By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
Players from the Kamloops Blazers began heading home on Monday, an exodus that will continue for a few days.
As they arrive home, their parents just may want to find out if they are card-carrying members of the B.C. Liberal Party.
Yes, it was that kind of season for the Blazers.
You ask, what kind of season was it?
Bizarre. It was bizarre.
The Blazers now have played four seasons under the absentee ownership of Tom Gaglardi and four ex-players — Shane Doan, Jarome Iginla, Mark Recchi and Darryl Sydor — and the much-ballyhooed five-year plan is three years old, which is as long as general manager Craig Bonner has been in charge. Bonner has two years left on his contract.
During those four seasons, the Blazers have lost 46 more games than they've won, the victory total going from 27 to 33 to 32 to 29. Throw in playoff games, and this team has lost 58 games more than it has won over the last four seasons.
The Blazers have just gone through what arguably was the most abysmal season in the franchise's 30-year history in this city. Evidence? There is more evidence than Lt. Horatio Caine could turn up in a season of CSI Miami.
The Blazers lost their last eight games and are out of the playoffs for just the second time in those 30 years.
This season, they wound up tied for last place in the 10-team Western Conference. They led the WHL in penalty minutes for much of the season, before settling into fourth spot, with 1,500. Their penalty killing was the worst in the league for a lot of season, before settling into 20th spot. They gave up more power-play goals (88) than any other team; they scored 69 on their power play, which left them at minus-19 on special teams. They allowed 285 goals, 20 more than any other Western Conference team and the third-poorest defensive record in the WHL. (The Kelowna Rockets scored 21 more goals and allowed 84 fewer, so you know what the Blazers' targets should be.)
Defenceman Linden Saip, who had seven points in 17 games, quit and went home early in the season. They gave Jake Trask to the Saskatoon Blades for a sixth-round draft pick. He wasn't good enough to play here, but found a spot on the Blades' top line and scored 30 goals skating alongside two early NHL draft picks, Brayden Schenn and Curtis Hamilton.
Kamloops players accumulated 28 games in WHL-issued suspensions, including a six-game sentence for cross-checking a linesman. There was a terrible lack of discipline and it left you wondering if anyone was holding the players accountable for anything.
Left-winger Brendan Ranford scored 30 goals in his first 39 games and there was a time when he was leading the WHL in goals and points. But he scored only three times in his last 29 games. As he became more and more frustrated, his body language worsened until, finally, he lost it and cross-checked a linesman.
But like a driller going back to the same dry hole over and over again, head coach Guy Charron kept going to Ranford. When centre Chase Schaber returned after missing 22 of 24 games with a leg injury, he was put right back between Ranford and Jordan DePape. But it was obvious that Schaber was still hurting and wasn't in game shape. In the season-ending eight-game losing streak, those three combined for one goal and two assists.
In hindsight, though, this season may well have begun to unravel after a game in Spokane.
The Blazers beat the visiting Regina Pats 4-3 in overtime on Nov. 23, to improve to 12-11-1. The next night, Kamloops was beaten 10-1 by the host Spokane Chiefs. Charron reacted by stripping the letters off the jerseys of the team's alternate captains. Only Schaber, the team captain who missed that game because he was serving a three-game suspension for coming into contact with a linesman, was allowed to keep his letter.
And how did the players react?
Just over two weeks later, they were back in Spokane where they lost, 10-5.
If you wanted theatre, this was the team to follow.
After taking away the letters, Charron said: “It's nothing negative. It's a situation where . . . I don't know how to really explain it.”
Asked if there had been finger-pointing among players during the 10-1 loss, as had been alluded to by assistant coach Scott Ferguson on Radio NL, Charron replied: “I don't know . . . I don't want it to be negative.”
Charron, who has one year left on his contract, then said: “Sometimes I think there are ways to report to make the organization or the team look better than what it does. Honestly.”
A month later came the attempt by the WHL and the Blazers to refuse The Daily News' beat writer access to all team personnel. That move was greeted by national and international media attention, the vast majority of which questioned the motives of the WHL and the Blazers.
The furor from that situation had about died down when word got out that someone had signed up 20 Blazers players to the B.C. Liberal Party on behalf of leadership candidate Kevin Falcon, one of whose backers was Gaglardi.
The real story of how that was allowed to happen never did come out, although Bonner took one for the team, stating in a bizarre press release that "I take full responsibility for this communication error.”
By now folks were laughing at the Blazers, not with them. They had become a parody.
You start to wonder, too, whether apathy has set in among the citizenry.
There were plenty of evenings this season when Interior Savings Centre was half full, at best.
And, upon the season's end, where I once would receive a couple of dozen emails offering up all kinds of opinions, I heard from only two fans.
One tweeted: “There is something serious wrong with the team again this year . . . 28 games in suspensions explains most of it.”
One emailed: “I'm now wondering who will get the blame . . . for the lack of success this season. Will it be the players, scouting staff, asst. coaches, head coach or the general manager? My guess will be the scouting staff.”
And then there was this tweet from Jeff Paterson, a former Radio NL play-by-play voice: “Still the last radio guy to say 'the Kamloops Blazers move on to Round 2.' That was 12 years ago. Haven't won a round since 1999. Unreal.”
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