Tuesday, December 21, 2010

(This column appears in the Dec. 21 edition of the Kamloops Daily News)

The Kamloops Blazers’ season, to quote one-time linemates Simon and Garfunkel, appears as though it may be slip sliding away.
As the WHL team’s players headed home Sunday for tobogganing, Facebooking and other Christmas season fun, they had lost four straight games and tumbled into last place in the 10-team Western Conference.
This is the same conference in which things have been as tight as sardines in a tin, with nine teams separated by three points at times. Now, however, the Blazers find themselves five points out of a playoff spot which, in this world of three-point games and loser points, is a large mountain to climb.
Craig Bonner, the Blazers’ general manager, didn’t sound overly concerned Monday afternoon. He was with the team for its last three losses and felt the results didn’t mirror the effort.
But should Bonner be content with trying to get what to this point has been a less-than-mediocre team into the playoffs, even if it means being the seventh or eighth seed? That, of course, would quite likely lead to another first-round playoff exit for a franchise that hasn’t seen the second round since the spring of 1999.
Or, with the trade deadline arriving on Jan 10, should he begin selling off older assets for young prospects and draft picks in the hope of having a championship-calibre team three years down the road?
At this point, it seems likely that he will do neither.
Bonner said he isn’t prepared to be a buyer or a seller. He said he likes his roster and expects better results in the new year. In fact, he said, he expects to be “quiet” at the trade deadline.
Bonner likes the youth on his roster and is prepared to await the arrival of more young players, all of which is part of the five-year plan he drew up when he moved into the GM’s office prior to the 2008-09 season.
But when you look around the stands at Interior Savings Centre you have to wonder if it matters what he does, if anything.
The Blazers have been a big part of this community since they arrived, as the Kamloops Jr. Oilers, over the summer of 1981. But, as time goes on, they are playing a smaller and smaller role, to the point where they now are averaging 4,014 fans per game, down 262 from the same point last season and down 773 — that works out to 27,828 over the course of a season — since Vancouver-based businessman Tom Gaglardi, along with NHLers Shane Doan, Jarome Iginla, Mark Recchi and Darryl Sydor, all of them ex-Blazers, purchased the team over the summer of 2007.
Of course, it was only a year ago when it appeared that Guy Charron would be the answer to the question: Who will be the coach to lead the Blazers out of the wilderness?
He became the fourth head coach in the Gaglardi group’s history, following Dean Clark (fired), Greg Hawgood (fired) and Barry Smith (fired).
Charron, a former NHL player who is a true veteran of the coaching game, brought a cheery disposition and a softer touch into the Blazers’ dressing room. So impressed was the ownership group that, before last season ended, it rewarded Charron, 61, with a two-year contract that runs through 2011-12.
But, of late, Charron’s feather duster has been replaced by a sledge hammer as he has shown signs of frustration.
From stripping the letters off five alternate captains following a 10-1 loss to the Chiefs in Spokane on Nov. 24 to publicly criticizing goaltender Jeff Bosch and left-winger Brendan Ranford, who leads the WHL in goals and points, on Radio NL after a 3-2 loss to the Cougars in Prince George on Friday night, Charron has shown he no longer is prepared to be patient.
But if you have watched this team from the start of the season, you knew it was only a matter of time before the team found itself in this predicament.
When you combine this team’s lack of discipline (it leads the WHL in penalty minutes) with its inefficient penalty kill (it is easily the poorest in the league and has allowed by far the most power-play goals) with spotty goaltending, well, it was only a matter of time before the bottom fell out.
If improvement in those areas isn’t evident in the eight games left before the trade deadline, Bonner may be forced to alter his plan.
Consider, too, that the Blazers are 7-16-1 in games against Western Conference opponents and 8-2-1 against teams from the east. Of their 37 remaining games, 29 are against western teams.
In the meantime, Blazers fans are left to wonder just what has happened to this once-proud franchise and why it is unable to fix the things that are holding it back.
As one member of the organization was heard to say the other day: “You’d think there was a curse over us, or something.”

(Gregg Drinnan is sports editor of The Daily News. He is at gdrinnan@kamloopsnews.ca, gdrinnan.blogspot.com and twitter.com/gdrinnan.)

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