Monday, May 25, 2009

First Interview with Jeff Earnest

I was fortunate enough to be able to catch up with one of the four new players signed to the Spruce Kings roster. What might come as a surprise to some is that Jeff Earnest has actually skated for the past two years with the Spruce Kings.

Okay it is a bit of a twist on what is fact, but Jeff has been in the past two Prospects Camps and last season's main camp. This August he will be back for his second main camp and this time he isn't leaving afterwards.

I talked with Jeff about being on the Spruce Kings radar for the past two years, how those seasons have shaped his game and what fans can expect to see from him on the ice in 2009/10 and beyond.

download audio file

At 5'10" and 175 lbs, Jeff may not be the biggest player on paper, but don't let those numbers fool you as he is solid. Putting a few more pounds on will make it just that much harder for defenders to keep him away from the front of the net and off the score sheet.

Look (and listen) for more on the other three signings from last week as well as future signings, which of course more are sure to come.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Four New Players

They say that the junior hockey season is done after the RBC Royal Bank Cup, that just isn't the case anymore as the sport has become a year round sport. More proof of that can be seen right now as teams around the league are finalizing their coveted recruits over the previous season (and sometimes seasons). Earlier this week the Spruce Kings announced the addition of four players; Jeff Earnest, Chris Gularte, Clayton McEwan and Luke Hannas signing with the team for the 2009/10.

Next week I hope to have been able to track down all four for a first introduction via an interview for the fans of the Spruce Kings.

Jeff Earnest has attended the two previous Spruce Kings Prospects Camps and this August will be in his second main camp, this time as committed player with the team. Earnest played last season with the San Jose Junior Sharks and earlier this week was also drafted by the North American Hockey League to his home state team, the Alaska Avalanche. Earnest showed off some of his speed at the Prospects Camp, a skill set that led to his 48 points (17 goals and 31 assists) with the Junior Sharks last season.

Another San Jose Jr Sharks player from last season was a stalwart on the blueline, Chris Gularte played in 49 games picking up 6 goals and 3 assists while serving 60 minutes in penalties. Gularte was also seen at the Spruce Kings Prospects Camp where he looked very comfortable playing with a couple of Junior Shark team mates - Daniel Senkbeil and Jared Melman.

Clayton McEwan is another defenceman that played two games last season as an affiliate player with the Prince George Spruce Kings. Playing with the Aldergrove Kodiaks of the Pacific International Junior Hockey League, McEwan picked up 14 points and racked up 154 penalty minutes.

Another player that played games in the Coliseum (albeit against the Spruce Kings) was Luke Hannas who was an affiliate player with the Quesnel Millionaires when not playing for the BC Major Midget Cariboo Cougars. Suiting up in 25 games for the Major Midgets, Hannas was able to tally 17 points (7 goals and 10 assists) and was assessed with 70 penalty minutes.

For these players I highly doubt that they will be taking the summer off as they realize that hockey is a year round sport. Not just for the decision makers sitting in their offices, but also for the players that will want to be in their best physical shape for main camp and the start of the 2009/10 season.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

League Scheduling

Have you ever thought of what goes into planning out an entire league schedule? Some of the things that have to be considered include "blackout" dates at arenas for other events, travel time and distance from one game to the next especially how it impacts the health and welfare of the players. Multiply all of that by seventeen with all the teams that are criss-crossing the province and you end up with a knot that takes some time to unravel and sort out into its logical conclusion.

Adding to all of that is the need to time out the season to end on such a date that will allow for the regular season to flow into the post season with its regional playdown before the RBC Royal Bank Cup.

All in all it has to be a little daunting, so keeping that in mind, what do you suppose is the best way to actually complete this task?

I have heard of a few different methods and last year the league took that task on to come up with a schedule that was fair to all teams while meeting the criteria set forth. In previous years I have heard that it was not nearly as friendly with team governors locking themselves in a room to sort out sixty games each.

I would think that allowing the league to do the proverbial leg work would be a more civilized approach to scheduling. Throw in the blackout dates and make some rules about how many games can be played in a week, or in a row, whether they’re at home or on the road, and then let a computer program sort it all out.

So now you're asking, "why is he blabbering on about a league schedule that won't be ready until July?" Well as it turns out, apparently this year's schedule will have to be done in the old-fashioned roll-up-your-sleeves and get-dirty method.

I say why does it have to be that way? Instead of ending up with perhaps a few computer generated dates that are less than an ideal; there will now be a face to place on those undesirable dates and that is not good for the growth of the league. We are talking about a group of people that like to play things close to the chest as it is. Now everybody will be trying to sort out why can't play this date or that date.

