Monday, 26 February 2018

FLASHBACK: A Golden Hawk History for Pyeongchang Combatants

Lethbridge Hurricanes fans had a couple of reasons to tune into the Olympic men's hockey tournament.

The obvious was Rob Klinkhammer, who helped Canada pick up a bronze medal. The other was the hope to see Juha Metsola suit up for Finland, but that wasn't the case as he was the third in line to get in the crease.

READ MORE: Klinkhammer's Journey from Lethbridge to Pyeongchang

But Lethbridge hockey fans had a third reason to tune in.

Sparwood's Daryl Boyle was part of the German contingent that shocked Klinkhammer and his teammates in the semi-final. The two actually have quite the history, dating back to their days with the Lethbridge Val Matteotti Bantam AAA Golden Hawks.

In talking to the Lethbridge Herald over the weekend, Klinkhammer said he saw his old friend Boyle in the lineup shaking hands, wished him luck and told him to go beat the Russians, which as we all know didn't come to fruition.

Thanks to a random phone call from Jordan on Saturday night, a conversation was had about that 2001-2002 Golden Hawks team. And for those of you who know hockey, you probably remember that team well.

The names on that roster are pretty hard to forget after all. Klinkhammer, Boyle, Kris Versteeg, Devin Setoguchi and Judd Blackwater all stand out, but they were also getting right around a point-a-game from Kyle Nason, Brodie Sheahan and Scott Linton. TJ Howg and Jayce Bryant split the goaltending duties.

Make no mistake about it, the team was talented. In January 2002, the Golden Hawks busted through a bit of a scoring slump to win the Premier Cup tournament that they were hosting. By the end of February, they had clinched a playoff spot and finished the season with a 22-9-6 record, good enough for third place in the South Division. They were set for a roadtrip to Fort Saskatchewan for provincial playdowns in mid-March.

But then the archives go silent. Flipping through the pages of the Herald in the days following the March 17-19 tourney, nothing was said.

Nothing that I could find anyways.

As it turns out, it might have been for good reason. The Golden Hawks ended up losing in the semi-finals to the Medicine Hat Hockey Hounds. The Gas City squad was led by Cole Geddes, who netted a hat trick in that game, and Kevin Undershute and Jerrid Sauer, who went on to play with their hometown Tigers, as well as Adam Wright, Riley Jones and goaltender Cole Anderson, who all went onto play AJHL hockey.

The Hounds turned around and lost a heartbreaker in the final, 4-2 to the Red Deer Chiefs. That Chiefs team had the likes of future WHLers Ted Vandermeer and Kyle Pess as well as AJHLers AJ Nelson and Scott McCulloch. Their goaltender was Colin Stebner, who played some post-secondary and Heritage League hockey.

That's not to dispute the talent of the teams the Golden Hawks played against at that time. But when you look back at that roster and how everyone turned out, it was one heck of a graduating class. But many believe that Lethbridge squad was one of the best that didn't go on to win a league championship.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Whatever Happened To... Domenic Pittis

Many hockey players put a lot of miles in during their career. But few manage to do it in the same day.

Former Lethbridge Hurricanes star Domenic Pittis belongs to a very exclusive club of hockey players who have played two full hockey games in one day. The story goes that in 1999, Pittis was called up to the Buffalo Sabres for an afternoon game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. So he drove from Rochester to Buffalo, which is about 120 kilometres and got the job done. After the final buzzer, he realized he had time to go back for that night's Americans game against Cincinnati, so he played in that too.

It turned out to be a little foreshadowing for how the rest of his playing career would go. In North America, he also played in Edmonton, Nashville and Milwaukee before coming back to Buffalo and Rochester. During the 2004-2005 lockout, he went overseas, thinking it would only be for a year, but Switzerland turned out to be the perfect fit.

"Having to adjust, just the way the things you've done for the last 15-20 years playing and then now it's just totally different and it's just normal for them and having to adjust to that, that to me was biggest adjustment," Pittis told Canes This Week. "Just trying to change the way or adjust the way that you've played."

Not only was it a challenge on the ice, but it was also a challenge off the ice. It gave him a new perspective on hockey, particularly for import players like we see in the WHL.

"Whether it's paying bills or whether it's cooking for yourself or different things to do in your downtime, that can be a challenge," Pittis said. "Those tend to be the things that have the biggest impact."

That experience carried over to his new coaching career.

"You're not able to speak the language that the majority of the guys are speaking and the coach can't speak English, he can speak German and Russian," Pittis recalled. "Having to deal with that whole dynamic gave me a different perspective."

