Sticking Plasters On Open Wounds: The Painful Freefall of Coventry Blaze

Procrastinating, pretending to worry
Solving problems by pushing them aside
Wasting time like we’ve all the time in the world…”

VNV Nation: “Testament”

A few weeks ago, Chasing Dragons took a close look at Coventry’s hot start, and argued that the early pace was masking flaw after flaw in the Blaze’s makeup, in a long article which Blaze fans didn’t like much. The title of that article essentially put forward the content and the argument…the Blaze would be found out eventually.

Three weeks later, the Blaze have gone from a team tearing the league apart to one…well, not. I argued that natural regression would probably see the early leaders slide back to the pack (for which I got all measure of criticism from Blaze fans arguing that my argument was in no way statistically sound)-but I didn’t expect to see it happen quite this quickly.

On Sep 21st, my opinions that Blaze’s hot start couldn’t last provoked a response from none other than Blaze owner Andy Buxton, who decided to take this shot at me on Twitter and revel in the team continuing to prove my fears wrong, thusly:

20141027-115634.jpg

Since that tweet was written on Sep 21 after a 4-3 win against the Nottingham Panthers, the Blaze have only won three games (against Braehead Clan, Fife in OT and an 11-skater Edinburgh on PS)-they’ve played eleven. In those eleven games they’ve only scored 19 goals, or at a rate of 1.6 goals a game, while conceding 34, or, or 3.1 a game. There is obvious frustration within the camp, with rumours of something of a rift between top defenceman Rory Rawlyk and his coach, (and indeed others, as anyone who sees the way the team split apart into small groups post-game in presentations or sees them yelling on the bench will testify) and the stars simply aren’t producing as expected (with the exception of Ryan O’Marra, who’s only scored twice but leads the team on points).

Ouch. They say that pride comes before a fall.

The Blaze are a team who, currently, have learned that even if your hot goalie stays hot (and Brian Stewart, despite this awful run, is still second in the EIHL in save percentage and often the only player preventing mere losses from becoming cricket scores) eventually, you have to do more than just ride him to victory.

The team will no doubt point to four from six points last weekend as something of a sign that things are changing for the better-but look into things a little more closely.

This is a team who are being outscored on average by a goal a game DESPITE having the goalie with the second-best save percentage in the league (although he’s only 5th in GAA now) It’s a team that needed penalty shots, at home, to dispose of a ninth-placed team with 11 skaters.

It’s also a team that has the second-worst PP in the league, no player in the top 20 league scorers, and a coach who can spend a week working on a powerplay and actually make it worse. But we’ll get to that. Let’s start from the back.

Brian Stewart has faced the second-most shots in the EIHL (602 shots, for an average of 35 a game)-fifty more than his nearest competitor Marc Cheverie in 10th-placed Dundee. More to the point, he’s faced 120 shots, or nearly four games worth more, than the next goalie in the Erhardt Conference (Sheffield’s Frank Doyle, who has 480), and three hundred more, in only four more games, then Nottingham’s Craig Kowalski.

Frankly, the Blaze are still riding him like a stolen donkey. The only difference between now and early season is that Stewart is, understandably, unable to keep up his truly incredible start to the season. The law of averages means that no matter how good your goalie is-when you’re conceding more goals than you’re scoring, you will lose games.

And Blaze are doing that now. This weekend they hit the low point of the season so far-taking a 3-1 lead vs Cardiff at the Big Blue Tent on Saturday night before the roof fell in-nine unanswered goals from the Devils over five periods this weekend and a team and coach that looked lacklustre, uninspired and, frankly, awful.

We’ve heard a lot about how the Blaze are a “close team” this season-indeed the “this is a team unlike last years cause it’ll work hard for points all year and it’s united” schtick is one that defenders of the team loved to use in the early part of the season when the team were winning…now, though, the lustre appears to have worn off as Blaze fans realise that this team doesn’t only look like repeating the mistakes of last year, but surpassing them.

Let’s look at the coaching, too. This Blaze team had a noted issue with the powerplay, so we saw Marc Lefebvre as coach say all the right things at the end of last week-“we need to improve on the PP, start scoring…we’ll be working on it all this week ahead of the Cardiff games”.

That work’s result? Zero goals scored on nine powerplays this weekend-and three conceded while shorthanded.

This Blaze team looks disjointed, unhappy and unsure of itself. It also is a team that’s somehow taken one of the standout scorers of the EIHL era, an ex-NHL forward and playoff winning captain and arguably the premier offensive defenseman in the league and turned them into a mishmash of personalities who seem to have no common aim apart from pulling the same shirt over their heads.