I just can't see it ending well ... maybe that isn't a bad thing. After all how many times have you thought about just locking them up in a room and letting them duke it out.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Thoughts Following Vipers RBC Championship

Congratulations to the Vernon Vipers on their 2009 RBC Royal Bank Cup National Championship. After going through the tournament undefeated, the Vipers shutdown the defending national champs to win the Championship game 2-0.

Along with the congratulations I have a few other thoughts, after all I did have the opportunity to call three games in Vernon and watch three others from the press box in Prince George during the regular season. The first thought is how the Spruce Kings split their season series with the Vipers; every game was a low scoring affair with four of the games decided by one goal and the other two by a pair of goals each. In no game did either team manage more than four goals against the other.

Aside from the head-to-head matchups and everything that could be said about that, my thoughts turn to a few players, a coach and a broadcaster with the Vernon Vipers. First of all I just want to say congratulations to Todd Miller for providing a very professional broadcast. Todd is one of two broadcasters that took the time to spend with yours truly to provide some valuable insight and courage to try my vocal cords at calling some games of my own.

As a broadcaster I had my opportunities to speak with many coaches and ask my fair share of cliché questions; Mark Ferner was always respectful and gave me answers no matter how badly the question was worded. Even when the microphone wasn't rolling Mark would always say hello and talk shop. He was always about promoting the game and in the end he won the game that matters the most.

With only twenty players able to dress for a game, there were always a few players in the press box at the Westbild Centre that shared my perch above the ice surface. Those players were always respectful to me and at times would participate on the Spruce Kings broadcast either directly or indirectly. In the championship game three of those "black aces" were again cheering on their team mates from afar. Nick Amies, Steve Weinstein and Kory Roy are as much a part of the Vernon Vipers championship team as any other player in that final game and will be impact players in seasons to come.

There are two players on the Vipers squad that I want to perhaps apologize to for under-estimating them. Goaltender Andrew Hammond always surprised me with the amount of recognition that he received, I always thought that his defence allowed him to be as good as he was. Perhaps supporting my claim is the fact that it was one of his defenceman that won the Top Defencman and Most Valuable Player of the tournament while another goaltender took away that honour from Hammond. Credit where credit is due however; Andrew finished as the best goaltender in both the regular season and the playoffs.

Another player that has destroyed preconceived notions I had of him at the beginning of the season is the tournament MVP, Kyle Bigos. Perhaps it was his name or his size, but I had Kyle pegged as not much more than an awkward goon ... wow has he ever proven me wrong! It may have been the All-Star Game or the next meeting after the All-Star Game that I started waking up to what the scouts were seeing ... a big man that could control the game when he played with control.

Shortly after the All-Star Game, Kyle Bigos caught the flu bug and was a scratch when the Spruce Kings came calling on Valentine's Day. During the broadcast I had another opportunity to talk with the players in the press box including Kyle showed that he was a multi-dimensional player and provided some interesting thoughts and answers to his season as well as the team's. On Mother's Day, the big man made NHL scouts salivate when he walked around three players and beat the goaltender on the far side to give the Vipers a 2-0 cushion late in the third period. The goal showed off his talent and was reminiscent of many a skilled power forward's moves; more importantly it possessed none of the early season awkwardness that I had judged him with.

It truly is amazing what a single season can do for a player, but that might be the topic for another blog. It is something I have seen firsthand with players on the Spruce Kings squad who have evolved into players that NCAA scouts can't wait to get their hands on.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Live or Memorex

The RBC Royal Bank Cup championship game is set with the Vernon Vipers ready to faceoff against the defending National Champions. The Vipers have been on a roll since heading into the post season with a first round bye. The "Snakes" have only lost five games since the beginning in March. In those twenty-six games, they have also been on a roll having won ten straight games including a sweep of the Grande Prairie Storm to become the Pacific Representative at the RBC Royal Bank Cup.

Now they are one opponent away from winning it all; standing in their way of RBC gold is the Humboldt Broncos. Last year it was the Broncos that came away from a long season of battling to wear the National Championship crown. In the preliminary round, the Vipers defeated the Broncos 7-1, but something tells me it won't be that easy on Sunday.

The RBC Royal Bank Cup Championship game is reason to celebrate and cheer Junior A hockey players for a season of hard work and personal achievements. The game at the national level is still struggling to gain main stream approval as it goes up against NHL playoff games and other hockey games. If you have digital cable service, you will get to watch the Championship Game live on TSN2. If you have satellite or some other level of cable television, you will have to wait until after the game is finished before you will see it on the main TSN channel.

I admit that it must be a scheduling nightmare for those that plan out television programming and admit that at least everybody who wants to will be able to see the game. Unfortunately it feels like a slap in the face that the game won't be seen until after Sports Centre airs following the NHL game. The time shift of the game will deter well over fifty percent of those that would otherwise be interested in watching the game.

