Beetles for Lunch, A Busy Summer for the Ice Bears & Some Discussion of Change for the SPHL

     My son is officially mobile. His mother and I certainly didn’t time his development accordingly though, because had this mobility developed a little sooner we could have had a Knoxville Ice Bears baby derby champion living with us. He’s fast. He's got the quickest knees in the Southeast for sure. A few months ago you could put him down on the floor with a strategically placed item to distract him for a few precious minutes while you crept away with the speed and nimble feet of a ninja to have a quick pee. These days however, there is no creeping away from the little fella and he’ll be right on your heels wondering what you’re doing. Objects and actions that are occurring above him are the current target of his baby GPS and he’ll do just about anything to raise himself up to the next level of the world so he can see and be involved with whatever is going on in the air up there. Like cell phones, loading and unloading of the dishwasher and yes – urinating.

     The offseason has started off with a significantly different tone this summer at the Craigen residence in Knoxville, Tennessee. If you dropped in and visited me in the evening this time a few years ago at my place I would more than likely have been yakking on the phone with a prospective player, agent or member of my organization about the upcoming season. It was every day and night recruiting, planning, plugged in, answering emails, texts, calls surfing and Elite Prospects for the next wave of Ice Bears. These days, you’d better be careful coming onto my porch because it’s littered with plastic barn animals, a Cookie Monster saxophone, a pack n’ play, a plastic turtle that wobbles around playing music before exploding plastic shapes all over the place and a very active 8 month old boy who is ignoring all the toys in favor of trying to eat the giant beetle that he has been chasing around. My cabin in the woods that used to Ice Bear hockey operations grand central station has been converted and remodeled to accommodate the next 30/30 man in Major League Baseball who will also win the Masters before he turns 20 and release an acoustic album that goes double platinum. No pressure kid, but when you’re done eating that beetle I’m going to need you to get crackin’. 

This little guy is the best free agent the Ice Bears have ever signed.

     You would think along the way that my performance on the job is suffering from this significant change and the more hectic and demanding personal life would detract from my duties and responsibilities as the head coach of the Knoxville Ice Bears. It most certainly has not. The little Chunk I have at home has been the best thing that’s happened to the Ice Bears since Angela Swider told Kevin she wanted to live in Knoxville after his first season here. He gives my hours spent at work more clarity, more focus and much more productivity because I want to be dialed in on him when I go home so I need to be razor sharp when I'm living in my other world. 

     Everyone knows that when you’ve got a child that age, you don’t want to blink or be distracted because chances are you’re gonna miss something. Whether it be a new sound Chunk has perfected the motorboat sound as of late, btrrrrrrr btrrrrrrr. Or maybe they’ve decided to be left handed that day – Anytime he picks something up I always put it into his left hand because a left handed hitter is 2 steps closer to first base and usually hits for an average about 10 points higher.  Or my favorite thus far, you better be paying attention when small words and verbal communication start to formulate on their lips – My little guy has begun to recognize that his small accomplishments during the day warrant celebration and when he stands up on his own or executes a high five he lets out a “haaaaaaaaaah” sound that needs to be repeated by his mom & dad or he’ll let you know.

     I’m being 100% honest when I say that Ice Bear land has benefited from this new addition to my life. I found myself thinking on several occasions last season when dealing with players both on our roster and vying to be, “this is someone’s son.”, “someone loves this guy as much as I love Chunk.” And I believe my compassion level has been elevated without a doubt. Not that he’s made me soft by any means J ,  being a father has just heightened my awareness of how individuals who rely on you and look to you for guidance need to be treated. You can still be strong and sensitive and you can certainly be compassionate without being weak. I was really mad for half a second when Chunk took a crap on my chest in bed on the weekend while we were enjoying the morning sun beaming in the windows. Yes…. On my chest, and then begun to mush it with his fingers while giggling madly. But ya’ know what? I should have had a diaper on him, so the fault was squarely on me. And how can I blame him for playing with the poop either, nothing is funnier than pooping and farting for a kid. (And adults too really. Dougie Searle was one of the best defensemen I played with in my entire career but he’s more famous in my mind for his fart sounds during intermissions.)
Sign above the door in my office as a constant reminder.
My player relationships have always been a source of pride and my modus operandi as a coach but having a little human being in my life has really thrust my players and my relationships with each of them to the forefront of my priority list and my approach to the job day to day has shifted for the better. It has also brought back so many fond, special memories and valued time spent with some really incredible players over the past 6 years who have contributed to what we've built here in Knoxville and my career development.

