CHAMPIONSHIP REFLECTIONS

     Reflection is always easier – or should I say more fun – when you’re reflecting on success. I recall sitting down to bang out blogs summing up seasons that fell short too many times and how tedious it was to gather much content when I was writing about a failure that I’d been a part of…………. this blog feels a little different already.

     I’m completely and entirely aware that all the pictures, social media and general scuttlebutt about the Ice Bears 4th championship is like nails down a chalkboard to the rest of the league. I get it guys, I really do. But that doesn’t mean the wonderful ownership group who invested more than anyone in us, the players who made it happen, Mike Murray and our front office staff who gave us the platform to do it on and the fans who poured themselves into yet another season won’t continue to celebrate and beat the drum of Ice Bear Nation for all it’s worth.

     I always knew and coaching only further predicated the fact that to win a championship, especially at this level with the playoff format, you have to be very fortunate at the right time. The ending of this season was far and beyond the most proof positive I needed to really comprehend just how opportunistic and timely your team has to be for those 6 big wins to line up and go your way. We’ve been on the other end of those SPHL best-of-3 series many times and felt like we lost to teams that weren’t better than us overall, but managed to be better than us over the period of a week which was enough to end our season. It’s the reality of this level and complaining about it doesn’t help, only changing your attitude and approach to it does. The bottom line is, at the beginning of every SPHL season the goal for our franchise is to win the championship. We found a way to achieve that goal this season.

     Notice the usage in the previous paragraph of the words “timely” and “opportunistic” though please. I didn’t say “lucky” or “fortuitous” because that’s not what I mean. I meant timely and opportunistic. The 2015 SPHL Champions didn’t get lucky, they prepared themselves painstakingly, continually put themselves in the right positions and routinely did enough things well on the ice during the post-season and the weeks leading up to it that allowed for positive results.

     Things like our ECHL situation. Braely Torris, Bo Driscoll and Berkley Scott all added specific elements to our lineup that were all necessary for our success. We had excellent current and past relationships with all three ECHL organizations in Greenville, Evansville and Quad City that allowed getting all 3 of them back to be a possibility.

     Things like our schedule. After a tough 3 in 3 against a really good Columbus team in the first round, we were more than pleased with Louisiana knocking out our nemesis Peoria and even more pleased with the fact that we had home ice advantage moving forward into the 2nd round. The rest is kind of history I guess you could say, as a booking conflict forced the Riverkings – as the highest remaining seed – to play all 3 games of the championship in our building.

     Things like our goaltending. There was a reason Bryan Hince was awarded the Most Valuable Player for the playoffs. Because he was. We got almost every single timely, big save that we needed from him in all of our wins. Defensive breakdowns when the score was close like the save below on Devin Mantha in the finals, he shut the door. Chaotic late game scrambles with the opposition net empty and an extra attacker, he was there. Shorthanded opportunities against us when giving up a goal would have been a huge swing in momentum, Bryan had a big save ready. We even started the playoffs with our rookie goalie Braely Torris in net and got a win….. what championship team in this league can claim that?
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     Things like our top players being our top players. You can’t win without your best being your best and that was certainly the case this year. Look no further than our three top scorers Benny Power, Franky Drolet & Eric Satim – our entire top line – leading us in scoring one, two and three with a combined 31 points in 7 games. Or our top D-pair in veteran captain Jason Price and SPHL all rookie Robbie Donahoe posting a combined plus 20 in 7 games against some very tough match ups. Or how about leading scorer, veteran Ryan Salvis moving back to play defense to help us with our puck possession and transition game? That was a big gamble that could have really fallen flat, but worked out tremendously in our favor. These things all lined up for us at the exact time that it mattered most and we are going to hang our 4th championship banner from the rafters of the Coliseum because of it.

     The most satisfying part of this title, for me at least, and aside from the fact that it was 5 years in the making since I got this job and Knoxville hadn’t hung a banner since 2009….. was just how deep the league was this year. Hands down, the SPHL had more talent and the quality of opponent every night was much higher than any other year of this league. 10 points separated 1st from 5th and 5 teams had 30 or more wins. This year more than ever the post-season began without a clear cut favorite based on head to head records and teams who were getting hot at the right time. The ECHL/CHL merger created a new level of play for the SPHL and we are very proud to come out on the top of that level this season.

