Blaze Player Interview – Mike Quesnele

Italian-Canadian Michael Quesnele was one of the more unheralded signings this summer, entering into his first professional season with the Blaze after spells in the OHL with Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL) and Lakehead University from the Canadian University League. But with nine seasons and the age of 26, he comes with plenty of experience, “The University league is a little better (than the OHL), the guys are a little smarter and old. The biggest difference when you come up to the pro leagues is size and speed. The guys are smarter, usually in the right position and the game is a little bit quicker. I’m not the biggest guy but the pace is definitely quicker. At the same time though, you’re playing with better guys. It makes the transition a little easier.

It’s not just the players that are different as well, it’s the rinks on which we play over here, “Big Olympic-size ice is different and is pretty rare back home. Defensively, you want to keep everything outside the dots. On the bigger rinks, if you get caught on the outside, there’s so much room in the middle for guys to make plays. I like the bigger ice, I feel like I have some extra time to make plays coming out (in transition). In a small rink, you might be able to run and throw a hit but in the big rinks, you need to back off.”

Backing off is not something that seems to be part of Quesnele’s game. Despite his stature, he is very much involved in the physical side of the game, “When I was younger, I was the biggest guy on the team; I just stopped growing! I always played the physical game and as a defenceman, it’s got to be part of your game. I’ve kind of always played a harder game and try to contribute up front as best I can.”

Contributing up front hasn’t been a problem and Quesnele has been a key part of the powerplay to date. “Goalscoring-wise I’ve been fortunate with getting a couple of goals and how they’ve gone in. It’s been good but the other guys are starting to get hot now so I’m sure they’ll start scoring a few now. As long as I can chip in, contribute and help the team, it’s a good thing. Since Major Junior I’ve always been a powerplay guy. Chuck called me over the summer and said that he wanted me to contribute up front. He said he liked the way I played with my size and wanted me to bring that element. Playing the powerplay is something I’ve always done and something I take a lot of pride in doing.”

After leaving Lakehead, it seems that joining the Blaze was just meant to be, “I had some opportunities to play professionally after major junior but I wanted to get my education instead and have something to fall back on. I knew that I wanted to continue playing after my education and Europe-wise, this was my best fit. I had a little bit of history with Chuck (Weber) and I’ve played with guys like (Josh) Godfrey before, so it worked well.”

That history with Weber was joining him for the latter portion of a season on an amateur try-out with Cinncinati Cyclones (ECHL). “That year, our team in junior finished last and missed the playoffs. It was my second-to-last year, I was fortunate to get the opportunity and get called up to Cincinnati and I guess he liked what he saw and kept me around for the playoffs. Normally it is guys who have just played their last year of major junior, I was kind of surprised to get the call. I had an agent at the time who did a good job and found me a spot. We had a good run but lost in the conference finals; it was a great experience for my career to see what it was like to be a pro. I guess he (Chuck) kept tabs on me and sent me email in the off-season. I was pretty happy about that!”

Quesnele sums up the season so far well, “It’s been a tough start for us and we weren’t scoring goals. We had that crazy game against Belfast where we lost 10-8 and we’re putting pucks in the net now. Our powerplay is going now and the guys are coming together. Beating Nottingham at home was a huge step forward for us, a big character win and now I think we’re going to be successful moving forward.”

Them Over There – Paul Thompson

Towards the end of the 2012-13 EIHL season, Paul Thompson announced he was to step down as the Head Coach of the Coventry Blaze to take up a position with Troja-Ljungby. It was a difficult decision, particularly as at the time he was the longest serving Head Coach in European ice hockey with strong, emotional ties to the club. After two seasons in Europe, one in Sweden and the other in Denmark with Aalborg, Thompson will return to the Skydome as the man in charge of the Sheffield Steelers bench.

“I’ve been away for two years and I felt that the Coventry side of my life was over, certainly the coaching side. From the day I signed with Troja, I pretty much cut all ties with the business side of things. Sheffield came to me and I started looking at the family, the fact that they were in the Champions League (CHL) and once I got speaking to Tony (Smith, Sheffield Steelers Owner) and he outlined where he wanted to be. I sat down with my wife and my kids and we looked at the whole situation and what was on offer at Sheffield and I was quite excited about that opportunity”

It’s not often you join a team in a management capacity after they’ve just won a league championship, but it’s the situation Thompson finds himself in with the Steelers. “There’s been a lot of changes – I’ve brought in a lot of changes too. I think the league is changing and the evolution of hockey in GB is changing and he (Tony) wanted me to spearhead that here. From the hockey point of view, I’m the General Manager. I asked for certain things to happen and I would implement them. Prior to signing, I wanted his backing on that and 100%, he wanted the same things as well.”

Part of that evolution is a shift from 3-line hockey to 4-line hockey. How much influence that will have this season is currently unknown, but right now there is a lot of talk (and action) in that area and it’s being led by the teams in the CHL, Sheffield being one of them. “In the CHL, you have to have that. They run 13 forwards and 7 D, or 8 D and 12 forwards and if one of them goes down, one pops up from their U20s, they have the mechanism to just keep bringing them through.”

This of course has a knock on effect in the EIHL, “The league is changing. It’s now six defencemen, it used to be five but now it’s six with a seventh rolling in. And hopefully that’s an opportunity to get more British kids involved as the rosters are getting bigger. Your best players still get their minutes whether it’s a 3-line league or a 4-line league. It’s a myth that you don’t. The shifts are shorter and the players are fresher. You’re not pacing yourself because you get that recovery time. More importantly, the product to the fans is way better because you keep the speed and the tenacity in games.”