     Speaking of the Ice Bears! We’re excited for the summer around here. June, July, etc is usually a pretty quiet time around the ole’ Civic Coliseum but this year things are going to be a little different. We've partnered with FieldHouse Social down on the strip to host some Stanley Cup Finals watch parties throughout the duration of the Penguins/Sharks series. Come on down and enjoy the game on one of their many televisions and enjoy a great menu and nightly drink specials. We’re kicking off our Charity Golf tournament this week as well at Three Ridges prior to the annual Cool Sports Adult Hockey Challenge hosted by our friends at the IceArium. We’ll tee it up this Friday, June 3rd with proceeds going to Children’s Hospital and that will lead into a weekend of Men's League hockey with former Ice Bear and their opponents like Kevin Swider, Jamie Ronayne,
2015 Cool Sports Challenge Champs - "The Ice Beers"
Mike Degurse, Mike Murray, Chris Kovalcik, Jason Price, Nick Niedert
and others as they battle it out all weekend. So drop in and see how much tighter all our pants have gotten.

     The ice is also going down in July for a couple of weeks thanks to the City and the wonderful new management group that SMG has put in place here downtown. Starting on July 13th we are hosting a slew of events at the Civic Coliseum that is going to keep us busy through the second half of July and hopefully get the hockey community involved during some of the hotter temperatures this summer.

     Our Adult Hockey Clinic (you can click on each of these links for more information about each) will start in the evening on Wednesday, July 13th where we’ll be running a hockey fundamentals program for any adults who are looking to hone some skills, just get started with their game and need a platform to develop under some fun and laid back instruction. We plan on running it like a mini Ice Bear training camp with on-ice sessions, video breakdown of both our Adult skaters and some Ice Bear game tape to go over some systematic portions of the game in detail with all our attendees. It's a lot more enjoyable when you're watching live hockey or on tv if you've got a couple reference points to watch for and notice. I’m looking forward to it because working with adults who have a love for the game but just don’t quite have the ability yet is always a fun challenge. If you’re interested and want some more information just email us call us at the office, ask for Cole Burkhalter or myself and we’d be happy to discuss.

     Immediately following that Adult Clinic we’re hosting our summer Free Agent Camp. With the success of the camp over the past few seasons and the players we’ve not only rostered from it but who have made significant contributions to our team, the camp has really grown in popularity for prospective Ice Bears. Since 2010 when I first started running the camp, we have selected over 30 players to compete in our main camp and 9 of them have played SPHL games for the Ice Bears; Lucas Schramm, Jake Flegel, Danny Cesarz, Mark Pustin, Jason Berube, Brad Townsend, Bo Driscoll, Luc Kilgore and Jide Idowu. Our camp is the most legitimate opportunity for any professional free agent looking to find an opportunity and the results and follow through by our organization for the guys who attend our camps is absolutely second to none and all the evidence you need to support that. We don’t just take your money and give you a jersey here in Knoxville, we give you a genuine look, feedback and support moving forward after your experience here. Ultimately, we're trying to find players who will help us be a better hockey team and the guys we've pulled from past camps shows that.

     Once the Free Agent sessions are over, we will be transitioning to our annual Youth Camp the week of July 18th through 22nd. After some pretty fun weeks in past years, our registration has been great this summer already and we’re expecting a big turnout for July. Our camp ties all the fundamentals of the game into a pretty enjoyable week that prioritizes fun above everything else. We know that kids have a million things they want to do during the summer between swimming, baseball, lacrosse and many other activities, so trust me – we make sure they have a good time with us. We have a bus pick-up scheduled every morning out in West Knoxville for parents to drop their kids off that week starting on Monday they 18th and we take them all day until 5 PM when we shuttle them back out and drop em’ off. No worries, no hassle, just drop them off and pick them up and we’ll handle the rest of the week for you with on-ice work, recreational activity off the ice, lunches provided, video segments, martial arts training and much more that will have your youngins' collapsed in a heap on the way home everyday. We’ll be rolling out our new “video report cards” soon too that we’re also pretty excited about so each camper will have an on-ice video breakdown of things they did well and things they need to work on.

