One of the many fantastic things about living in East Tennessee is the sampling we get of each of the four seasons. Our summer is long and warm. Our spring – my absolute favorite – is quick but probably the best weather of the year. Our fall is gorgeous with all the color transitions and temperature and we even get a little bit of winter (a lot sometimes) so everyone can pull out their cold weather attire a few times.
The downside to the beautiful spring weather we’re experiencing right now is just that; it’s beautiful. The nicest time of the year to be out in the fresh air, baseball has started, golf season is in full swing no pun intended and folks are starting to get their boats into the water for the lake weather approaching. Hockey has quickly become an afterthought at a time when it’s never more important for those who play it.
I have spent almost 10 years involved with minor professional hockey in the South and have stubbornly come to realize that our product at this level is no match for the weather. We can promote the games, we can try different things to bring folks in, we can have fantastic teams and still…… our attendance will drop severely once the spring weather arrives and our casual or occasional fans entertainment choices expand.
More traditional hockey regions have the benefit of literally hundreds of years of culture that has ingrained playoff hockey and its importance into the sporting mentality of the fans who live there and attend games. It’s the same reason the University of Tennessee can jam 108,000 + into Neyland Stadium over and over again year after year; those people don’t all love football, they all love tailgating, they all love UT and just grew up in a culture where that’s what you did.
I grew up in Canada where my parents had skates on my feet before I was three, we played road hockey on the street in the summer and then ice hockey on frozen lakes all winter. You got to choose between the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Montreal Canadiens where I lived, and by the time you were old enough to make a conscious decision about where you spent your time and money, you loved hockey and you loved going to hockey games. That was the culture I grew up in and it was the foundation for my love of hockey and further to that, playoff hockey.
A wonderful sport that is jammed full of intensity, speed, skill and physicality gets even more intense with more speed, more skill and more physical play. If you’re new to the sport and you come to a playoff game, you will come back without a doubt. I love it. And we’re excited that it is just around the corner so we can treat our fans who continue to show up at the Coliseum through the spring weather to some of the most passionate, hard-working, emotional and determined athletic competition in the world.
Playoff time also means the regular season is coming to a close. The SPHL has yet again set the table for a final weekend full of playoff implications and posturing. It seems like every single season we have to wait for the final game to be played before we can begin to prepare for our first round opponent and this season is no different.
With the closing of the regular season also comes the announcements of the 2014-2015 Awards. Everyone will always say they don’t care about the personal accolades and nobody will openly admit that it’s on their mind this time of year if they may or may not be in the conversation to win some of the SPHL hardware, but they are all lying.
The SPHL passes out these individual accomplishments based on 24 voting members, I think. Each team will cast 3 ballots on behalf of their organization, or at least they are supposed to; 1 from the head coach, 1 from the general manager and 1 from a designated media member. You cannot vote for any player on your own team, only the other 7 teams in the SPHL. Much debate always erupts after the awards are announced, but with the current system and it’s guidelines you’re going to get some wide-ranging opinions when it comes to the voting. For example, how many teams have a media representative who cover every game or even travels to a single game and can fairly evaluate opposing players? We’ve only seen Pensacola play in Knoxville twice all season and ballots are due in the league office before the Ice Bears have even played a single game in Lafayette. To that same point, what media representative in this league, at this level is a true hockey reporter capable of evaluating individual performances and their impact? No offense intended to anyone, but there aren’t a lot of paid full-time hockey columnists in the South and these awards should be based on more than just what you see on Pointstreak in my opinion. More should go into the selection than goals, assists and plus/minus. How many assists are secondary? How many minuses came down on the player you’re looking at that they had no possible impact on? How many of the points came in blowout games that were mailed in? These ballots will look significantly different depending on who is submitting them, and that’s the reality of it.
Either way, I cast my ballot this morning and thought I’d make my selections public this year with a bit of dialogue about what went into the decisions. I’ve also included some unofficial awards of my own for your enjoyment to help celebrate another great year of hockey. KNOXVILLE FANS – I wasn’t allowed to vote for my own team, please keep that in mind before you e-mail me J
2014-2015 SPHL REGULAR SEASON AWARDS
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER – Kyle Rank, Peoria.
