If the first month of the Knoxville Ice Bears 2014 season is any indication of things to come, I would think our fans are in for a memorable, challenging and exciting hockey campaign in Tennessee this year. Before all of our Season Ticket Books were even picked up from the front office, we had won a game against Huntsville 9-7 that featured the boys coming from 3 goals down two separate times and scoring 6 unanswered goals. We had capuchin monkeys riding border collies on the ice at the Coliseum in a Cowboy Monkey Rodeo. We had given up 9 goals in a humbling home loss to Peoria. We had an unfortunate accident involving our beloved mascot Chilly falling down a flight of stairs, on Teddy Bear Toss night no less. And through all the chaos and unexpected surprises/disappointments, the Ice Bears are off to their best start in franchise history with a record of 10 wins and 3 losses, good enough for 1st place in the Southern Professional Hockey League as the first quarter of the season finishes up.
I know, I know…… it’s early. And I know, I know….. there are lots of teams off to a good start who are right behind us and within immediate striking distance. But if I’ve learned anything in my time behind the bench and as a player within this great game, it is to enjoy the high points of your season when you can. Expectations are always high at the start of every year and capitalizing on the buzz and anticipation of a new season by winning some games and generating a great deal of excitement within our fan base has been very enjoyable so far. So we’re going to do everything we can to continue that enjoyment for everyone involved.
One thing that has been really unexpected to this point though has definitely been the number of pucks that have entered our net on home ice. As of the day I wrote this blog, we had given up the most goals in the SPHL at 41 and 22 of them had come in 5 home games for an average of 4 ½ per game. Yuck. For a team that has traditionally been very strong on home ice and very stingy when it comes to giving up scoring chances in our smaller building, this is something that was not only confusing but very disappointing. Thankfully, as of today we had also scored the most goals in the SPHL and our offense had glossed over some of the not-so-nice defensive performances we’ve had.
The good news about our defensive situation is this; it’s easily fixable. First of all, I really like the situation and the healthy competition we have with our goaltenders. Bryan Hince and rookie Braely Torris are going to push each other week in and week out and that’s a very encouraging scenario for us. Secondly, our offensive style isn’t a high-flying system that leads to defensive breakdowns and scoring chances against and our players aren’t irresponsible 1-dimensional guys who don’t care enough about playing on the defensive side of the puck. That hasn’t been the case thus far at all. The goals we have given up to date, for the most part, have been very small individual or group mistakes that can be fixed through practice, video and more situational reps that should push those errors out of our game. Lastly, I really like our core of defensemen. Led by Jason Price and Joe Tolles who log big minutes back there for us on a nightly basis, everyone back there has a great deal of pride in the defensive zone and I believe we’re all on the same page in terms of getting better on that side of the puck.
For example, the 2 clips below show similar defensive situations, one from our 9-3 loss to Peoria and 1 from our 5-4 win over Fayetteville. In both clips we have excellent back pressure support from our backchecking forward. You’ll notice in clip 1 that our strongside defenseman takes the attacker who drives the net, leaving the puck carrier open to walk in and score a goal. In clip 2, our weakside defenseman correctly takes the net drive and lets the strongside focus on the puck carrier, minimizing the time & space he has to make a play. A very simple adjustment that comes from communication and familiarity with teammates.
Brenda and her family used to set-up prior to every home game outside our locker room with a spread of food fit for kings. From lasagna and other pasta, to veggies and dip, chicken spreads, desserts and just about anything else anyone could imagine or had asked for. It was truly amazing the time and effort put into these meals, and I’m not talking quick little Sam’s Club large party meals, these were from scratch and painstakingly prepared by Brenda herself. It was an enormous load off the player’s mind to be able to spend $0 on a post-game meal and know that they’d be well fed, especially if we were going on the road right away or playing the next day.
It wasn’t about the food for Brenda though, not at all. She loved the comradery, she loved the extended family and she really loved those players and the passion they showed for the game of hockey. It didn’t matter if you were in your 8th season with the Ice Bears or your 8th game, Brenda was there for a hug, words of encouragement and a plateful of food every single night. I can say without a moment’s hesitation or thought that in the 9 years I knew Brenda Cox and through all the winning, losing and everything in between, that she never once said a negative thing about her hockey team or the way they were playing. Brenda’s favorite and most often used phrase was, “I really think we’re gonna win this one tonight.”
Earlier this season and after a long and painful fight with cancer, Brenda finally took her last breath. It was bittersweet for all of us who knew her because it was clear she was in a lot of pain from her treatments and having lost her son Larry earlier in 2014, she was struggling day to day. It’s still strange not to see her food table set up behind our locker room and it’s still a little emotional not seeing her up in her seats behind our bench, but we all know she’s peaceful now and without a doubt happier.
I wanted to tell a quick story about Brenda in closing that I’m sure my readers will find pretty entertaining. During the 2006 season I went through a prolonged scoring drought that had extended to 16 games without a goal and I was starting to become beyond frustrated. Aside from the standard fixes like going to the net hard, shooting the puck from everywhere and staying after practice shooting pucks, I had tried changing sticks, eating a different pre-game meal, standing in different spots during warm-up…….. it was a superstition nightmare because everything I had come to know was failing me.
|Ms Brenda Cox - Team Mom|
Leading into the 17th game of my goal-less-ness, Brenda and I were chatting before the game as we always did while I snacked on her food spread, and she said “I’ve got something that will make you score tonight Mikey.” I smiled and told her I appreciated any help she could give me and I was willing to try anything at this point so she came over and gave me a big hug. As she was gripping me in what I thought was a good luck hug, I felt something slimy slip into my ear. Apparently Brenda wasn’t stopping with the hug, she was pulling out the big guns to get me out of this slump and had stuck her tongue directly into my ear! I jumped out of sheer surprise and Brenda just laughed and said, “go get em’ honey” while I frantically tried to find a napkin to wipe her saliva out of my ear and the rest of the guys hanging around rolled on the floor with laughter.
I don’t know if the wet willy via tongue had anything to do with it or whether it just got my mind off of anything other than a 60 year old woman sticking her tongue in my ear, but I went out that night and not only ended the 16 game slide with an early goal, but added two more for my first professional hat trick on top of it to officially close the books on the longest slump of my career.
I don’t know what was funnier; Brenda’s reaction in the stands, my teammates reaction on the bench (you can imagine the ear licking attempts for the rest of the season after that) or the look on my girlfriend at the time’s face as we were leaving the arena and an overjoyed 60 year old woman in a Craigen jersey came up behind us and stuck her tongue in my ear again!
We miss you Brenda and we hope you are up above waiting to help us hoist another banner next October.