Thursday, March 22, 2012

Blazers headed in right direction?

The most important playoff season in these parts perhaps since the spring of 1995 is about to begin. Yes, the rubber will really meet the road for the Kamloops Blazers starting on Friday.
You may recall that in the spring of 1995 the Blazers — they were your Blazers then — won their third Memorial Cup in four seasons, immediately after which management chose to take the franchise in a new direction.
And we all know how that turned out.
For the last few seasons, the franchise has bumbled and stumbled around, falling down stairs and bumping into walls like a blind man in a brand new home. There has been the odd glimmer of hope, but mostly there has been only disappointment, turmoil and upheaval on and off the ice.
All of which has taken a tremendous toll in the seats of Interior Savings Centre.
The attendance, which peaked with a per-game average of 5,474 in 1998-99, has fallen off by 1,300 fans. In 2006-07, the last season of ownership by the Kamloops Blazers Sports Society, the average attendance was 4,787. There were nights this season when the arena was half full or half empty, depending upon your state of mind.
At season’s end, the average attendance was 4,176. All told, 29 of 36 games drew crowds of fewer than 4,500 fans. (Last season, with the Blazers missing the playoffs, the average crowd was 4,206 and that doesn’t include the ‘home’ game that was played in Whitehorse and drew 1,535 fans.)
As attendance has dwindled, a theory that often was floated has had to do with the fans returning once the team starts winning again.
Well, the Blazers won this season. Oh, did they! They emerged from the shadows of one of the most abysmal seasons in their history to finish atop the B.C. Division. They finished 13 points ahead of the second-place Vancouver Giants. The Blazers finished third in the Western Conference, five points behind the Tri-City Americans and only three in arrears of the Portland Winterhawks.
As is always the case when a team has such a season, there are a gazillion statistics that show just what kind of season it was. Here are some numbers, courtesy of Tim O’Donovan, the team’s media and communications co-ordinator:
* The Blazers (47-20-5, 99 points) had their best regular-season since 1998-99 (48-11 and 13 ties) and won the B.C. Division for the first time since 2001-02 (38-25 with five ties and four OTL).
* The Blazers had the WHL’s best road record (22-9-5).
* Goaltender Cole Cheveldave had 34 victories, the most by a Kamloops freshman since Kenric Exner also won 34 in 1998-99.
* Left-winger Tim Bozon had 71 points, including 36 goals, the most for a freshman since Scottie Upshall had 87 points, 42 of them goals, in 2000-01.
* The Blazers had eight players reach the 50-point plateau for the first time since 1994-95, when they had eight skaters with at least 67 points.
We could go on and on, but you get the point. This was a darn good season.
But, in the interests of providing balance, it also must be pointed out that the Blazers played 34 games in the WHL’s softest division, where they were 23-8-3 (.721). They went 27-5-2 (.824) against the Western Conference’s five poorest teams; they were 12-6-2 (.650) against the other four teams.
In other words, while the Blazers were competitive with the best teams, they really did make ground chuck out of the Little Sisters of the Poor. But they closed by going 4-5-1 in their last 10 games.
So, yes, there are questions as the playoffs begin, mostly about whether this team has learned to win and whether it completely understands that things get tougher and tougher the longer the season lasts.
Regardless . . . the playoffs open Friday and the hills are alive with the sounds of hope.
The Blazers will begin with the Victoria Royals, a team that should be dispatched from a best-of-seven series in four or five games. After all, the Blazers took seven of eight from the Royals during the regular season, outscoring them 39-21 along the way.
Should Kamloops get past the Royals, and should the Portland Winterhawks take out the Kelowna Rockets as is expected, the stage will be set for the Blazers to light a fire under the local hockey community.
Because let’s be honest here . . . there hasn’t been a lot of buzz surrounding this team. Rather, there have been yawns and empty seats.
But a six- or seven-game series with Portland, a team with swagger that has been known to bring out the best and the worst in its opposition, just might reignite the fire.
And were that to be followed by — the hockey gods willing — an appearance in the Western Conference championship series, well, that just might bring back the buzz.
Hey, maybe this franchise is on the verge of going in a different direction after all.

(Gregg Drinnan is sports editor of The Daily News.)

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