     If an adult camp, a free agent camp and a youth camp wasn’t enough we are finishing off the month of July with the pilot voyage of our “Ironman 3 on 3” tournament. This is a really, really cool idea from our own Cole Burkhalter who is a homegrown product of KAHA and helping to make a big impact on hockey in this area as our Director of Hockey Development. So here’s how it works; there are two divisions, elite and intermediate. Starting on Friday, July 22nd we’re going to drop the puck and play hockey 3-on-3 format - teams of 6 skaters and 1 goalie - around the clock until we have crowned a winning team in each division. We’ll only break to resurface the ice between games and the rest of the time the action will be rolling, all day every hour of every day until Sunday night. Teams will camp out at the Coliseum, area hotels, backseats of their cars and anywhere else they can crash between games. We’ll have the bar open, concessions, fun off-ice games going on all around the arena while you’re not playing and a bunch of other pretty unique events running alongside the tournament itself. Teams from Boston, Michigan and locally have already signed up so I’m pretty confident this event will be a fantastic weekend to finish off a very busy month of July for the Ice Bears.

EDIT: My son's name is Bradley. Not Chunk. But in true hockey culture, he had to have a nickname.


     Thank you for reading if you’ve stuck it out this long through what has come to be my bi-annual, long winded blog fest. To wrap it up I wanted to start some dialogue about the Southern Professional Hockey League and the direction we’re all moving in together as member teams and staff under their umbrella.

     First things first, and this will not come as anything new for my readers; I’m hopeful there will be some serious dialogue at our league meetings about the playoff format. Pensacola and Peoria set a new standard this season with a best of 5 final series and the on-ice product was hands down, unarguably fantastic. There will always be financial, attendance and promotional challenges for our league in April, but this best of 5 was a great example of what could-be. Both teams got to put their best foot forward each game, travel was not an issue and the results couldn’t be attributed to any factor other than what the teams themselves dictated. That’s how it should be for every series in my opinion and I was very encouraged to see the league and those two franchises take a step in the right direction this season. (Congratulations to the Pensacola Ice Flyers by the way, keep our cup safe for us we’ll be coming for it soon.)
     The other topic I’m hopeful will receive some discussion at the league meetings is the current veteran rule in the SPHL regulations. Currently, each team is allowed 3 players of “Veteran” status on their active roster. A veteran is a player who has played over 224 professional games and the website is the measuring stick used by the SPHL to count those games. If you played professionally and it’s recorded on HockeyDB, it counts. That regulation is also piggybacked by a secondary reg’ indicating those 3 veteran players cannot combine for more than 1100 games as a threesome.

     My hope is that league officials and our board of governors will consider some alterations to those regulations that will allow for teams to retain more of these veteran players for longer spans of their career. I believe the SPHL has done two very obvious things in the past 5 seasons or so; one positive progression has been the increase in their level of play and quality of staff, players and organizations. The other progression is not so positive from where I sit and I’m not trying to criticize anyone at all here, but I believe the league has lost the old-fashioned “rivalries” that made our product so entertaining not so long ago.
     Let me elaborate – players don’t hate each other enough anymore. That might sound a little old school and a touch barbaric and the anti-hockey folks who advocate that our sport is too violent and unnecessarily dangerous will just roll their eyes, but it’s plain and clear to me. When the Ice Bears used to welcome the Huntsville Havoc into the Coliseum, our fans knew Mike Degurse and Luke Phillips and James Patterson and Matt Carmichael would be there to face off against Ice Bear players who had built up a competitive hatred for each other and the product on the ice would magnify that. Fans knew different players on each team and looked forward to the different rivalries that each match up brought to town. Ice Bears vs Havoc on Friday night? You could bet on a big crowd and you could bet on some of the opponents you love to hate coming in here and entertaining you. The same could be said for the Von Braun Center and their fans booing well known Ice Bear players during warm-up and introductions. It was fun for eveyrone invovled, it was a rivalry….. and it has been lost over the past 4-5 seasons.

     Why? Because players move on. You can’t build up a rivalry if every team has 11 new players every season and organizations can’t retain players for long enough to build up those rivalries if there is a cap on games played looming above every experienced career during the off-season. It won’t be applicable for every team, every season, but there will be plenty of circumstances where the current veteran rule forces popular, well known players, well known organizational assets that fans have come to identify to leave the team that raised them so-to-speak.