This was the most difficult selection of all the categories for me. An MVP is tough to select because each position is so different and each of the guys in the mix played such different and specific roles for their respective teams. If I have learned one thing after 5 seasons of coaching, it is this; your goaltender is your most important player during 60 minutes of hockey. Always. You can do whatever you want in the other end of the ice, you can run whatever d-zone system you choose, but without a great goaltender you cannot be a successful hockey team. It also came down to head to head competition for me, I didn’t get to see Max Strang much, I didn’t see a lot of Peter DiSalvo, etc. Ranker was always solid and more often than not, spectacular when we played Peoria. He gave them a chance to win every game, he was in net for 75% of the 1st place team’s wins and he was a horse with 41 games played and over 2300 minutes. Statistically, did some other goalies have better years? Yes. But from where I stood Kyle Rank was more valuable to the Peoria Rivermen than any other player was to their team this year. Ranker has developed into a premier goaltender in this league and I’d be lying if I didn’t look back and question myself for the day I sat him down in my office and told him I was placing him on waivers.
GOALTENDER OF THE YEAR – Kyle Rank, Peoria.
If you’re the league MVP, you’re also the top goalie.
DEFENSEMAN OF THE YEAR – Andrew Randazzo, Mississippi
Big minutes in all situations, a great first pass, a quarterback of their powerplay and always a focal point of our pre-scouting and preparation prior to playing the Riverkings. Andrew’s stat line is impressive, his minutes are always efficient and he’s the centerpiece of a really nice d-core in Memphis.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR – Bryce Williamson, Columbus
Columbus is a helluva story this year. To go from the start they had to in contention for 1st place overall going into the final weekend is simply unbelievable. Bryce came in from Reading on November 1st and has done nothing but produce since he got here. He was an electric addition the top line in Columbus with Matt Gingera and Neilsson Arcibal, he is dangerous whenever he is on the ice and he’s one of 5 – yeah, count em’ 5 – Columbus rookies in the SPHL top 10 who have helped them to a great season.
COACH OF THE YEAR – Jean-Guy Trudel, Peoria
I’m not gonna lie – I can’t stand Guy. Nothing to do with him as a person at all, but everything to do with how well coached his Peoria Rivermen are. They play the same 60 minute game night in and night out and he has had that group bought into playing tight checking playoff style hockey since October. He’s had to contend with being a prime call-up location geographically and rarely having all his top guys in the lineup, he’s had his team systematically ready through some ridiculous travel scenarios and he has them poised to win a regular season championship. Look at the leading scorers in the SPHL this year, 1 Riverman in the top 10 and three in the top 20. They have banged out wins with a complete team approach. Eff you Jean-Guy, you and Tuck’ have done a great job.
SPHL ALL-STAR 1st TEAM
(G) Kyle Rank
(D) Andrew Randazzo
(D) Andy Willigar – probably not going to see Andy on many other 1st team All-Star ballots, but having faced Columbus as much as we have and doing so much video already with them as a potential 1st round opponent, I have come to appreciate his game immensely. He competes so hard 1 on 1 down low in the d-zone, he clears out the front of his net and has great body position defensively all the time and he mixed in 8 goals from the backend to go along with a plus 14. One of COL’s unsung heroes, but I’m willing to bet he’s not if you follow the Snakes.
(F) Adam Pawlick – I almost couldn’t find a place for Adam on the 1st team simply because we don’t play Pensacola much – ever. But it’s impossible to ignore 31 goals, 224 shots and a league leading 65 points. Pawlick is a 3-zone player too, which I think gets overlooked by a lot of people who submit ballots. He’s great in the faceoff dot, he has a very high compete level and is a trusted player on the ice late in games for Pensacola.
(F) Matt Gingera – I close my eyes when Matt Gingera gets the puck in our end, for real. He’s as offensively gifted a player as we have in the league right now. A great shot, quick feet that go from 0 to 100 mph in seconds and a nasty side that makes him very tough to play against. 6 gamewinning goals, 14 tucks on the powerplay and an eyelash away from being my pick for MVP.
(F) Matt Whitehead – So skilled. Whitey has the tools to singlehandledy take a game over with his speed and skillset and he did it once or twice against us this season. His open ice, flat out speed and ability to make plays at full tilt make him a nightmare to cover 1 on 1. He has developed his game into a much more 200 ft style and the results are evidence of that.
SPHL ALL-STAR 2nd TEAM
(G) Andrew Loewen, COL
A big game goalie who keeps his team in long enough to get results. Off-nights or weak goals just aren’t part of his game. Again, statistically he wasn’t the 2nd best goaltender in this league, but Pointstreak doesn’t have a category for how many “big saves” or game changing plays he was a part of for Columbus. He’s a consummate pro and and embodies everything this level is about.
