Sunday, December 30, 2012

2012 Top Ten - Part One

Nice to see that the Honourable Mentions list is already generating some discussion on twitter and Facebook. I suppose the increase in social media itself could have been an honourable mention ... this calendar year saw the Spruce Kings Facebook page increase from just over 100 followers to its current total of 745 and Twitter took the biggest leap gaining almost 1000 followers through 2012.

As you follow along with this list of the Spruce Kings Top Ten Stories of 2012, be sure to like, share, comment, tweet and retweet the results so that your friends and followers can enjoy and join in the discussions too. As mentioned at the start of the previous blog, this is an unscientific compilation of the events that unfolded around the Spruce Kings in 2012 as the team continued to make strides both on and off the ice.

In the calendar year of 2012, the Prince George Spruce Kings played a total of 58 games with 25 of those being played at the tail end of the 2011-12 season and of course 33 in the first half of the 2012-13 season. During those 58 games the Spruce Kings finished with a 33-18-1-6 record with twelve being decided in overtime. One of those games will show up on its own in the Top Ten list and a string of them garnered some national attention, as did one particular goal.

National Attention
The Azurdia goal generated National attention

Everybody wants to be recognized for the things they do, but sometimes all that attention just isn't worth it. Such was the case in 2012 when the Spruce Kings found themselves front and centre being shown over and over on everybody's television in both Canada and the United States.

After picking up their fifth win of the season in a 4-1 decision over the Surrey Eagles, the Spruce Kings headed to Langley for a double header to finish off a three game weekend in the Mainland Division. In the first game Prince George couldn't hold off the Rivermen who scored a pair late to take a 3-2 decision over the Spruce Kings. The following night the Langley Rivermen opened up a big 3-0 lead in the first period only to have the Spruce Kings chip away until the game was tied 3-3 with two minutes remaining in regulation time.

With time ticking down, it appeared that the game was destined for overtime and there was a sense that the urgency was gone in the game in the dying seconds. That urgency may have been missing in all but one player - Austin Azurdia picked up the puck through the middle with less than five seconds remaining. With speed, Azurdia zipped through the middle, gained the Spruce Kings zone and moved to the right faceoff circle where he was able to put the puck through a defender's legs before finding it on the other side to flip it into the top corner with .3 of a second remaining in regulation time.

The goal was an unbelievable tally and was quickly picked up by national television who was left struggling to find content to fill the airwaves with the absence of any NHL games. The highlight went viral leaving at least two Spruce Kings having vivid nightmares of the goal and what they could have done differently. The goal was played countless times on TSN and in the States on ESPN and as the year end shows played out so did that goal.

Perhaps that goal could have been added to the list of adversity that the Spruce Kings had to overcome in 2012 because that's exactly what they did. With an entire week of airplay, friends from near and far sent messages to the players that they had seen the goal providing a source of good-natured ribbing. The following weekend the Spruce Kings showed that the goal was just that - another goal - and nothing more as they added two more games to their win column.

First up was the battle of the kings in the castle as the Powell River Kings came to town for their one and only regular season visit. The guests scored the only goal in the first period before the Spruce Kings responded with two early in the second and then held off Powell River til the end to post the 2-1 win. The following night saw the Surrey Eagles come to town and this time the Spruce Kings with Kirk Thompson between the pipes shut down the visitors to post a 3-0 win.

The wins continued to pile up for Prince George including the next two games that were played on the same weekend after the team bus went off the road. The Spruce Kings went back to the scene of the crime where that buzzer beating highlight reel goal was scored. The Spruce Kings never led in the game until it matter when Mitch Eden redeemed himself with the overtime winner. The following night the Spruce Kings went into Coquitlam and knocked off the then Mainland Division leading Express 2-1.

It was here that the first thoughts that perhaps the Spruce Kings deserved to be recognized for wins started becoming a conversational item. As it turns out that would be one weekend too soon as the Spruce Kings were left off the weekly national rankings. The following weekend saw the Spruce Kings play two more games on home ice. The first one was against the hot and cold Alberni Valley Bulldogs with the Spruce Kings doubling up the 'dogs 6-3. The following night Prince George would play in their fifth overtime game of the season posting a 4-3 win over the West Kelowna Warriors.

A string of six wins against some of the top teams in the BCHL was enough to gain the Spruce Kings a spot on the weekly CJHL Top Twenty national rankings. As it turns out in hindsight, the Spruce Kings would rather not have been ranked if it would have led to a better month of November. One week after being ranked, the Spruce Kings name came off that list as the team fell upon some difficult times and struggled to get points.

NHL Lockout
Brad Thiessen is one alumni wondering about NHL hockey

The NHL Lockout has to be the biggest story of the year on a global scale and certainly it did affect the Spruce Kings in 2012. As mentioned with "the goal," the NHL labour dispute did have an impact on the Spruce Kings and indeed the BCHL as sports channels dug for content. The Spruce Kings highlight goal was only one such example of how the Junior A circuit was benefiting with national exposure of the great Canadian game.