     In 2006 the Ice Bears were forced to choose three from the following list: KJ Voorhees, Curtis Menzul, Jamie Ronayne, Doug Searle, Kevin Swider and Jason Bermingham. Not a tough decision for head coach Jim Bermingham at the time as much as it was just downright unfortunate for our fans who had to understandably say goodbye to Ronayne and Voorhees who were very central, prominent faces for the organization (and J Berm who eventually retired after 06 anyway). I’m not as familiar with the situations other organizations have gone through that are similar, but I know Columbus, Huntsville, Fayetteville and others have all faced pretty comparable decisions.

     We did the same thing again in 08’ here in Knoxville when the off-season brought another list of notable players whose career hung in the balance due to the rule. Swider, Timmy Vitek, Kevin Harris, Mike Carter, myself and JJ Wrobel were all veterans and our team could only keep three. Some pretty popular names left town and along with them left some of the primary rivalry pieces for visiting teams. Again, I’m sure each team can state their own instances of similar circumstances from past seasons.

     I completely recognize the need to regulate the development of the league and we need a steady stream of rookies and fresh legs in here to continue pushing the pace and level of play for the SPHL. Crap, some might even argue that without the veteran rule forcing players like myself, KJ Voorhees, Kevin Harris, Jamie Ronayne, etc out of Knoxville that it paved the way for younger, better players to come in and elevate the skill level and on-ice product…… I’d be willing to have that argument with an informed, knowledgeable source sometime J But at the end of the day the SPHL is built on entertainment and loyal, passionate fan bases in each of their member cities. Those fan bases don't want to find new favorites every other season, they want to establish a familiarity for their hometown team and create a bond with the culture and faces on both home and visiting teams. We’re not affiliated with ECHL/AHL/NHL networks, we’re not bound by any agreements that require us to provide players at a certain point in their career to clubs at the next level and we’ve carved ourselves a very respectable niche for the specific product we can still provide. I’m in favor of capitalizing on that and reestablishing some rivalries, using returning players as the main component to those rivalries.

     Worst case scenario? Individual teams decide they don’t want to continually employ more veteran guys and they opt to go with younger, rookie-laden lineups instead. It’s their choice though, and they get to make it knowingly and with alternative options. If your organization, fans and city is able to retain veteran players and keep them happy, motivated and productive then so be it. If you can’t, well…. You don't.

     The answer? We could go many different directions with this if the league and B.O.G's agree and choose to facilitate change. I’m speaking as an individual here, as an employee of the Ice Bears. I don’t speak on behalf of my organization nor do I represent the majority of thinking across the league, so keep that in mind while reading this. I respect the entire SPHL hierarchy and I’m certain the Board of Governors will discuss and vote on issues with the SPHL and its future in mind.

     My ideas for positive change include removing the total combined number of 1100 games to start with. I think that’d be a great start to see where it goes. Each team can have three veterans, unlimited number of games. A “smoke em’ if you got em’” mentality if you will. That will let us track which teams utilize the rule change and if there is any change whatsoever in product, entertainment, etc.

     Next, I would propose somewhat of a “franchise” player tag that allows each organization a bit of a gimme for homegrown veterans. If you’ve got a grizzled, popular veteran player who has played 50% or more of his vet-labeled career with your organization, he does not count toward the SPHL veteran regulations. For example; PLAYER A has played 432 professional games, 275 of them have been with the Columbus Cottonmouths. PLAYER A does not count toward any SPHL vet regulation at the time as he is considered a “franchise” player for the Cottonmouths.

     These are all just ideas from a guy who has been on both sides of the puck now for awhile and has grown up right alongside with this league from its struggling infancy to its now expanding and recognizable present. If the league wants to remain young and continue trying to be a developmental league, that’s fine too. We’re going to be a positive contributing part of it here in Knoxville and we’re going to put the best possible product on the ice for our fans regardless of the template. I’m just rambling a little bit this morning cause the locker room is empty, it smells too nice around here, there is no ice right outside my office door and I miss my guys. 
Enjoy the summer everyone, #letsgoicebears

1 comment:

  1. I think your recommendations are excellent. Is there a petition to sign? :)