"Eventually I was able to get back to North America and get into coaching, I had a different view of the challenges some of these European guys had."

And while there were some challenges, there were also some unforeseen benefits to moving to Europe. Pittis represented Canada in several tournaments, including the Spengler Cup and Deutschland Cup.

"To be able to play in those types of tournaments and to be able to see the type of talent that was over there really gave you a true appreciation of the guys that really don't come over to North America to play," Pittis said. "Every country has a little bit of a different style of play."

"For me it was just unique to see the different styles and the different personalities guys had when they were amongst their countrymen," he continued. "It was definitely a great experience and really helped me better understand different ways of doing things and different ways of approaching the game."

After his playing days were over, Pittis' coach in Zurich, Bob Hartley, brought him back to North America to be a part of his hometown Calgary Flames staff in 2013, eventually moving to an assistant coaching spot with the Stockton Heat, where he is today and excited about what he's doing and spending a little less time on the road.

"Really kind of getting into that day-to-day business of coaching and helping guys," Pittis said. "Being involved with a team instead of jumping around, whether it's a week here with a minor league team and then another week with the big club. That seemed like the best fit for me."

When looking back on his junior career, the 5'10", 185-pound forward looks back fondly on his time with the Hurricanes. He said it helped him grow, not only as a hockey player but as a person. In three seasons (1991-1994) in the Windy City, accumulating 269 points in 203 games.

"We had some great teams, I think we under-achieved our last year but I definitely think there were so many lessons learned amongst our time and I wouldn't change it for anything," Pittis beamed. "It was a great place to play junior and a few years to look back on fondly."

Last season, he was selected as the 10th best player in Hurricanes' history. But he credits everyone around him, including teammates, the organization and the fans.

"There's so many good players that you played with and to be singled out is really a testament to how good the people were around me."

Family was also important for the Calgary native.

"My dad put so many kilometres coming to see me," Pittis said. "I don't think he missed a home game my whole entire junior career and so he was back-and-forth."

It seems travel has never really been a bad thing in the eyes of a Pittis.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Home Away From Home: A Billet's Story

If you're a junior hockey fan, you could sit and listen to Stew Aiken's billet stories for hours.

He has seen everything over the last 26 years. It all started with his neighbour Alf Gurr, the man who spawned the idea of Lethbridge buying a WHL team after losing the Broncos to Swift Current.

Gurr had asked Aiken to billet out a European player during a summer, and Aiken obliged. But that short visit from a young hockey player was enough to get him hooked on the idea.

"When I first got going, I wanted to show my kids (who were 1 and 5 at the time) how hard you have to work to be successful, how you had to sacrifice so much and how you had to keep your foot on the gas," Aiken told Canes This Week.

Players came and went, but they continued to have a strong impact on the family's lives. He had a run of goaltenders including Ryan Hoople, Jason McLean and Joel Martin. Aiken also billeted friend of the show Mike Wuchterl and tough guy Derek Parker.

"He was so humble though," Aiken reflects fondly of the 6'2", 215-pound forward. "Where most people think of him as this lunatic, basically for lack of better word. But he was the nicest kid, the most polite kid. My kids still talk to him, if not every month, every other month."

The most-recent long-term visitor to the Aiken residence was Giorgio Estephan. The now 21-year-old was there from the very beginning as a 15-year-old, and Aiken gets a kick out of a story that Giorgio's mom even shares.

"She went through probably half a box of Kleenex leaving, she was just so emotional and Giorgio was emotional," Aiken recalled. "They circled Lethbridge before they left to go back to Edmonton and came back to the house and rang the door bell and asked 'hey do you guys wanna go out for supper?' Because his mom wasn't ready to give him up yet."

Aiken admits Estephan had a tough start to his WHL career, as a young player used to being the star but being relegated to a lesser role. It's a story he admits he's had to mentally coach a few players on as they've made their way up through the system.

"It's a tough go when you're sitting in a suit watching your team play and having to go through the rigamarole of WHL Monday through Sunday with practice, school and everything else," Aiken said. "It wears you down."

When Estephan was traded to Swift Current, it was a day that Aiken calls a difficult one for any billet.

"I am missing the first period of a game on a Tuesday night, saying my goodbyes to my kid and even while doing that, I'm getting his room ready because I know I've got the other kid coming in that night," Aiken said. "You don't really have time to mourn at all and that's probably the toughest on a billet."

Then there are the diets. And Aiken encountered something new when goaltender Logan Flodell moved in.