By the time it comes on the main TSN channel, those interested in the game will know who won and don't forget that although 8:30pm isn't a bad time for us, it will be 10:30pm in Saskatchewan and of course later in Eastern Canada. That stated, if you want to see it live, the game will be shown on TSN2 (channel 213) at 4:30pm and then tape delayed for 8:30pm (depending on the Carolina Boston game) on the main TSN channel.

No matter what, all I hope for is a memorable game and if you are asking me, I'm biased for the Vernon Vipers for reasons I have mentioned in the past. A win by the Vernon Vipers speaks volumes for the BCHL, especially the Interior Division and the teams that play here.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Heartbreak at the RBC Royal Bank Cup

Well it was a thrilling game as the lead up suggested it would be. The all-BCHL matchup between the Vernon Vipers and the Victoria Grizzlies was expected to be the best game in the preliminary round and apparently the script writers decided that it was too good to end after sixty minutes. In truely dramatic fashion both teams had to battle from behind in regulation time and that ultimately forced overtime.

The Vernon Vipers opened the scoring with the only goal in the first period, in the second the two teams would trade goals giving the Vipers a 2-1 lead with more than half of the game still remaing. Coming into the National Championship as arguably the best team in the field of five, the Vernon Vipers were well on the way to proving this through their first two games.

Conversly the Victoria Grizzlies were working hard to shed the moniker of host walk-on, especially after losing their first game with a short handed goal against with just 1.1 second remaining in regulation time. The Grizzlies answered that loss with a 5-0 shutout victory over the Central Region representative before turning their attention to a more familiar foe in the Vernon Vipers.

After coming back from the one goal deficit to tie the game only to go down a marker again, the Grizzlies found something that the Penticton Vees, Salmon Arm Silverbacks, Powell River Kings and Grande Prairie Storm couldn't in the post season ... the ability to beat Vipers netminder Andrew Hammond seemingly at will. The Grizzlies responded to score three goals in less than three minutes to take a commanding 4-2 lead into the third period.

After watching the host team fans develop a swagger, the Vipers slowly chipped away at the two goal lead scoring one early in the third and again with less than two minutes remaining to tie the game and force overtime. In the extra time, the Vipers completed the comeback leaving the Victoria fans heartbroken yet again. Perhaps the more sombre thought in all of this is the pressure that is now on the host team to finish the preliminary round with a 2-2 record to avoid a situation that would actually see the Grizzlies eliminated from the semi-final games.

The Eastern representatives, the Summerside Western Capitals are still looking for their first win at the tournament having lost to the Vernon Vipers and the Kingston Voyageurs. They know a win over the host team vaults them out of last place into that spot where anything can happen in a one-game winner-moves-on situation. The Vernon Vipers are almost assured of top spot seed for the semi-final game, that word was almost. A win on Wednesday over the defending RBC Royal Bank Cup Champions by the Voyageurs would actually put the pressure on the Vipers to hold onto top spot.

For the two BCHL representatives, it is almost completly opposite stories ... the Vipers appear to be rolling on and perhaps will have to be careful not to become their own worst enemy. For the Victoria Grizzlies, nothing seems to be going right ala the last second goal to lose in regulation time and now the late goal in regulation time that led to overtime and the overtime loss.

Four games remain in the preliminary round and, as was the case in Prince George in 2007, it appears that all of those games will have to be played first before seeding for the semi-final round will be finalized.

Big Game Tonight

I wonder which two teams come to mind when you read that title ... it's easy to think of the Vancouver Canucks and the Chicago Blackhawks with their game starting at 5:00 local time, but I am referring to the all BCHL matchup at the RBC Royal Bank Cup. At 7:00 tonight the BCHL Champions Vernon Vipers will be putting their 2 and 0 record up against the host Victoria Grizzlies. The Grizzlies lost their opening game to the Humboldt Broncos and then responded with just the seventh shutout victory ever in the RBC Royal Bank Cup against the Kingston Voyageurs. Meanwhile the Vernon Vipers handed the Broncos a convincing 7-1 loss after doubling up the Summerside Capitals 4-2 in their opener on Sunday.

A win tonight by Vernon assures them of top seed heading into the semi-finals even with a game remaining against Kingston. However, a host team victory will put both of the BCHL teams into a tie for top spot with 2-1 records and a game remaining for each. The Grizzlies still have to play the Summerside Capitals and as mentioned the Vipers have to play the Voyageures.

It is a pivotal game tonight and will make for a lot of tense moments for the fans fortunate enough to have a ticket to the game. In the regular season these two teams met only once and that was in October when Victoria made their four game Interior Division road trip. The Saturday night affair on October 25th was a low scoring one with the Vipers coming out on top 3-1. That game was a long time ago and both teams have travelled a long distance to get to where they are tonight.

Both teams are confident that they can defeat the other and help themselves to the title of odds on favourite for the 2009 National Championship.