You can safely bet the house that this has been a long week for the Kamloops Blazers.
At 9-3-0 and leading the WHL’s B.C. Division, you just know that these guys are itching to get back into action. They want to strike while the sticks are hot.
But, after going 2-1-0 on their only foray into Alberta this season and arriving home early Sunday morning, the Blazers don’t get to scratch that itch until Friday when they face the visiting Kelowna Rockets.
The Blazers didn’t even skate Sunday or Monday, but were back on the ice Tuesday for a good, honest practice.
Anyone who has been watching is well aware that, with the season 16.7 per cent over, there would appear to be a remarkable transformation taking place.
After all, this is a team that, one year ago, simply couldn’t.
Couldn’t do anything.
It couldn’t stay out of the penalty box. Couldn’t kill penalties. Couldn’t score goals. Couldn’t keep pucks out of its own net. Couldn’t make the playoffs.
But now, with a head coach, a goaltender coach and 16 players on the roster who were around for last season’s disaster, the Blazers are looking every inch like one of this league’s elite teams.
The Blazers are 9-3-0 and — don’t laugh! — could very easily be 12-0-0.
“You know what? That’s a fair assessment,” Kamloops head coach Guy Charron acknowledges.
The Blazers lost their home-opener 1-0 to the Prince George Cougars, whose goaltender stopped 32 shots and whose teammates stopped another 33.
The Blazers blew a 4-1 lead and lost 5-4 to the visiting Medicine Hat Tigers.
Kamloops was beaten 4-2 by the Rebels in Red Deer, a 2-1 lead gone when (a) a puck bounced over defenceman Bronson Maschmeyer’s stick at the Red Deer blue line resulting in a breakaway and the tying goal, and (b) an own goal turned into the winner.
Of course, as someone in the organization pointed out, the Blazers stole a game from the Winterhawks in Portland. The point being that these things have a tendency to even out over time.
Still, the Blazers are 12 games into the season and it is becoming obvious that this isn’t last season’s team. Nor does it appear to be the team of 2009-10.
Who can forget the autumn of 2009 when the Blazers got out to an 8-2-2 start and showed up in the CHL rankings? Those who were paying attention realized the Blazers were doing it with smoke and mirrors, and felt it only was a matter of time before the implosion.
The Blazers beat the host Regina Pats 5-4 in overtime for their eighth victory that season, but then finished the East Division trip with five losses in a row. When they got home, head coach Barry Smith lost his job.
That doesn’t seem likely to happen to this team, although it did show up in the CHL rankings yesterday.
As Charron puts it: “The team has been consistent and played well.”
Following the Blazers’ first 11 games, there may well have been doubters. After all, you could have made the case that the Blazers had taken advantage of some teams that were tired, banged up or had players in the NHL.
But when the Blazers went into Medicine Hat on Saturday and scored a 2-1 victory over the Tigers, who had won six straight games, well, you can bet people sat up and took notice.
“What’s exciting for all of us is knowing we can go into a building lke Medicine Hat, that is tough to play in,” Charron says, “and come up with a great effort. That is encouraging for everybody.”
What is really encouraging is that the players on this team appear to have learned the value of playing the game deep in the other team’s zone.
When the Blazers are able to get the puck behind the icing line in the other team’s zone and play the game below the faceoff dots, they have proven to be lethal. That is something they weren’t able to do last season with any consistency. Then, for whatever reason, the players seemed to think they all were wizards with the puck, something that led to far too many turnovers, far too many scoring chances against and many of the team’s problems.
This season, the light bulb appears to have come on — whether it was because of the arrival of associate coach Dave Hunchak, who came here having spent seven seasons coaching in this league so obviously knows his way around the bench, or whether it’s the fact the veteran players are a year older and, one assumes, that much more mature.
How much more mature?
Some players have reached the conclusion that individual points — goals and assists — aren’t as important as winning. It has dawned on them that individual success follows in lockstep with team success.
Meanwhile, Hunchak’s role in all of this cannot be overstated. Charron had been away from junior hockey for a long, long time when he signed here in November 2009, and he readily admits the adjustment has been far more challenging than he could have imagined. Hunchak signed on as associate coach over the summer, bringing to the organization his experience in dealing with junior-aged players.
Charron, to his credit, has been most receptive to everything Hunchak brought with him. The result is evident in the standings.
What all of this means, of course, is that the Blazers have gone from being the hunter to the hunted.
No longer will they be able to sneak up on teams. No longer are they going to be able to catch teams by surprise. No longer will opposing teams be taking them for granted.
Through all of this, the Blazers are learning that the game of hockey is a lot more fun when you’re the eagle and not the prey.
(Gregg Drinnan is sports editor of The Daily News. He is at firstname.lastname@example.org, gdrinnan.blogspot.com and twitter.com/gdrinnan.)