"First words out of his mouth were "Stew, I'm lactose-intolerant,"" he laughed. "I've never had a kid like that where all my cheese sauces, all my cooking that I've done over the years is all out the window."

The billeting veteran loves what he does, and says it's important to treat the players like family, enforcing the rules and dealing with the different personalities.

"When you've been doing it for as long as I have, you truly don't mesh with every personality and every kid," Aiken laughs again. "So, some seasons are longer than others, but you manage to get through it."

But those seem to be few and far between. The highlights for him have nothing to do with the ice.

"Getting the invite to the wedding, them just giving you a call out fo the blue or stopping in or that type of thing," Aiken smiles. "Like I mentioned Derek Parker, we'll go a couple of summers and I won't see him but he'll pop in and find me at work or wherever. Those are the things where you make life-long relationships."

That's one of the benefits of being a billet. Aiken also has a piece of advice for anyone looking to follow in his footsteps.

"Get into it for the right reasons. There's been billets that have come and go where they think financially, it's beneficial for them but unfortunately they haven't thought it through well because these are young teenagers and the last reason you're getting involved in billeting is for the money."

Get it done right, and the memories will last a lifetime.

"They become part of your family, they're one of your kids," Aiken concluded. "You live and breathe their successes, you see them develop into amazing adults."

Monday, 5 February 2018

Three Burning Questions for Canes Fans

With just 20 games to go in the regular season, the Lethbridge Hurricanes find themselves in an interesting spot. After a rough start to the season, including an eight-game losing skid, the team finds itself just three points out of first place in the WHL's Central Division with three games at hand on the leading Medicine Hat Tigers.

A major reason for their turn of fortunes has obviously been their play after the trade deadline. While some fans screamed about how the team was giving up on the season, the players turned it the other way. They are 8-2-3 in the 13 games since January 9th, when they masterminded that blockbuster deal with the Swift Current Broncos.

READ MORE: The Everlasting Impact of Giorgio and Stuart

After pouring through the statistics of those 13 games, a few interesting questions came to mind.

#1. Will the Canes keep spreading the wealth?

Don't get me wrong, the team has had some standout performances. Brad Morrison has 21 points since the deadline and Jordy Bellerive has 20, including a couple of hat tricks. But it seems like everyone's been picking up the slack lately and not just on the scoresheet. Logan Barlage and Jadon Joseph have picked up the majority of the faceoffs from the departed Giorgio Estephan, while both Logan Flodell and Reece Klassen have been lights out in net, including five nights of 30+ save performances and one night each of facing 40+ shots.

#2. Will the real powerplay please stand up?

Here's an interesting factoid: prior to this weekend's wins against Swift Current and Edmonton, the powerplay was an abysmal 0-for-27 in its previous nine games. Somehow, the team did keep winning for most of that stretch, and actually still has the third-best unit in the entire WHL. Jordy Bellerive finally snapped the drought late in the first period of Friday's win over the Broncos, where they went 3-for-5 with the man advantage, following that up with a 2-for-6 performance against Edmonton on Saturday. The team will continue to do well if the powerplay keeps that up, and keeps the penalty kill in fine form. Since the trade deadline, the kill operated at an 83% efficiency, up from its season average of 77%. If you can win the special teams battles, you're likely going to win more games.

#3. Is it really in everyone's best interests for the Hurricanes to gun for Central Division crown?

I know this sounds like a weird question. Who wouldn't want to raise a banner? The question becomes: how many playoff rounds do you want to see? If you look at the standings, a first place finish in the Central would mean playing the top wildcard team in the conference. Who would that be right now? The Regina Pats, who would actually be the top team in the Central if it wasn't for them being log-jammed in the absolutely insane East Division. The Pats are four points back of Brandon and six ahead of Prince Albert and Saskatoon. So you're bound to get one of those teams. OR you could finish second in your division and play either Kootenay or Red Deer. I'm not saying either would be a cakewalk, and I'm not saying the Hurricanes couldn't beat any of the teams coming out of the East, as witnessed by beating the powerhouse Broncos on Saturday. And the Pats might be ripe for the picking, as they're the Memorial Cup hosts with a ton of pressure on them and playing them might be good in the sense of not having anything to lose. It's an interesting internal struggle the top team in the Central will have, so I guarantee everyone will be scoreboard watching over the last 20 games of the regular season.

Joe's "Interesting" Team 2019-2020

I’m not good at gambling on sports. Just ask Jordan what my record is in fantasy sports. I have a knack for being able to draft what loo...