Fans also found themselves gravitating to the game at the grass roots level and in Prince George we saw an increase in media attention and fan attendance that could in at least a small part be attributed to the lack of the game at the professional level on the TV. As I will show later on in the Top Ten list, there are certainly other factors for the increased attendance and media exposure.

The one area that concerns me with the NHL labour dispute is the longterm affect it could have on the game. Parents support their kids playing hockey and the players themselves develop a love of the sport and see the possibility of bright lights shining on them later in their hockey careers. With those lights turned off for now, the future is not as certain and the hope is that the two sides can figure this out and resume playing.

There are a few Spruce Kings alumni that have NHL games on their resumes but now wait like the rest of us to find out what will come of it all. Rod Pelley with 256 NHL games to his credit is playing out of the AHL with the Norfolk Admirals. Brad Thiessen who was given a year contract extension with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the summer is playing goal for their AHL farm team, the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins.

Brandon Manning after making it to the show through his own stubborn determination is also playing in the AHL this season with the Philadelphia Flyers farm team, the Adirondack Phantoms. Ryan Howse is another Spruce Kings alumni that finds himself on a NHL farm team playing for the Abbotsford Heat. To start the season, Howse suited up in sixteen games with the Utah Grizzlies of the ECHL as well. Paul Dainton is another former player that wore the crown and now finds himself splitting this season between the AHL and ECHL with the Springfield Falcons and the Evansville Icemen.

There is a longer list of players that are finding other venues to play the game they love but one thing is for sure - options and availabilities have changed with the NHL labour dispute. Those players that should be playing in the show are taking up roster spots in other leagues throughout North America and Europe. This has forced some players into early retirement and has left a lot of fans hurt by the seemingly selfish posturing taking the joy out of the game.

Its a new division with all new rivalries

Since joining the British Columbia Hockey League with the 1996-1997 season, the Spruce Kings have played out of the Interior Conference developing long standing rivalries with the likes of the Penticton Vees, Vernon Vipers, Salmon Arm Silverbacks and the Merritt Centennials. Of course the longer standing rivalry was with the Quesnel Millionaires who were welcomed into the BCHL as a package deal with the Spruce Kings. It made sense as it would give teams a couple of stops along the road when they headed north.

When the Millionaires franchise ceased to exist in Quesnel and essential relocated to Chilliwack, the BCHL landscape changed dramatically. During the 2011-12 season the Chiefs played out of the Interior Division but it was clear that would not be a long term solution to alignment of the League. Following that season the governors met in the summer of 2012 and developed a plan that would see the League realigned in to three divisions playing out of two conferences.

For fifteen of the sixteen teams, it seemed like the perfect plan. Six teams, basically located in the Okanagan, would make up the Interior Division and play out of the Interior Conference (Merritt Centennials, West Kelowna Warriors, Penticton Vees, Vernon Vipers, Salmon Arm Silverbacks and Trail Smoke Eaters). The other conference would be known as the Coastal Conference and would contain the Island Division and the Mainland Division.

The Island Division includes the four teams on Vancouver Island (Victoria Grizzlies, Cowichan Valley Capitals, Naniamo Clippers and the Alberni Valley Bulldogs) and the Powell River Kings which are a short ferry ride away from the Island. The Mainland Division would then become the division for the Langley Rivermen, Coquitlam Express, Surrey Eagles and Chilliwack Chiefs to play out of with Prince George thrown into that mix.

At first glance that generated a lot of quizzical looks and the ever asked question of why is Prince George in the Coastal Conference. From a logistics perspective it actual makes a lot of sense. Half of all games in a season are played on the road and the Spruce Kings are used to traveling all through the Province to get to their next game - its just a fact of life for those that play any sport in Prince George.

When hitting the road the Spruce Kings no longer turn left at Cache Creek but instead carry on through the Fraser Canyon emerging in the Fraser Valley and the Mainland Division and the four divisional opponents that are now less than two hours apart. Setting up camp in Langley or Chilliwack is the perfect scenario for Prince George who can then maintain one residency in one hotel for the duration of a road trip. There is also a bonus plan for a large number of Spruce Kings that now have the opportunity to play in front of family and friends more often.

Sure the rivalries are developing this year and there is a learning curve for the fans getting used to the new opponents, but as has already been seen this season that curve has been a short one and has already provided a lot of excitement. From just the sixteen games played against divisional opponents, the Spruce Kings have a record of 8-5-0-3 with five of those being decided in overtime and a total of eight games decided by one goal.

The head-to-head matchups aren't even with the Spruce Kings having played the Surrey Eagles six times, the Langley Rivermen five times, the Coquitlam Express three times and the Chilliwack Chiefs only twice. The 2013 portion of the season will be an interesting one as the Spruce Kings will see all four divisional rivals in the Castle at least once more.

The Spruce Kings have a winning record against the Surrey Eagles picking up at least a single point in every meeting so far and posting a pair of shutout victories against them. Prince George fans have yet to see the Langley Rivermen but that will happen four times in 2013. The Express and the Chiefs will also visit the Castle twice each before the end of the season. And for those fans that still want to see those old rivalries, both the Vernon Vipers and the Salmon Arm Silverbacks have yet to make their regular season stop in Prince George as does the Nanaimo Clippers.

