It is hard to take hockey seriously on a day when the NHL’s Florida Panthers laid off their mascot, Stanley C. Panther.
It is hard to take hockey seriously on a day when one player, having just showered after a morning workout, was denied a towel by those same Panthers.
It is hard to take hockey seriously when, in some NHL cities, players are paying to rent ice from the very people who have locked them out.
But, hey, here we are just three days before the kids in the WHL start to play for real.
And optimism reigns supreme.
The Kamloops Blazers, fresh off their first B.C. Division pennant since 2002 and their first playoff series victory since the spring of 1999, open at home Friday to the always-despised Kelowna Rockets. Game time at Interior Savings Centre will be 7 p.m. Actually, the hoisting of the pennant will start sometime around then; the dropping of the puck will be delayed by the good times.
And once this season gets rolling it could be that the only thing capable of stopping the Blazers from soaring with the eagles for a second straight winter will be — wait for it! — the Kamloops Blazers.
Assuming everyone stays healthy, this edition of the Blazers isn’t going to have any trouble scoring goals. As a group, the top six forwards may be the best in all of the WHL.
Tim Bozon, Colin Smith and J.C. Lipon provide the Blazers with perhaps the league’s top forward line.
Going into the season, head coach Guy Charron has been playing his three 20-year-olds — Brendan Ranford, Dylan Willick and Jordan DePape — on the same line. Only time will tell how long that lasts but, at least in the short term, that threesome also will provide opposing teams with some nightmares.
When you add to the mix the likes of Aspen Sterzer, who will be one of the WHL’s speediest skaters, Cole Ully, whose play is so solid, the much-improved Chase Souto, the always-improving Matt Needham and Rob Trzonkowski, who brings some much-needed size, this is an imposing group of forwards.
At the same time, the back end is a bit of a work in progress in that associate coach Dave Hunchak is working to figure out how he will spread around Austin Madaisky’s minutes.
A 35-minute man, Madaisky won’t be available until sometime in October, if at all. Under contract to the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets, he will join the AHL’s Springfield, Mass., Falcons next week. He could still end up back with the Blazers, but it’s a mug’s game to count on that before it happens.
The Blazers will hope, then, that Brady Gaudet, already in his third season, is able to shake off what was a disappointing sophomore season and turn into the puck-mover he can be. Freshman Josh Connolly also is going to get a chance to fill that role and to play on the power play, but has yet to learn how to pick his spots, when to jump into the offensive zone and when to stay at home.
A year ago, the Blazers had much bigger problems than any of these, though, because they didn’t know who would be their starting goaltender. Cole Cheveldave more than solved that problem and he’s back for more.
So . . . what might keep the Blazers from returning to the top of the heap?
Well . . . they need to learn to do a better job of starting and finishing, to get ahead of an opponent and to put a foot on the throat and keep it there.
“When we play the way we can,” Charron said after a 7-4 exhibition victory over the visiting Vancouver Giants, “we’re probably going to have success because we have some guys who can put the puck in the net as we showed tonight.
“Whenever they took momentum, we had the ability to come back and score goals and that’s the strength of our team.”
A few nights later, the Blazers had to overcome a 3-0 deficit en route to a 4-3 shootout victory over the Prince George Cougars.
“I thought there were times when we were too lackadaisical,” Charron said, “and we didn’t really match their effort. And consequently they dominated part of that game.”
The Blazers finished the exhibition season at 5-0, but twice had to erase three-goal deficits, something that didn’t sit well with the coaching staff.
You should know that Charron understands full well that he and Hunchak hold the hammer.
“The message tonight,” Charron said after the victory over the Cougars, “was that if you want the ice time that you think you deserve, you are going to have to earn it. If you do that, you will. If not, we have the ability to put other people on the ice.”
(Gregg Drinnan is sports editor of The Daily News. He is at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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