So how exactly is it that the Tri-City Americans do it?
Tri-City, a franchise that was in the junkyard not all that long ago, has played 17 games. It has won 11 of those and has loser points from two other outings. That means the Americans are 11-4-2 on the season.
They went 8-4-2 in October, despite playing 11 of those games on the road.
The Americans already have played one-third of their road games — they are 7-4-1 away from home. Their six-game East Division trip is finished — they went 3-3-0 after losing the first two. Their annual trip to Prince George is finished — they split with the much-improved Cougars, winning 7-3 and losing 8-3.
In the friendly confines of the Toyota Center, the Americans are 4-0-1.
In the second game of that East Division road swing, the Americans lost Brendan Shinnimin, their top centre, to a 12-game suspension for an ugly check from behind. The Americans are 7-2-1 without Shinnimin, who is eligible to return Nov. 13 when they meet the Chiefs in Spokane.
They lost veteran C Kruise Reddick, their captain, to a concussion in an Oct. 9 game against the Wheat Kings in Brandon. They are 5-2-1 without him.
They were without veteran C Mason Wilgosh (jaw) for their first 10 games.
And they are one point behind the Portland Winterhawks, who lead the Western Conference and the U.S. Division.
Let’s not forget that when this season started the Americans weren’t big enough, weren’t skilled enough, had lost too much off the back end and on and on and on.
So how do they do it?
For starters, GM Bob Tory and his scouting staff are as good as any talent evaluators in the league and, of course, they struck the mother lode in Winnipeg, a city that has contributed a whole lot to the Tri-City cause.
Tory has hired solid coaches, first in Don Nachbaur and now in Jim Hiller, who is in his second season with the Americans.
But, more than anything else, I would suggest that the Americans are evidence of what happens when management really is able to change the culture of an organization.
A lot of people involved in downtrodden sports organizations talk about needing (and wanting) to change the culture, recognizing that an entire thought process has to be remade before a franchise can get back on the track to success. Some franchises struggle to get back, finding that this is a process that takes time. Others never make it, or, if they do, rise to the top for a season or two and then slide right back down.
The Americans, though, seem to have found the elixir. They may not get a whole lot of publicity but there can be little doubt that they now are one of the 60-team CHL’s elite franchises.
The Americans are just one of the great early stories as the WHL turns the page from October to November.
Right up there with them are the Kootenay Ice and Prince George Cougars.
Kootenay GM Jeff Chynoweth heard from the railbirds when, after saying he wouldn’t do it, he went ahead and promoted assistant coach Kris Knoblauch to head coach following the departure of Mark Holick. The critics were quick to seize on Knoblauch’s age (32) and the fact he had minimal coaching experience.
With assistants Jerry Bancks and Todd Johnson helping out, the Ice has won seven in a row, boasts an 11-3-1 record, and is sitting atop the Eastern Conference, one point clear of the Saskatoon Blades. If you put stock in winning percentages, Kootenay’s .767 is second only to Portland (.833).
The Cranbrook critics have been silent of late. If you’re a WHL fan you just hope they start buying tickets again.
Meanwhile, the Cougars, who had the worst record in the entire CHL last season, are 9-6-1 and fourth in the Western Conference. In the B.C. Division, they are but three points behind the front-running Vancouver Giants.
What is most impressive, however, is that the Cougars are 6-3-1 on the road. What’s the big deal? Last season, they finished with a 4-28-4 road record.
Hockey fans in Prince George have been slow to make their way back to the CN Centre, although it is early — the Cougars have played only six home games. But the Cougars are 7-2-1 in their last 10 outings and, with Brett Connolly healthy and defenceman Martin Marincin getting better every time out, you wonder if there won’t be a lot of magic in this season.
And let’s not forget the Winterhawks, who were having so much dirt shovelled on them just a couple of short years ago. Remember?
Now they are 12-2-1. They have won six in a row and nine of 10. They lead the WHL in victories, points and winning percentage. They are scoring and playing defence, with Mac Carruth and Keith Hamilton, a pair of 18-year-olds, providing solid goaltending.
They didn’t really need to get back Nino Niederreiter, but the Swiss sensation landed on their doorstep Friday, fresh off nine games with the NHL’s New York Islanders. Oh, and he likely has enough coin in his jeans to buy lunch for the boys a time or two.
More than that, though, the Winterhawks have a team that is entertaining and fun to watch. There is chemistry between Ty Rattie, the 17-year-old sophomore, and Swiss freshman Sven Bartschi. And there is Gordie Howe-like unpredictability in winger Brad Ross.
What all of this means is that the Winterhawks are back. Now if only the fans would return.
On the other end of the performance scale are teams like the Kelowna Rockets and the Calgary Hitmen.
The Rockets (4-10-0) have lost three straight and have fallen into the Western Conference basement. They are six points out of a playoff spot and GM Bruce Hamilton and head coach Ryan Huska have experessed concern about leadership and work ethic from veteran players. Those are never positive signs.
In Calgary, the Hitmen also are 4-10-0, but they have lost six in a row. Coaches and players are talking about sticking together and not getting frustrated and taking the positives and working with them to get better.
The Hitmen, of course, are the WHL’s defending champions. But when you’re 4-10-0 stuff happens. Like on Sunday when they twice erased two-goal deficits only to lose on a goal with 59.1 seconds left in the third period.
But that’s what happens when the snowball starts rolling downhill.
Just ask the Brandon Wheat Kings, who recently followed a four-game winning streak with a nine-game drought.
Or the Edmonton Oil Kings. It wasn’t that long ago when they were on a franchise-record five-game winning streak. Today, they are trying to snap an eight-game losing skid.
That’s the kind of season it’s been to date. And the fun likely has just begun.
The Regina Pats, of course, were beaten at home 11-1 by the Spokane Chiefs on Saturday night. According to Greg Harder of the Regina Leader-Post it was the Pats’ most-lopsided defeat in eight years, matching a 10-0 loss to the Moose Jaw Warriors on Oct. 26, 2002.” . . . Harder also pointed out that “the Pats’ three 20-year-olds — Mark Schneider (-6), Colin Reddin (-6) and Thomas Frazee (-4) — were a combined minus-16.” . . . F Marek Kalus, who scored twice for Spokane in that victory, is the younger brother of F Petr Kalus, who played for the Pats in 2005-06.
SASKATOON 5 at CALGARY 3: D Stefan Elliott broke a 3-3 tie with 59.1 seconds left in the third period. . . . This was a strange game in that there was one goal scored in the first period and seven in the third. . . . The Blades (10-5-0) scored first when F Darian Dziurzynski got his 11th at 5:04 of the first. . . . F Curtis Hamilton upped the lead to 2-0 at 2:02 of the third. . . . F T revor Ccheek, with his second, got the Hitmen on the board at 6:05. . . . F Braeden Johnson restored Saskatoon’s two-goal lead, with his second, just 55 seconds later. . . . The Htimen then pulled into a tie on goals from F Tyler Fiddler, his third, and F Jimmy Bubnick, his fourth, at 8:24 and 13:41. . . . Elliott won it with his fourth and Hamilton added an empty-netter, his eighth, at 19:50. . . . Hamilton also had an assist, while the Blades got two assists from each of F Marek Viedensky and F Josh Nicholls. . . . The Hitmen (4-10-0) have lost six in a row. . . . Saskatoon G Adam Morrisoin stopped 21 shots, four fewer than Calgary’s Michael Snider. . . . Saskatoon was 0-for-3 on the PP; Calgary was 0-for-6. . . . Attendance was 7,536. . . . Checking-from-behind count: Zero.
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