What we’re seeing now is the result of four or five years of stagnation in Coventry, both on and off the ice. I’m not talking about things on a business side-but on the side of culture and drive. Players used to want to play in Coventry-they used to know that they’d be held to the highest possible standards.

The past few years, while teams like Braehead have shown the route to success is unity, in Coventry they’ve gone in the other direction-the team has blithely been allowed to drift further and further away from the fans, secure in the knowledge that most of them will come through the door no matter what and with the organisation enclosing themselves in a no-criticism bubble. The problems for this team have been here since the start of the season, but rather than quietly get on with fixing them the club have chosen to stick fingers in ears and go “as long as we’re winning, it’s OK…we can ride a goalie all the way to the title, right?” and the fanbase has fractured between those who can see the problems and those who can’t (or won’t) admit to them.

Off the ice, the matchnight organisation has seen stuttering starts, failed equipment that’s actively sabotaged the hard work of those trying to improve it, and an experienced tailored to pretty much what anyone but the actual fanbase wants.

Now, the fans are turning on a team that looks barely a shadow of those that have graced the Skydome ice. And it hurts to watch a Blaze club who’ve had great players and moments like Adam Calder, Joel Poirier, Wade Belak and Dan Carlson represented by a team who simply don’t seem to care and lack any cohesion, run by a rookie coach who says all the right things but can’t seem to follow them up or even (in some cases, such as that of sniper Jereme Tendler) use his players talents to best effect.

I wondered preseason whether this Blaze team would flatter to deceive as a case of style over substance. I was called “deluded, bitter, and negative” by those both within the club and without for raising those concerns…even going as far as public ridicule, as in the tweet from Andy Buxton mentioned earlier (incidentally, that’s something else that would never have happened in the “old” Blaze…back then, the club actually knew how important anybody who watched their club was, whatever their opinion of events on the ice. The arrogance of today was non-existent)

Now, though, the Blaze’s attempt to sell Lefebvre-brand snake-oil has been found out. Right now they’re a club going nowhere, full of buzzwords, promises and claims of action from the owners and coach, but with those claims being shown to be false week after week.

Simply put, in the way they’re being run and the interaction with the fanbase, they’re looking like Cardiff under Paul Ragan, but with a much better PR machine and financial mangement that actually works.

The trouble is that now, that PR curtain has been lifted, ironically by the changes and success wrought in Cardiff, Fife & even Braehead (teams in a similar position arena-size, stature, and budget-wise to Coventry) and Coventry has seen the ugly truth beneath-this Blaze team has gone from one of the leaders of the pack to an embarrassment while those running it have seemingly taken the easiest possible decision in coaching changes and hoped for the best.

The time for talking is over. There need to be big changes in Coventry, on and off the ice. And they need to happen now, or in only a few weeks this season could be another listed among the false-starts and sad failures of the past five years.

Right now, the Blaze are desperately trying to live in the reflected glories of the mid-2000’s. And the fire is slowly going out, while the coaches and players squabble about the lack of fuel.

And, as someone who’s watched hockey in Coventry for most of his life and, even if he’s not a fan now, still remembers the good times, watching this team stumble slowly into the darkness and being strangled by a web of false promises, fan apathy and lack of owner ambition hurts. It hurts a lot.

This team isn’t fit to lace the boots of former Blaze legends like Calder, Poirier, Belak, Cloutier, Carlson, Lehman, Martin…the list goes on and the legacy of every single one of those players, all who’ve fought and bled for blue, is being shamed and dragged through the mud by their 2014/15 successors. And the worst thing is-as long as the money is coming in, no-one seems to care.

I loved those teams dearly. Since then, my writing path has taken me away from fandom to an unemotional observer. Time and trying to make a career hockey writing does that. But it hurts my soul to watch those great players and teams have their legacy dishonoured so flagrantly and seemingly without a care.

Something needs to change. Cardiff have proved you can come back from the depths with a bit of drive, some brave personnel decisions and an attempt to reconnect with the things that made you so popular in the first place. The magic has gone-the Blaze let it slip through their fingers bit by bit since the glory years of the mid 2000s.
Now, all of the Skydome is feeling the loss. It needs a new era-and maybe there will need to be painful decisions made in the short term…the question is, are they up to the challenge any more?

Coventry is a patient city, used to new beginnings. But it won’t wait forever. Remember that, Blaze organisation.

Your clock is ticking. And time is beginning to run out.

