(note-before anyone gets panicky, the title of the blog is the title of a “Game Of Thrones” episode. Not a dig at anyone. This article also appears on the “Bleed And Blue” Blaze fanzine)
“The fading flower/The passing hours/They fall like sand through the fingers”
The Birthday Massacre: “Burn Away”
“You’re not the big fish in the pond/You’re the one they’re feeding on”
Paramore, “Ain’t It Fun”
There is a creeping sickness in Coventry.
After three seasons of mediocrity, excuses and constantly telling themselves “it’ll be fine, we just need to keep positive” in the face of increasing evidence to the contrary all this season, last night the Blaze organisation and ownership was finally forced to face the fact that, while the club may be the healthiest it’s ever been off ice, mainly thanks to the Trojan-like efforts of its office staff, the Coventry Blaze frankly just doesn’t cut it on ice any more.
The Blaze dragon, already with head bowed and wounded after a season that will be one to forget, was despatched from the playoffs execution-style by a ruthless Sheffield Steelers squad, who fired six shots to the head (two from Dustin Kohn, two from Rob Dowd and one each from Max Lacroix and Danny Meyers, which made Ross Venus’ consolation goal the last dying breath of a thoroughly beaten, broken and bloodied corpse. .
It also once and for all exposed as meaningless any rhetoric of “responsibility” and “pride” from coach Marc Lefebvre, the Blaze owners and indeed the last few desperate defenders of this sinking ship of a team, that was left without a strong hand on the tiller pre-season by the organisation refusing to take a risk, began to founder seriously in October and was doomed ever since.
This team is sick. Despite those in the Blaze office giving 70 hour weeks to give the on-ice staff everything they could possibly want, despite promises every week that players would be “held accountable” and players were “fully committed to the cause”, the embarrassing lack of effort shown by many last night was only one more nail in the coffin of the once-proud Blaze tradition of “finding a way to win”.
Defenders of the squad will point to injuries. And there have been those, certainly. Several of them, in fact. But every team has injuries. Every team has “tough patches” of sticky going that they have to gut through. This team didn’t have “sticky patches”. It just stepped as one into the quicksand and was then too apathetic or uncaring to pull itself out.
This is a team that has shamed a city. A team that, if you believe the assertions from the ownership (and, unlike some teams, say in South Wales, there’s no reason not to) has been handed everything it ever could’ve wanted. A team whose off-ice staff have met and exceeded every financial target they were given-have managed to make sponsorship income the highest ever seen at the Blaze and managed to keep average attendance rising despite the frankly dire product on show at times this season. A team, let’s not forget, who had the league’s top points scorer (who scored 14 more points than any other player), the top British point scorer, the fourth best goalie in the league and some of the best young British talent out there.
It’s a team that SHOULD have been challenging for trophies.
But instead, it was a team that coasted through large parts of the season. A team that never looked anything more than a disparate collection of individuals who wouldn’t fight through a crowd at the bar to buy each other drinks, never mind go through walls. Individually there were some excellent efforts-Cale Tanaka won the hearts of Coventry with his work-rate, Ryan Ginand found goals the way a squirrel finds nuts, and Ashley Tait had an Indian summer of a season, proving that like a fine wine, he just gets better with age. And Mike Zacharias in net often carried those in front of him on his back on far too many nights in a desperate attempt to hold the Blaze dragon’s head above water when others were hanging lazily off it like human anchors.
The trouble is, the flashes of light only show up the darkness more clearly. This is a team that, collectively, saw everything they were given as a right, not a privilege. A team that took everything the fans and organisation had to give them, all the support, all the passion, all the ticket money, all the rabid defences of their efforts when things started to go wrong, and every single last chance and benefit of the doubt they were given, and collectively threw it back while laughing in the faces of those who paid their wages, night after night.
It’s a team that cost a man his job, while keeping their own.
Stuart Coles speaks in his article on “Bleed And Blue
” (a companion piece to this) of the Blaze “losing their identity”. They’ve done more than that. Constantly given everything they want and with owners who’d rather stick to what they know than take a risk, the Blaze have no identity left. The Blaze “brand” is nothing more than a mish-mash of platitudes about “accountability” and “getting behind the team”. With the ownership trying to make the Blaze everything to everyone, all they’ve succeeding in doing, slowly, is ensuring they’ve become nothing.
The Blaze as we knew them through the successful years of the early and mid 00’s are richer, stronger financially and in a better position than they’ve ever been in their body, but the soul and heart are dead, like a particularly healthy-looking zombie.
This season is a wake up call. Or it should be.
After a year that has dishonoured the legacy of players like Dan Carlson, Sylvain Cloutier, Joel Poirier and countless others, this off-season is a time for the Blaze not so much to rebuild as to burn the whole world down and start again. Marc Lefebvre has had his 6-week job interview. It hasn’t worked out. Matty Soderstrom has had his chance. That didn’t work out either. We’ve had the era of “believing in blue”. That belief was well and truly betrayed for the final time in Sheffield last night.
This off-season, it’s not up to the fans to “believe in the club” any more. It’s up to the Blaze owners and players to earn that belief back.
Starting with a new, experienced coaching appointment. If there really were applications from “all over the hockey world” for the Blaze job, let’s see them again.
When that coach comes in, it should be made clear as a condition of the job that he’s expected to come in with a new identity that doesn’t try to make the Skydome one big, happy, joyous family-a message that doesn’t give players a free ride or a ticket to the country club, but makes them earn every paycheck with blood, sweat and tears, just like some of the Blaze greats such as Danny Stewart and Cloutier did.
And when he does, that mythical coach should be left without any outside interference to build a team and style of play that combines the youthful skill and talent of James Griffin, Ross Venus and Matt Selby with some genuine muscle, fire and sheer “f**k you” attitude. A team that makes teams fear the Blaze again.
It’s time to throw away everything from the past few seasons, and stop relying on past glories to kindle support, the old boys’ network to provide free jobs for coaches and most of all, to finally put down the tired calls of “bleeding blue” to keep fans coming through the door, and actually bloody stand for something.
It’s time to feed the dragons, the owners to turn up the fire under the players’ hot seats and turn the Skydome into a place which is heaven if you want it to be, and hell if you’re not prepared to work for it.
It’s time for the Blaze to stop pretending that they’re from anywhere other than Coventry, and embrace the chippy, nasty, vicious side of a city and people who create heaven for those who respect and love them and hell for those who don’t. Because it doesn’t matter who pulls on that jersey-they should know they’re pulling it on to represent the people and city of Coventry.
Coventry is a city that’s been destroyed and rebuilt before. It’s a battle-scarred, cynical, hostile, unwelcoming place. It’s not pretty. It’s not refined. But it gets the job done. It doesn’t care what other cities think of it, what accusations of “ugliness” or “craft” are levelled at it. It just sticks a finger up to the rest of the world, gets its head down, and bloody works.
Maybe it’s time the Blaze team was demolished, and rebuilt in its home city’s image. Maybe it’s time the organisation stopped pretending to be bigger than it was, stopped living on past glories, and went back to its roots as a close-knit club that was proud of where it was.
And maybe it’s time that every player who walked through that door knew that they carry the pride and trust of Coventrians with them. A trust that isn’t given, but one that has to be earned in blood. And more to the point, they should know that if you betray that trust, even for a shift, Coventrians never forgive, and they never forget.
Your move, Coventry Blaze. The Skydome is waiting. But it won’t wait much longer.