     The final piece of reflection that I wanted to make sure I got out there was to each and every one of our players who factored in on this victory. This was a turbulent season for the Ice Bears that started off with us snagging 20 of a possible 28 points and spending time at the top of the league in doing so. Injuries, personal situations back home and call-ups took their toll as they do to every team and at one point the board in my office had 14 names on it in green. Green indicated a player who, if available, would be in our line-up. I think it was at that time that our core of guys really learned how to gut it out and dig in, finding other ways to win games and go toe to toe with lineups that had more talent than we did during our player drought. Playoff hockey at this level is all about resilience and the ability to overcome any circumstance to get the job done, and during February/March I really think our group learned what it was going to take to do that.

#3 Robbie Donahoe à I don’t know if there has ever been a better campaign by a rookie defenseman than Robbie had. Right from the first day of the season, ‘Bobo’ began to absorb huge minutes playing alongside Captain Jason Price. Through all the previously mentioned injuries and call-ups, there were many nights when we played 5 or 4 D and Robbie handled it with the composure of a seasoned pro. His attitude was excellent and he was a teammate favorite in our locker room all season.

#4 Ryan Hill à Just a pillar of strength on the backend for us. Hiller will never get the accolades he deserves because of his quiet, efficient style, but he was rock solid all year (except when he had his plastic bubble on) and elevated his game to a whole other level during the playoffs when he was asked to shut down the top lines of Columbus, Louisiana and Mississippi. He’s low maintenance, he’s dedicated and has a wonderful team first attitude.

#5 Brad Pawlowski à Another hard luck season for Brad with more nagging injury trouble, but the “Plow” was still a part of our day to day routine and his one-of-a-kind personality was always a lightening effect on our locker room when he was around. Not to mention the cult following he has among our fans here in Knoxville.

#5 Mark Corbett à Late season addition who actually went to Mississippi for his 3-game tryout instead of here and then in the ultimate turn of irony ended up facing and helping to defeat them in the final. Corb’ was solid, he was steady and was thrust into action when Jake Johnson had an emergency appendectomy prior to game 1 of the 2nd round. Mark’s biggest strength is the knowledge of his own game and what he’s capable of. We were disappointed to lose him in the expansion draft, Macon got a good one.

#7 Bo Driscoll à A great story that started off with Bo registering for our Free Agent Showcase back in October after he couldn't find a main camp opportunity anywhere. Not only did he advance through to our main camp, but his season took him from Knoxville to Steele City, PA back to Knoxville, up to Evansville in the ECHL and then back just in time to pick up some huge minutes for us en route to the title. He’s a quiet, hard-working, very respectful young guy who earned everything he got last year.

#8 Jake Johnson à So much talk bounced around about the appendectomy Jake underwent during the post season that many people forgot about the concussion ‘Snakes’ came back from after missing several weeks at the end of January. Jake joined us during the time when our play as a team was trending down and brought a renewed energy and work ethic to our team that was irreplaceable. His motor never stops and he’s a lot of fun to watch out there. This guy absolutely lives and breathes being a hockey player and it shows on the ice.
Jake Johnson, lives and breathes being a hockey player.

#9 Berkley Scott à Berks’ developed his game into a full 200 ft game early this season and earned another ECHL opportunity as a result of it. He’s a big body with the best individual skillset I’ve seen at this level in my career and he brought some bigtime depth to our line-up when he returned for the post-season.

#10 Sy Nutkevitch à You can never have too many experienced players in your line-up when the playoffs start. You can’t replace that “been there before” element and that’s exactly what Sy brought to us when he joined the Ice Bears in March. He filled some big match-up minutes for us and stabilized our penalty kill along with some really consistent work in the faceoff dot, especially late in games.

#11 Ben Power à I remember speaking on the phone with Benny when his time in Greenville was coming to an end and after I let him know how our roster was shaping up and what I thought his addition would bring he said, “okay Mikey, I’m going to come to Knoxville and win a ring with you.” Man did he ever make good on that statement. Benny stepped onto our top line with Satim and Drolet and proceeded to simply make big play after big play and chip in clutch goals and assists all along the way.

