Perhaps no one should have been surprised when the Kamloops Blazers had their franchise-record 14-game winning streak come to an end one week ago in Kelowna.
What may have been more surprising, in fact, was that the Blazers were able to win at home the next night.
The Blazers, of course, lost 3-0 to the host Rockets and then were able to get past the Prince George Cougars 2-1 in a shootout.
When the Blazers skated onto the ice surface at Prospera Place to face the Rockets, Kamloops was playing its fifth game in seven nights. Which meant that Friday’s home game was the Blazers’ sixth outing in eight nights.
You could even make a case that the schedule has cost the Blazers their spot atop the CHL rankings. Having gone 1-2-0 in their last three games in which they scored only two goals, they fell to No. 2 on Wednesday, one rung below the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads, their 16-1-1 record having usurped Kamloops’ 17-2-1 in the minds of the anonymous voters.
But just prior to playing six games in eight nights, the Blazers had gone into the Central Division and played five games in a seven-night stretch.
Yes, that was followed by five days without even one game. But when that part of the schedule was done, Kamloops had played 11 times in 20 days. Some quick math reveals that the Blazers played 15.3 per cent of their schedule in those 20 days.
There is no way of proving whether the two injuries the club incurred in the last two games of that stretch were a direct result of fatigue or anything else brought on by having such a compressed schedule. But you have to think there was some fatigue and that certainly couldn’t have helped.
Defenceman Sam Grist, 19, went down with a rib injury in Kelowna and didn’t play the following night, although he was back for Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to the visiting Edmonton Oil Kings.
Forward Dylan Willick, 20, likely won’t play again until after Christmas with a broken right ankle. He was injured in the overtime session against the Cougars.
But, this being the WHL, there is no rest for the weary.
On Tuesday night, the Blazers began a stretch of four games in six nights. They will spend their weekend in the U.S. Division, visiting the Spokane Chiefs, Tri-City Americans and Portland Winterhawks. Those are three of the toughest tests in all of the WHL; facing them back-to-back-to-back on the road only makes things that much more difficult.
By the time the Blazers head home from Portland on Sunday night, they will have played 15 games in 29 days. In a schedule that takes 25 weeks to play itself out, the Blazers will have played 20.8 per cent of their games in less than one calendar month. This can only be described as bizarre.
Still, you have to understand that most, if not all, WHL teams face this kind of scheduling at one time or another, as ludicrous as it may seem.
The Red Deer Rebels are in the U.S. Division right now, but won’t play the Seattle Thunderbirds because their home arena, the ShoWare Centre in Kent, Wash., isn’t available — it’s home to Disney on Ice Dare to Dream this week. The Rebels, then, will make a three-game road trip in February that will involve games in — are you ready for this? — Prince George on Feb. 6, Seattle on Feb. 8 and Kamloops on Feb. 9. Try entering that vacation trip into your GPS and the chances are it will spit it right back at you.
The CHL and its three member leagues — the OHL, QMJHL and WHL — dodged a bullet last week when a group calling itself the Canadian Hockey League Players’ Association imploded.
The CHLPA, which had announced its presence in August, was done in by its own amateurishness, but it did bring some things into the public spotlight, pointing out that the education packages offered by the leagues aren’t standardized and that some players get paid rather small stipends to perform at this level where some owners are making a lot of money.
One thing that didn’t get a whole lot of attention in the CHLPA’s brief life was what are sometimes brutal stretches of schedules imposed on these young players.
“I wish whomever did up the schedule would consider these things,” a parent of one WHL player told me recently. “It’s so physically and mentally challenging.”
It might be a good idea for the CHL to act on this issue before someone else takes another run at starting a players’ association.
(Gregg Drinnan is sports editor of The Daily News. He is at email@example.com, gdrinnan.blogspot.com and twitter.com/gdrinnan.)
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