The Kamloops Blazers earned their WHL-leading 40th victory on Saturday night, beating the Kelowna Rockets 3-2 right there in the Little Apple.
It is just one more paragraph in what has turned into a rather incredible story being penned by the players and coaches on this hockey team.
I mean, who saw this coming, especially after the ugly duckling that was the 2010-11 season? And let’s not forget the few seasons before that one; they were at the very least the ugly duckling’s step-sisters.
Who knew that with five weeks — and 16 games — remaining in the regular season, the Blazers would hold a 33-5-3 record inside the Western Conference? Who knew they would be 19-4-2 in games against B.C. Division opponents?
Those are numbers from a large enough sample size that just may bode well come playoff time.
Head coach Guy Charron won’t come right out and admit in so many words that he is shocked by what he is witnessing, but his words and body language in various conversations tells you that it’s all a pleasant surprise.
Associate coach Dave Hunchak won 40 games as head coach of the Moose Jaw Warriors last season. Hockey coaches, like Satchel Paige, don’t like to look back, so Hunchak prefers to talk about today and maybe tomorrow. Of course, his not being here last season means he has no real point of reference.
As for the players, well, you can bet they are surprised.
Late in a recent practice at Interior Savings Centre, one of the team’s veteran players was sitting on what during games is the visiting team’s bench.
“So,” he asked, “did you expect this? Did you expect us to be where we are now?”
Where they are now is on top of the WHL’s Western Conference, by six points over the Tri-City Americans.
Where they are now is on top of the WHL’s overall standings, by three points over the Edmonton Oil Kings, who lead the Eastern Conference and who are scheduled to play here on Tuesday night.
The Blazers also have been discovered by the big city media, the Vancouver Sun having featured the team in its Saturday edition, the story headlined: Taking care of business once again.
There was a time, not that long ago, when opposing players and coaches would admit to being intimidated by having to play here, and the first thing they would mention was the number of pennants hanging from the rafters. Invariably, the second thing mentioned would be that “damned song.”
However, the Blazers haven’t added to that collection of pennants since finishing atop the B.C. Division and the Western Conference in 2001-02. You may recall that they were promptly swept from a first-round series by the Rockets.
The last time the Blazers won 40 games in a season was 2006-07. That was the last season of the Dean Clark regime. It was the season that ended, for all intents and purposes, in Game No. 70 when smooth-skating Ray Macias, who was the WHL’s top defenceman at the time, broke a wrist during a game in Seattle. Shortly after, the Blazers’ season ended in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Prince George Cougars, featuring goaltender Real Cyr and sniper Devon Setoguchi.
The Blazers finished 40-26-6 that season; it was their last season as ‘your Kamloops Blazers’ as the franchise was sold to private interests that summer.
With all the water that has gone under the Overlander Bridge since then, that seems like a million years ago.
Still, if you take a close look, the ugliness of last season really isn’t reflected in the standings, where the Blazers wound up 29-37-6. Despite all that went on with that edition of the team, despite the amazing lack of discipline, the Blazers were in the chase for a playoff spot on the regular season’s final weekend.
So it isn’t as though this is an epic comeback like, say, the Brandon Wheat Kings of the early 1990s. They went 11-55-6 in 1991-92 when they were the worst team in the 15-team WHL. The following season, the Wheat Kings went 43-25-4 to finish second in the East Division and tied for third overall.
After that 11-victory season, the Wheat Kings went on to win 43, 42, 45, 52, 47 and 45 games over the following six seasons.
The Blazers organization and its fans can only hope the team is able to replicate that kind of success.
Back to that veteran player seated on the bench after a recent practice.
I did turn the tables and ask him a question.
“So,” I said, “did you expect this? Did you expect to be where you are now?”
“Nah,” he replied, with a grin and a shake of his head. “I thought we’d be in about sixth place.”
(Gregg Drinnan is sports editor of The Daily News. He is at firstname.lastname@example.org, gdrinnan.blogspot.com and twitter.com/gdrinnan.)
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