#13 Jason Price à I was so happy to see Pricey hoist that trophy above his head. After 9 seasons of pro hockey and countless minutes on the ice, injuries and miles on the road…. The big guy finally got to enjoy winning his last game of the season. The epitome of a warrior on the ice, this guy is a great human being and well loved and respected in our room.

9 seasons after his rookie year, Jason Price has his championship.


#14 Peter Neal à Another tough-luck story for us this season as Pete blew out his knee in Peoria back in February in the middle of the best year of his career. Peter’s contribution to our team and the work ethic and energy that he displayed prior to his injury was a big part of the culture and system we were trying to establish here.

#15 Corey Fulton à After being placed on the IR late in the season, Fultsy was able to be on the ice and get his turn with the Cup along with his teammates and it was something great to see. Corey’s history is well documented since his SR league days the job that he does day in and day out as an enforcer is, in my opinion, the hardest gig in hockey. He was a big part of our team ID on home ice and loved being an Ice Bear every minute.

#16 Brett Valliquette à We came to a point mid-season when our home record wasn’t nearly good enough. Not only that, but it was the way we were losing games at home that really concerned me. Somewhere along the line we had become easy to play against in Knoxville and that had to change. Vally’s return to our line-up was about much more than on the ice – his locker room impact was immeasurable – but his style of play and physical presence on home ice helped us reestablish the way we wanted to compete in our own building. Our 14-4 record at home after he came back was not a coincidence.

#17 Ryan Salvis à What can you say about a guy who has won 3 championships in the past 3 years? Ryan Salvis embodies everything it takes to be successful at this level and the pedigree he brought to Knoxville was immediate. Preparation, commitment and character. He emerged quickly as a huge leader in our room and his experience was invaluable down the stretch. He was dialed in when he needed to be, he was lighthearted and compassionate to others when necessary and he was also ornery and demanding if required. You can’t put a price on veteran leadership and I am very thankful we were able to acquire Sal’ last summer.

#18 Eric Satim à People always want leaders and captains to be demonstrative and larger than life. Mark Messier, Ray Lewis, Kevin Garnett types….. well, they don’t always have to be. Eric Satim is the most efficient and effective leader I’ve seen in a lot of years and he does it strictly based on work ethic and example. I have watched Sato come to the rink day after day over the past 4 years and put in the work necessary time after time, doing the same away from the rink and the same on the ice during games. He took his game to a whole new level in the post-season and led us to the Cup. To me, Eric is the best 2-way forward in the SPHL since Craig Stahl retired. He does it all in both ends, all the time.

#19 Matt Paton à For the 3rd year in a row, we were fortunate enough to add a rookie just before the playoffs who was exactly what we were looking for. It was Benny Souders in 2013, it was Vinny Perreault in 2014 and this year it was Patty. He brought a breat deal of energy and physical play to our attack and really bought into what we were doing very quickly. He came to us extremely well coached and had a “win-first” mentality that you don’t find in rookies very often. His play on the W with Sy and Vally helped us put together a very effective checking unit that helped stifle a lot of good opponents in the playoffs.

#20 Dennis Sicard à It seems like this season was so full of good storylines that it was too good to be true for us and our fans. There was no secret that the reciprocal move that was necessary to bring Dennis to Knoxville was a controversial and hotly contested situation here in Knoxville for some time. Trust me – folks weren’t in love with Dennis right away. But his persistence, his work ethic on the ice, his take no prisoners’ attitude and his old time hockey approach finally started to pay off. He made us very hard to play against and he scored some absolutely huge, huge, huge goals in the latter half of our season.
Dennis & I had a lot more understanding as player/coach than we did as opponents


# 22 Francis Drolet
 I can still hear the chant resonating through the Coliseum. What a gifted offensive player Franky was for us this year and did he ever make some big plays for this team when it mattered. He is a such a consistent and smart player that he makes everyone else on the ice with him that much better. I think his biggest play was at the 6:28 mark of the 3rd period in Columbus during the deciding 3rd game of round 1. Columbus had just tied it at 2 and were really coming on when Franky took a pass from Benny P 2 on 1 and buried the game winner and series clinching goal to bring our bench back from the dead.