2 thoughts on “Sticking Plasters On Open Wounds: The Painful Freefall of Coventry Blaze

  1. Absolutely spot on writing here!

    I don’t always agree with your opinions, or the way you go about making your point sometimes, but this article is a real ‘nail on the head’ piece.

    Blaze last season were tainted by laziness and attitude issues, but the stand out star, Ginand, was able to be a success despite that, certainly he was in a league of his own – although he contributed to the issues and, supposedly, created divisions in the locker room.

    Why was Ginand able to carry on scoring? As I mentioned before he was in a league of his own, but my opinion is that the sheer effort and heart shown by Harvey and Tanaka kept the pace of the play up and kept the fans loud. This season we don’t have that. Even Tanaka has seemed lacklustre, although I think this is more to do with the fact he’s often alone in pressuring the opposition and then either alone when he turns the puck over or out of position for the counter attack. One other reason Ginand was able to be so successful in my view was Adam Henrich, lazy as anything but unbelievable talent and always a worry to the opposition when he fancied a bit of a stretch.

    I’m not convinced LeFebvre knows how to utilise his players again this season, nor am I convinced he’s got the faith of the group. This is a real concern to me, I like the guy, but if he can’t get the best out of the group then perhaps he’s not the right man for the job. He’s a young and inexperienced coach in an extremely tough job – something needs to change. I’d personally have liked to see him come in as an assistant coach rather than the main man as I do think he has the potential to be an excellent coach, but perhaps this job is too big too soon. Despite it being a few years since Coventry were a force, the expectation is still there and for a young coach battling other issues at the club, that must be tough.

    We also need more energy on the ice and a physical presence wouldn’t go amiss! Bochek was voted ‘Bodychecker of the year’ in the CHL last season. Is there another Bochek in the CHL and we got the wrong one, or was that a tongue in cheek award? I’ve finished more Man Vs Food challenges than he has hits this season.

    The bad attitude and negativity is contagious too. Where there was hope and expectation at the start of the season, there is now cynicism and dread, from fans and players alike. It’s not hard to see why when you look at our PP. Surely the most important point when on the PP is shots on net. Create the space and get the shot on net, if it’s saved or deflected or just missed use the extra man to recover the puck and go again. Too many times on the PP this season Blaze have struggled to get more than a single shot on net, which should make the diabolical PP stats make alot more sense to those who don’t watch the Blaze games.

    There’s no doubt the Blaze roster this season has some extreme talent, but we’ve really not seen it yet. Players like Tendler who have proven consistently how good they are in the EIHL are struggling. Are they not as good as we thought? No, I believe we’re just seeing how important their respective teams were to their success at previous clubs and the problem with that is that they’re not used to struggling. This goes back to not being used correctly, time to change up the tactics, switch the lines about and inject some energy back into the team.

    Finally, I think a massive problem for this team is the loss of the fan favourites from last seasons team. They might not necessarily have been the best players, or the hardest workers – but they were able to get the crowd roaring and on their feet. I’m talking about the likes of Benn Olson, Kevin Harvey, Ryan ‘scores when he wants’ Ginand and Adam Henrich – who were all capable of changing the atmosphere in the Skydome with one hit / play. Obviously we kept Egener and Tanaka, who are both fan favourites, but neither are capable of regularly stirring the crowd like the other 4 were. If we’re losing and in need of a spark we need ‘that’ player who can step up and finish a big hit, score a goal from nothing – they’re in the team I’m sure, but need to show it and soon.

    Obviously these are just my opinions, so you may disagree, but one thing I do know is that Blaze fans, players and owners alike really need to start pulling together, in the same direction, if we are to ever achieve a chance of any silverware in the near future.

  2. I am a Cardiff fan since time dot, and obviously had a dislike for the Blaze, but the one thing no one could take away from Coventry was there drive, desire, and passion to win. Devils v Blaze was always a great encounter, and packed both arenas.What I see now is poles apart, I now see a team that looks like it has no direction, is dis-jointed, lack-lustre and a shadow of past Blaze teams. Now no one wants to be too critical of it’s team,as a Devils fan I have seen many many upsetting manouvevers by rubbish mismanagement, I watched your webcast last night against the Giants, preferring to watch hockey than normal tv, and the Blaze were a total shambles and fans who watch this regularly won’t be happy bunnies for long, it’s harder to get fans in, than see them leave when nonsense like this is what they pay for. Now I don’t wish the Blaze ill, Jesus we need each other like never before, but your club really need a long look in the mirror, otherwise the outcome could be very detrimental to fans and this once proud club. I wish nothing but good for the Blaze, but go the way Devils ventured and you just may find the road back is extremely rocky.

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