Paul De Jersey
Paul De Jersey led the Spruce Kings and the BCHL in scoring

Every season there is a player that comes out of the shadows to become the player everybody is talking about. In the first part of 2012 that player was Paul De Jersey. The Spruce Kings acquired De Jersey in an off season deal that brought Paul back to the BCHL after being dealt by the Salmon Arm Silverbacks to the Drumheller Dragons. At the time he was no big deal with eleven goals in three seasons split between the Coquitlam Express and the Silverbacks.

Those numbers would change in a big way when De Jersey found himself on a line with Jujhar Khaira and Michael Colantone. Immediately the three found some chemistry that resulted in goals and lots of them. Through the first half of the season De Jersey maintained a strong presence in the elite group of point getters in the League but didn't really grab hold of that top spot until the first game after the Christmas break.

Prior to the Christmas break, De Jersey had 57 points (26G, 31A) in 32 games and in the December 28th game against the Chilliwack Chiefs, he added four more points and then two more on December 30th to head into 2012 with 63 points (28G, 35A). That point total gave the nineteen year old forward top spot in the League's scoring race. De Jersey did not relinquish that spot and added another 35 points (13G, 22A) in 2012 to finish with 98 points total. If it weren't for three helpers against the Penticton Vees in the last game of the season, De Jersey would have been caught by at least one member of the Vees, who finished with a sweep of the remaining spots in the top five.

Top spot in the League garnered De Jersey the Brett Hull Scoring Title and also resulted in the Spruce Kings forward being named the BCHL's Most Valuable Player for the Interior Conference. Along with all of the points that De Jersey finished with, some of the credit has to go his linemates who also had good totals - Michael Colantone finished the year with 72 points (33G, 39A) and Jujhar Khaira added another 79 points (29G, 50A).

This season Paul De Jersey is playing NCAA hockey with the Providence College Friars where he has picked up 8 points (2G, 6A) in 13 games. His linemates from last season are also faring just as well. Michael Colatone has 5 points (4G, 1A) in 9 games with the River Hawks and Jujhar Khaira is leading the alumni race with 12 points (3G, 9A) in 17 games playing for the Michigan Tech Huskies.

Kirk Thompson
Kirk Thompson may be the most under-rated goalie in the BCHL

Rounding out the first half of the Top Ten list for 2012 is a current member of the Prince George Spruce Kings that has been hard at work trying to make a name for himself. Into his third season with the Spruce Kings, Kirk Thompson started out as a wide-eyed rookie that found himself thrown into some tough situations as the team struggled during the 2010-11 season and failed to make it to the post season. The following year was when Thompson was able to turn things around especially for himself.

Maybe its because he's a goaltender and he just has to stop the puck or maybe it was because he was playing behind the likes of Paul De Jersey, Jujhar Khaira, Michael Colantone and the Fitzgerald triplets, but Thompson's play basically went unnoticed as the year 2012 started up. Looking back over his numbers from this calendar year, Thompson has shown himself to be an elite goaltender in the BCHL.

From January to March of 2012, Thompson played in 13 games with one of them generating a no decision. In the other twelve, he posted a record of 8 wins and 4 losses. Perhaps more impressive were his goals against average of 2.72 and a 90.41 save percentage during those games. In the off season, Thompson went home and worked hard to develop his game and be ready to take on the 2012-13 season as a twenty year old.

Thompson has posted more good numbers in this portion of 2012. In 30 games he has a record of 16 wins, 5 regulation time losses, 1 tie, 5 overtime losses and 3 no decisions. His save percentage has improved to 91.234 and his goals against average sits at 2.74 with two shutouts. In all the games played in 2012, Thompson finishes with these numbers: 43 games played, 2433 minutes played, 24 wins, 9 losses, 1 tie, 5 overtime losses and 4 no decisions. He has a 2.737 GAA and a 90.99 SV% as well as 2 shutouts and 3 assists.

As 2012 comes to an end, Kirk Thompson has already marked his 100th BCHL career game, taken over top spot in the Spruce Kings record book for career wins (38) and is now looking at taking over the Spruce Kings career record for minutes played. Currently sitting with 5557 minutes played, Thompson is less than eight games from passing the 6000 mark. Working at keeping his save percentage high and goals against average low, Thompson could also see his name rise in those categories among franchise goaltenders.

Perhaps surprisingly is the fact that Kirk Thompson is yet to secure a scholarship, something that weighs on the veteran goaltender's mind no doubt. Brad Thiessen reached out to Kirk earlier in the season and reminded him to just play his game and not to worry about what is or isn't happening. The good news is that some schools are asking about Kirk Thompson.

There is the first half of the 2012 Top Ten countdown, still to come are the top five stories from this past year. Share your thoughts and opinions by leaving a comment below. You can also add your thoughts on the Spruce Kings Facebook page or send a tweet using @SpruceKings.

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