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# 25 Jarrett Rush à I’m always really happy for guys who have been around for a while when success finds them. Especially guys like Rusher who are just overall, solid good dudes. JR was added via trade with Pensacola a few days after Christmas and turned out to be exactly what we needed. His defensive zone awareness and communication helped stabilize our d-core and get us back to making simple, strong decisions in our own end. He was also money on the penalty kill and a shot blocking machine for us.

# 27 Josh Cousineau à We knew right from the minute Josh arrived in Knoxville that he was going to be really good. His skill level was always a given but he was also able to accept and excel within so many different roles for us during the year. He spent time in our top 6, he was on our powerplay, he centered a checking line, he killed penalties, he scored beautiful highlight reel goals and he battled hard in the corners when needed. A very versatile player who was another very well loved guy in the room.

# 31 Braely Torris à Maybe the most confident rookie goaltender I’ve ever worked with. And I don’t mean tongue-in-cheek cocky/arrogant…. He was just very poised and ready. He was the perfect compliment to Bryan Hince and had the best attitude possible for the role he was in. Bryan Hince’s MVP performance will overshadow all the great Braely did last season well, but Bryan’s play and Braely’s return to the lineup were parallel for a reason. They pushed each other every day in practice, each time they got a start and had a great working relationship. To see him have success at the next level as well when he got the call was very nice to see for a great teammate and super guy.

# 57 Bryan Hince à As I said before, you can’t win a championship if your best players aren’t your best players when it matters most. Bryan Hince had to be the best player on our team for us to win and he was. He’s a well-traveled guy with a ton of big game experience and his play for us beginning in game 3 round 1 and then culminating on home ice to clinch the cup against Mississippi was the best run of goaltending I’ve seen since James Ronayne led us to our first Cup in 2005. He refused to lose and after years of fantastic playoff performing he deserves every bit of praise he receives for it.

Assistant Coach Jamie Ronayne - James and I met back in 2003 during my rookie season with the Alabama Slammers. He is one of the reasons I didn't pack it in and quit after a disastrous 1st season and he was also the reason I came to Knoxville via Kevin Swider. Jamie was there when I was at my best, he was behind closed doors with me at my worst and he was a constant voice firmly in my corner. So much goes into a hockey season that no one every hears or knows about and Jamie is the perfect soundboard and calming influence that I needed to help get things right - usually :)

ATC/PT Andy Clark à You have to have committed individuals at every corner of your team to win, you really do. With the help of our great partner BenchMark Physical Therapy, Andy Clark was able to make that commitment to us. He has a passion for hockey and a passion for this hockey team that literally oozed out of him every day he came to the rink. Whether it was the countless hours he spent working on guys, the extra duties he absorbed like coordinating team meals and helping with the logistics of our travel or even preparing breakfast on the bus after an all-night tour…. Andy poured his heart and soul into this team and I couldn’t imagine a better co-worker to spend a championship season with. Hold them tight Clarky, hold them tight!

Equipment Manager Rob Craigen à Not many people get to experience what my father and I did this season and top it off with a championship. In fact, not many people get to experience it at all, period, let alone with your father alongside. To have he and my mother Debbie alongside me in Knoxville and to go to work every day and share the love we both had for the thrill of chasing victory was something I’ll never, ever forget. You sometimes don’t realize when unforgettable things and moments are happening to you, but this season and the way it ended will surely be one of those moments for dad and I. Seeing how much he cared about our players and how hard he worked to accommodate everything he could for them sure made me proud.


The family resemblance is striking isn't it? What happened to all my hair?


     That about wraps things up for me here today guys, I know this was a bit lengthy but you can understand how easy it is to start crunching words together when you’re writing about remembering something that was so much fun.

     I hope everyone in Ice Bear Nation has a great summer and I'll leave you with a few images that you should enjoy. We’ll see you in October – let’s do it all over again huh?



The President's Cup after celebration
The Morning After - KIB locker room
A warm welcome sign from our friends at the Cajundome

Some pictures tell all the story


 Dry Erase Board Truth


     

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