The leaves are turning and with them turns the page on a new hockey season. As always I'm anxious to return to the rink, to get out to an early training camp session or better yet, the annual Oiler Wannabe-Golden Bear "friendly" at Clare Drake Arena. There's something reassuring about the familiar sights of the Zamboni doing its last lap, the attendants fixing the nets in position, the goalie leading the charge on to the ice by taking the crease and methodically scraping it down to just the right degree of friction. Soon enough the sounds of clashing sticks on the opening faceoff, blades digging into ice, the puck clicking from stick to stick, bodies coming together hard at the boards, the buzz of the crowd. Ain't nothing quite like live Hockey in Canada.
Finally, there's some real hockey to talk about. I missed the two on-line broadcasts from the Oilers rookie tournament (vs. Calgary and Vancouver prospects) but attended the 21st annual Bears-Wannabe shindig. This featured a lesser line-up than the Camrose tournament, as I think the Oilers traditionally limit their line-up to guys who have played at most one year of pro (O'Marra, Paukovich), or maybe they allow guys who played primarily in the ECHL but not the AHL or something. Mostly they are names that can be found in the press guide under "In the System" or, failing that, in the training camp pamphlet under "#80, Kalvin Sagert". But there are always some interesting names to watch, never more than this year given all the info I have on these guys from the Oilogosphere
My friend and I arrived very early and had our pick of seats. I chose to sit in the row in front of the cordoned off section for the Oiler "family", in part so I could see what they saw but in part to watch the brass in action and perhaps pick up the odd word or two in the wind. And what an extended family it was, including Daryl Katz, Kevin Lowe, Steve Tambellini, Kevin Prendergast, the entire coaching staff, and more scouts than I could name. About two dozen men in all, no women, one kid (Katz's). Well, two kids, if you count Kent Nilsson's. Row-bert was sitting on the back wall between his dad and Kyle Brodziak, checking out the "competition".
The spot we staked out turned out to be directly in front of Craig MacTavish, Charlie Huddy and Billy Moores, with an empty row in between. The acoustics in the old bandbox are truly shitty, but I picked up the odd thing like MacT's playful scouting report on Ryan Huddy, and the buzz that went through the group when Bryan Lerg burst through the defence and ripped a dangerous shot on net. Best of all was when Sam Gagner stopped by on the walkway in front of me between periods to say his hellos to the coaches after the long summer. He and MacT carried on a nice conversation right over my shoulder, with Gagner describing his trip to Austria with the London Kinghts alumni and the coach reminiscing to the Oilers somewhat infamous trip to Graz in 1990 or so. What was immediately apparent was the bond between the two, which clearly went beyond the deference and respect of a player-coach relationship and into the realm of genuine affection. Master Samwise is in good hands, methinks.
Amidst all these distractions, not to mention all the eye candy passing by on the walkway immediately in front of me (I love campus life), I watched the game in a fragmented rather than focused manner. Lots of, uh, "screen shots". Luvverly.
Ah yes, the hockey game. It really looked like a pick-up game this year, as the Oilers surprised their hosts by showing up in white unis for the first time. In the warm-up the Bears wore their traditional home whites at the other end, so something had to give. So the hosts switched into last year's third-jersey yellows, lots of number changes, lots of wrong names on the back, one skater #1 and another skater with no number at all, the goalies in green with a different crest. Too bad for those kids, especially the ones trying out in front of the biggest crowd of the year, not to mention the poor sod who did all the work to get the whites ready for prime time. The good news was the Oilers prospects all had names on their sweaters with their own unique training camp rosters. The only familiar numbers were of the departed, as Matt Greene's #2 and Joni Pitkanen's #25 were officially recycled.
While the Bears dominated long stretches of the action with their trademark hard two-man fore-check, Brian Pitton and Andrew Perugini played well in the Oilers net, allowing the rooks to sneak off with a 3-2 win on a night they were outshot 36-26. The Bears now lead this remarkably-balanced series 11 games to 10.
I highlighted a few names on the game sheet and tried to follow each guy for a shift, but as is my habit (as an ex-goalie) I found myself watching the puck and the flow of play more than who was doing exactly what. Still, a few snatches on the skaters that caught my eye:
#30 Brian Pitton / #50 Andrew Perugini, G: I made a point of watching both goalies pretty closely. Both made a number of fine stops, but the difference was in the little things. My scribbled notes on Pitton included these comments:
-- trouble with carom off backboards
-- poor rebound control
-- puckhandling error
-- couldn't find puck
... describing five different plays during his 30 minutes of work. Meanwhile, my comments on Perugini were things like:
-- excellent rebound control
-- no rebound on screen shot
-- again, no rebound
-- battled hard against crease crashers
... and he just looked by far the more polished, professional goalie at this point. Not saying that Pitton can't file off these rough edges in time, and perhaps he's the better pure stopper, who knows. But for right now the undrafted Perugini looks more comfortable and commanding in the crease. On this night he pitched a half-shutout and was rewarded with third star honours.
#2 Milan Maslonka, D: A late addition to the line-up, he looked big and slow. Scored the second goal on a booming point shot, but it took him all day to let it go.
