|Bronson Maschmeyer and the Kamloops Blazers have owned the|
Seattle Thunderbirds and a few other teams this season.
(Photo by Chris Mast / Mastimages.com)
“We believe,” they would be chanting. “We believe.”
Charron, the head coach of the Kamloops Blazers, and Hunchak, the WHL team’s associate coach, have done everything this season but turn the ice into wine.
And after beating the Tri-City Americans, who have been atop the 10-team Western Conference seemingly forever, twice in 10 days – 3-2 here on Jan. 11 and 4-3 in a shootout there on Saturday – Blazers fans are talking like Al Michaels: “Do you believe in miracles?”
There are some people who don’t like hearing about the Blazers’ 2010-11 season, but it is important to use it as a point of reference when looking at all that has transpired this season.
Last season, of course, was a nightmare. Everything, it seemed, pointed to discipline. There wasn’t any. As a result, there was little in the way of on-ice structure. The Blazers were the fourth most-penalized team in the WHL. Only two teams had more fights than did the Blazers, who scrapped 96 times. The Kamloops power play was powerless; the penalty killers couldn’t kill a mosquito.
And, in the end, the Blazers went home when the regular season concluded.
Which brings us to this season. If last season was Lindsay Lohan, this season is Pollyanna.
Structure? The Blazers have it in spades. Defencemen are able to press in the offensive zone because they know there will be a forward high to help out.
Penalties? The Blazers are the fourth least-penalized team in the 22-team league. Why, Charron was even praising the referees after Saturday’s game in Kennewick, Wash.
The Americans fans, he noted, “were on the referees.”
“Every call that was not made I think they booed the referees,” Charron continued. “It’s an intimidating place for the referees. I give them credit for calling a good game under tough circumstances.”
The result is that the officials have come to realize these aren’t the Blazers of the recent past. And, yes, that counts for a lot with the men in stripes.
Fights? The Blazers don’t. They have been involved in two fights over their last eight games, 12 in their last 25 outings. And five of those were in one game when there was a cream-puff line brawl with the Prince George Cougars. Charron and Hunchak have shown their players that a willingness to fight doesn’t equate to toughness, nor is there a link between fighting and winning.
Winning, as the Blazers have discovered, is all about structure and discipline, about belief in what you’re doing and trust in each other.
Defenceman Bronson Maschmeyer is in his fourth WHL season, his third with the Blazers. He is 20 and mature beyond his years. He could be the grandfather in the dressing room and is a good place to start to take this team’s temperature.
He admits that, while they would like to, the players haven’t forgotten about last season.
“Obviously, there is a huge turnaround from last season to this season and we’re excited about that,” he says. “We kind of look back at it and think, ‘OK, we went through the hard times; now it’s time for some good times.’ ”
The players also are aware that they can’t take anything for granted, especially when playing against those teams that are where they were last season.
“These teams that we play might be lower in the standings . . . we were there last season and we know what it’s like . . . you want to beat anybody just to try to get into a playoff spot,” Maschmeyer says.
If you look at the Western Conference standings and pick out the teams the Blazers should beat, you find the Kelowna Rockets, Prince George Cougars, Victoria Royals, Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips. They represent the conference’s bottom half, each with a record below .500.
The Blazers are 20-2-0 against them, with both losses at the hands of the Cougars.
“People wondered how we would react when playing teams that statistically we should have success against,” Maschmeyer says. “I’m glad we have been able to respond in a positive way.”
The Blazers almost certainly will finish atop the B.C. Division. Why? Because they are 16-2-1 inside the division, including 2-0-1 against the Vancouver Giants.
Kamloops also is in the hunt for the Western Conference title. Why? Because it is 27-3-2 in games played inside the conference, and think about that for a moment.
With 25 games left in the regular season, the Blazers lead the WHL’s overall standings by two points over the Americans and the Edmonton Oil Kings.
The Blazers are the hottest team in all of the CHL right now, having won their last nine games.
They will try to make it 10 on Wednesday in Kelowna, before going on to Victoria for a weekend doubleheader with the Royals. Kamloops is 3-0-0 against the Rockets and 5-0-0 versus the Royals.
“We do believe in what we’ve got going here,” Maschmeyer says. “We believe in our system and what we’ve done so far.
“But we’re not satisfied.”
They believe. Do you?
(Gregg Drinnan is sports editor of The Daily News)