(D) Stuart Stefan, HSV
A converted forward who has transformed his game from a top-line center into a gifted offensive defenseman this year. Stu makes probably the best first pass in transition of any d-man in the SPHL and has worked very hard to make sure his gap control and net front awareness in the d-zone is acceptable. During a pretty frustrating year in Huntsville he kept his game at a high level every night and chipped in 11 goals as a d-man.
(D) Cole Ruwe, PEO
A veteran guy who put his work boots on night in and night out. Ruwe does so many little things over the course of a game that go unnoticed and unrecognized by the casual observer. He is excellent in his d-zone, he is a great leader for the 1st place team in the league and he plays against top match-ups every single night. He has also played most of this season injured and has really battled hard for Peoria.
(F) Bryce Williamson, COL
(F) Alex Hudson, PEO
Another guy who isn’t going to make many other ballots, but a player who was a wrecking ball against my Ice Bears and a no-brainer to put on my ballot. To me, Hudson was the most complete player in the league this year. From his dominance in the faceoff dot, to his physical presence, whether it be taking the body or dropping the gloves at the right time, he fills quality minutes and adds great depth to the Peoria lineup.
(F) Leo Thomas, MSR
Another guy who plays the entire ice from end wall to end wall. Leo is beast when he’s on his game and can really take over shifts. His +25 is a great example of just how hard he battles without the puck and then his vision and skillset when he or his Riverkings have it. A great leader and an all-situations centerman who can play several different styles depending on what is needed on a night to night basis.
SPHL ALL-ROOKIE TEAM
(G) Kevin Murdock, FAY
Gave Fayetteville some heart & soul starts this year and helped them pull points out of many games that it didn’t look like they would. Just a thoroughbred puck stopper who uses all parts of his body and never, ever gives up on the notion that he can make the save.
(D) Reid Campbell, MSR
Old school style d-man who did a great job this season in Mississippi. Similar to COL, MSR got off to a rough start and Reid was a big part of the change in play they went through. Great first pass, always has his head up and low turnover rate. Great rookie campaign.
(D) Christian Weidauer, PEO
A kid I personally recruited and moved to PEO in a mid-season trade. Chris is a big-bodied guy who has great reach, soft hands and a lot better shot than most people know. He has come so far since October and is really a true rookie with a 1993 birthdate. With the ECHL merger and quality defensemen getting snatched out of almost every SPHL lineup, I was shocked Weids’ didn’t get a look at the AA level this year.
(F) Bryce Williamson, COL
(F) Shawn Bates, COL
Another great rookie thriving in Columbus. Shawn’s hardwork and north/south game really came along in the 2nd half. He has great speed and isn’t afraid to go to the dirty areas for his goals. Brought extremely good depth to the COL forward lineup.
(F) Trever Hertz, FAY
A big strong kid who was heavy on his stick and got some prime minutes in Fayetteville to spend his rookie season. I liked Trever’s game immediately when I saw him play for the Surge in the 2014 playoffs and he continued that strong play into this year. Always a threat to shoot the puck and very strong on his stick around the net.
Coach Craigen’s ‘Unofficial’ SPHL Awards
Best Arena Overall – Von Braun Center, HSV
Always a pleasure to go to the VBC. Great staff, great ice, top notch security and an overall fantastic game night atmosphere.
Best Visiting Locker Room – Carver Arena, PEO
A very simple but perfect set-up. Individual stalls, separate changing area, plenty of hot water, lots of supplies with regard to toiletries and amenities and the most private locker room area in the league.
Best Visiting Bench – Von Braun Center, HSV
Spacious, clean, great sightlines and minimal opportunity for fans to make bad decisions. Again, always a pleasure going to Huntsville.
Best Visiting Coach’s Office – Landers Center, MSR
Carpeted, chairs and couches, personal bathroom including shower, highspeed internet and cable tv. Hands down the best in the league.
Best Post-Game Meal – Huntsville Booster Club, HSV
You really never know what you’re going to get in this category from night to night in the SPHL, but the Huntsville Booster club is amazing with the selection and quality of post-game meals. Honorable mention to the Columbus Booster club and hoping to add the Macon Mayhem Boosters to this list next season if they’re anything like that Macon Trax crew.
I hope everyone has enjoyed another season and heres to hoping the playoffs continue to crank up the intensity and entertainment level of the SPHL.
Have a great weekend everyone.