#23 Philippe Cornet, LW: Sneaky good, on the first line with Eberle and Lerg. They helped make him look good, especially when Lerg made a pretty pass to set Cornet up for the games' first goal, but he seemed to be on the line on merit (they always stack a line in this game), and he sure didn’t look out of place, anticipating the play and darting into the holes. The coaches seemed to like him.
#25 Jordan Eberle, RW: Easily found chemistry with Lerg, and generated a few dangerous shots with a quick release. I liked his stickhandling; he wasn’t shy about putting the puck right into his opponent’s feet and controlling it there. That may not be a formula for success at the NHL level where only the great ones get away with that consistently, but I liked his confidence.
#28 Marc-Andre Bernier, RW: Scored the winner short-handed, on a giveaway in the first minute of the third that undid the Bears second-period comeback (shots 18-2) that had tied the score at 2. Nice play, nice shot, otherwise didn’t capture my attention.
#41 Taylor Chorney, D: Kind of all over the ice in a MAB sort of way. Chaos D? Has great speed, as demonstrated on one play where he forced a turnover at the defensive blueline and turned it into a partial breakaway. Not a play one sees often from a defenceman.
#42 Ryan O’Marra, C: Did nothing to stand out except look like a hockey player all night long. Seemed to do the little things right, played his position pretty well. His line did get burned for the tying goal-against.
#48 Alex Plante, D: Big palooka looked fairly mobile and strong along the boards.
#61 Bryan Lerg, C: Best player on the ice, and it wasn’t close. Having seen about 15 of these games over the years I can state with some authority that the players who usually do best are the four-year NCAA guys. For one thing they are the only "Rookies" who are not surprised by the calibre of play, indeed they’re used to playing at that level. Unlike most four-year college guys, Lerg is just 22. Unfortunately, he’s also just 5’10", 175. Still, a player to watch, although be prepared to wait; even the best college grads (Horcoff, Pisani, Gilbert, all of whom starred in their one appearance in the Wannabes game) need a little time in the A to acclimate to the pro game. Nice signing.
#64 Milan Kytnar, C: Seemed a lot bigger than the listed 6’0", 180. Strong in the circle and along the boards. Made good plays to win the puck and then did nothing with it. A project.
#74 Garet Hunt, LW: When going over the game sheet before the game with my friend (an Oiler season ticket holder who doesn’t quite follow the organization in the depth that I do), I put a big arrow next to Hunt’s name, saying something like they aren’t supposed to fight but don’t be surprised. Sure enough, Hunt took a double minor for roughing at the 24-second mark of the game when he punched Kyle Fecho right in the nose in the extended aftermath of the game's first whistle. After that, though, he did nothing but impress me with his speed and hustle, finishing every possible check with obvious relish and even killing penalties. Playing style reminded me of Jordin Tootoo or Kirk Maltby.
#75 Jamie Bates, RW: Whodat? But grabbed my eye with one great shift in which he skated end-to-end to create his own scoring chance, then skated just as hard the other way to break up a dangerous rush. That kind of thing wins points with me every time.
#84 Geoff Paukovich, C: Probably was a tough game for him to play after his match penalty/major fucking scare of the night before. I half suspect he was a tad reluctant to really bring his A game, which surely is a physical one. Looked slow and out of position at times. Made two fine defensive plays on one shift including a lay-it-all-out-there shot block right in front of us which likely impressed the likes of Lowe, MacT and Buchberger, to name three masters of the bruised art.
#90 Justin Chwedoruk, F: I never heard of this guy, also a late addition, but he did nothing but skate his ass off and forecheck the bejeezus out of the Bears all night long.
At night's end four of the reasons Jordan Eberle and Bryan Lerg won't be in the big club's immediate plans literally brushed by me in rapid succession, namely Sam Gagner, Robert Nilsson, Kyle Brodziak, and Andrew Cogliano. Rarely do players go directly from this game to the big club, as Gags'n'Cogs did last year. With the surfeit of youth on the returning Oilers, newcomers are going to have to earn their spot in the pecking order and wait for injuries. Surely Eberle is a lock to return to the Dub, but it's nice to know that there's some real talent "in the system".
Like all the fans around me I had maintained a respectful silence towards the men doing their jobs behind me; the frequently-turned heads in front of me had gawking eyes but closed mouths for the most part. But as the crowd began to file out I approached Frank Musil specifically to inquire after the health of his countryman Jaroslav Pouzar. Alas, the word is not good; Pouzar is in ill health again, whether it's a relapse of the leukemia or something even more sinister, Frank's tone was sombre. I thanked him, and told him how Pouzar was one of my favourite Oilers of all time which he really seemed to appreciate. "As were you" I hastened to add (and it's true), "I even liked you when you played for Calgary!" His forced laugh reminded me suddenly of Esa Tikkanen scoring the series-winner off of the unfortunate Musil's shinpad in '91, but that wasn't what I was referring to at all. Hope he didn't take it the wrong way; as I rediscovered recently even the best intentions can go down wrong sometimes. I shook Musil's hand, wished him, Pouzar and the Oilers good fortune, and rejoined the great unwashed in the slow-mo stampede to the exits.
And with that it's Game on! with the new season.