As the Zamboni starts the flood on a fresh sheet of ice for 2011, here’s a look back on a few events of the past year in the Canadian Hockey League, namely The Good, The Bad and The Ugly… cue up the Ennio Morricone.
The Windsor Spitfires continue on their dominant Mastercard Memorial Cup performance in 2008-09 with a repeat performance to become only the eighth team in CHL history to win back-to-back championships. They were led offensively by Taylor Hall who became the first player in the history of the tournament to win consecutive MVP honours. Hall would go on to become the first-overall pick at the NHL draft, giving the Ontario Hockey League the honour of producing the top prospect in four straight years. It was inspirational to see Tri-City Americans forward Neal Prokop return to the ice ahead of schedule from a broken femur, just as it was nice to see Kitchener defenceman Ben Fanelli take contact in practice after a devastating head injury the previous season and Brandon Wheat Kings assistant coach Dwayne Gylywoychuk on the road to recovery after breaking his back in a fall. It was also good to see the Calgary Hitmen rebound to win the Western Hockey League title after having been a bridesmaid to Kelowna the year previous. It was a banner year for the Portland Winterhawks who tied their franchise record by having eight players taken at the NHL draft, their highest total since 1982. And speaking of the draft, the emergence of Sean Couturier in the QMJHL as a bona fide star, gives hope to Quebec producing the NHL’s top pick since Sidney Crosby in 2005. The QMJHL also got a boost when star forward Louis Leblanc decided to forgo his college career at Harvard to join the Montreal Junior. The league also implemented a much-needed new rule to ease up restrictions on trading players outside of the usual late December window. Now, instead of languishing at home, players can suit up for 10 games as “affiliate players” making it easier to continue with their careers.
This might fall into the “So bad it’s good category” but the story out of Portland this summer over the identity of a mystery player – known only as Red 23 because of his jersey and number – who took part in Winterhawks training camp. It turns out the team kept his name out of the lineup (and from the PA announcer) for good reason – he was Swiss forward Alessio Bertaggia, an undrafted import without an IIHF release and therefore ineligible to play. The WHL punished Portland though the details were never released, it reportedly included a $2,500 fine. The import issue continued to be a hot topic at the World Hockey Summit where a number of European federations released startling numbers on how the CHL’s import draft played a role in crippling their national development programs. Halifax would have to wrangle with the IIHF to get Czech forward Martin Frk to be released, while Saskatoon eventually gave up on trying to bring Slovak Andrej Stastny over to the WHL.
In the OHL there were a few men behaving badly, as Windsor head coach Bob Boughner refused to shake hands with Barrie Colts head coach Marty Williamson after the league final. Boughner and company were upset over the Colts’ decision to draft Windsor GM Warren Rychel’s son, Kerby. The Rangers were equally upset with the Colts when Kitchener GM Steve Spott went on a tirade accusing Barrie of reneging on a deal that they had allegedly agreed to in principle, saying Barrie’s backtracking “stinks to high heaven.” There was also an embarrassing moment for OHL commissioner David Branch when someone forgot to bring the OHL’s playoff MVP trophy to present to Windsor’s Adam Henrique. Branch delivered the trophy a week later, personally, to the Windsor star. Getting back to the coaching theme, there was the curious case of Ron Choules who was fired by the Acadie-Bathurst Titan after a 10-5 start. The quotes from GM Sylvain Couturier about the firing led many to believe there might have been some meddling from owner Leo-Guy Morrissette. Over in the Telus East Division there was a skid of historically bad proportion as the Baie-Comeau Drakkar tied the QMJHL record with a 25-game losing streak they snapped with a 4-3 win over the equally pitiable Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, who suffered through their own 19-game winless streak.
The QMJHL could be the overall winner with ugliest incident from 2010 with the elbow then-Rouyn-Noranda star Patrice Cormier leveled on Quebec Remparts defenceman Mikael Tam during a game on Jan. 17. The QMJHL suspended Cormier for the remainder of the season and the playoffs, for the hit that left Tam unconscious and convulsing on the ice. Cormier, who captained Team Canada at the world junior championships, was also charged with assault, pled guilty and was eventually given an unconditional discharge. There were more ugly hits in the WHL with Americans forward Brendan Shinimin becoming a reluctant hit on YouTube for his horrifying hit-from-behind on Saskatoon’s Josh Nicholls during a game on Oct. 6. Nicholls suffered a concussion and a bruised back and Shinnimin was suspended for 12 games by the league.
A month later it was Vancouver defenceman Wes Vannieuwenhuizen who was suspended seven games for another bad hit from behind on Edmonton’s Robin Soudek. The OHL had its share of ugliness with forward Zack Kassian’s 20-game suspension for levelling Barrie’s Matt Kennedy with an open-ice hit while the Colts player was in a vulnerable position without possession of the puck. There were also a few bench clearing brawls, none bigger than the one between Eastern Conference rivals Barrie and Sudbury in which coaches Marty Williamson (Barrie) and Mike Foligno (Sudbury) had to come onto the ice to help the officials restore peace at the end of the game. On the business side, the CHL’s initiative to overhaul its online network got off to a rocky start as the “largest ever Canadian sports online network” was one online mess when it launched in September.