’s experience that will likely stand him in good stead in his new role.

Lefebvre is already saying all the right things after his first practice today, saying that “players have to earn the right to be here. If they don’t perform, they’re out”. With knowledge of the league and a contract which (for now) only runs until the end of the season, the 31-year-old from Kanata, Ontario is, right now, a safe pair of hands from now until April, with the added motivation of going after his own contract for next season. This, for him, is a massive chance.

However, it’s also a massive challenge. Lefebvre comes into a team who appear to have lost confidence in themselves and their previous coach. Off ice, he’ll have to cope with winning over a disillusioned fanbase and struggling for league position, with players that aren’t his own. He will realise that he has to put his stamp on the team quickly and make any tactical changes even quicker. Lefebvre’s first game on Thursday against a team who have won seven on the bounce and look a different group since bringing in Dave Whistle as interim coach.

More to the point, if the new coach does want to make changes he doesn’t have long to do it, with the IIHF signing deadline only a week or two away, 15 games remaining in the season, and pressure growing on the Blaze both internally (from the fanbase) and externally (with Fife desperately trying to sneak that last playoff spot).

It’s a big ask for an experienced coach, never mind someone in only his third season of coaching and stepping up a level as he tries to earn himself a role beyond the end of this season. And he has to carry the hopes of a notoriously demanding fanbase-one that’s already broken one rookie coach this season-on his back while doing so.

Talk about being handed one heck of a poisoned chalice-this one, in coaching terms, is more like a pint pot of cyanide.

The very best of luck to Marc Lefebvre. He may need it.

One thought on “Passing The Poisoned Chalice: Blaze Make Coaching Changes

  1. Pingback: "Nothing but good things…" | Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside…. Thank you Matty Soderstrom.

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