The reason for a strong line up though isn’t being driven by the CHL. Whilst that’s a good competition to be involved in, the realism is that the EIHL campaign is main focus, and of course what the fans are interested in. “You take this job and you’re given a budget and there’s an expectation that you’ll be in the mix for everything. I want the team to win every game and every trophy but the league is a different animal now. There’s probably six teams who are genuine contenders right now.” Having a close league may well add even more to the EIHL product alongside the strength-in-depth as more games become important games, which ultimately are the games players want to play in and fans want to watch.

You only have to spend five minutes in the company of Paul Thompson to know that he still feels a huge attachment to the Blaze. Though in that five minutes, you’ll also realise that he’s absolutely committed to putting the Sheffield Steelers in first place above anyone else, Midlands-based or otherwise. Which was arguably why he was so successful here in the first place. We wish him luck in the future, just not on September 12th. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

This article was published in the September 2015 issue of the Coventry Blaze magazine, OnFire.

March / April 2005

The six week period in March and April 2005 will live long in the memories of many Blaze fans. Having already secured the Challenge Cup trophy, the main prize of the League Championship was next on the agenda. With two games against the London Racers at the start of the month, the title was secured on the 6th March and presented on the home Skydome ice after a big 5-1 win. The importance of this can’t be understated as it allowed a rest for netminder Jody Lehman in preparation of the playoffs; back-up Dan Shea started both games away in Belfast the following weekend and performed admirably.

The playoffs in 2005 had a considerably different structure. The top 6 teams in the league were drawn into two groups of three and played a total of eight games, two at home and two away against each of the two opponents. This generated a bit of rivalry and spark between the sides.

Having already played three times in March, tensions were running high between the struggling Racers and the Blaze on March 23rd. Eric Cairns, having had enough of Andre Payette’s irritations, took a wild slash at the Canadian forward. Referee Andy Carson called a penalty, and in the process of showing his disgust, Cairns bumped Carson earning a 10 minute misconduct. Subsequently chasing Carson, Cairns said more words that got him ejected. He then went on the rampage, hitting linesman Tom Darnell and then launching at Payette on the bench.

The ensuing bench clearance saw several fights, but someone needed to stop Cairns. Wade Belak was probably the only man able to do this, and he stepped up and fought the Racers enforcer until he calmed down (to a point). You can find it on Youtube, if you’ve not already seen it. In a rare moment of thanks from referee to player, Carson only called Belak for 2 mins roughing for helping bring Cairns to order when he rightfully could’ve called a significantly longer penalty.

The Blaze qualified for the playoff semi-finals for the first time in the top flight and cruised to a 3-0 victory in the semi-final against the defending champions, Sheffield. Goals from Dan Carlson, Tom Watkins and Joel Poirier highlighted one of the key Blaze strengths, scoring and offense from every line whilst maintaining defensive responsibility.

The final was against Nottingham in Nottingham, so despite Blaze being the “home team” they didn’t really have that advantage. Having only beaten Panthers once in the four playoff games, Nottingham were confident that they could be the team that stopped the Blaze march to the Grand Slam. Neal Martin jumped up into the play early in the 2nd period to score and give Coventry the lead, only for NHLer Nick Boynton to equalise for the Panthers just moments later.

The game went into the overtime and with the nerves jangling in the stands, the scene was set and the script was written. Ex-Panther and Blaze captain, Ashley Tait, received a cross ice pass from Jozef Lukac that put him into space on the right wing. He entered the zone, faked netminder Ladislav Kudrna and shot glove side and in to win the Grand Slam. The celebrations started in Nottingham and ended in Coventry a few days later. Paul Thompson commented at the end of season party that, “This doesn’t happen very often. This group of players are a very special team.” He was absolutely 100% correct.

League:

1st March 2005 – London Racers 2 – 3 Coventry Blaze (OT)
6th March 2005 – Coventry Blaze 5 – 1 London Racers
11th March 2005 – Belfast Giants 6 – 6 Coventry Blaze (OT)
12th March 2005 – Belfast Giants 5 – 6 Coventry Blaze (OT)

Playoffs:

19th March 2005 – London Racers 2 – 3 Coventry Blaze
20th March 2005 – Coventry Blaze 7 – 1 Nottingham Panthers
23rd March 2005 – Coventry Blaze 5 – 2 London Racers
26th March 2005 – Coventry Blaze 3 – 3 Nottingham Panthers
27th March 2005 – London Racers 1 – 4 Coventry Blaze
28th March 2005 – Nottingham Panthers 1 – 1 Coventry Blaze
31st March 2005 – Coventry Blaze 2 – 0 London Racers
2nd April 2005 – Nottingham Panthers 5 – 4 Coventry Blaze
Semi-Final: 9th April 2005 – Coventry Blaze 3 – 0 Sheffield Steelers
Final: 10th April 2005 – Coventry Blaze 2 – 1 Nottingham Panthers (OT)

 

Interview – Chuck Weber

Chuck Weber is arguably one of the most qualified head coaches ever to appear behind an Elite League bench. Two ECHL championships plus a coach of the year award, 4 seasons coaching in the American Hockey League (AHL) and a spell in the Russian Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) is an impressive CV to bring to the shores of the UK. It’s even less likely that a coach of Weber’s ability is available mid-season, but this was the position that the Blaze found themselves in. It’s not surprising that Coventry had heard of Chuck, but what did Chuck know of the EIHL?

“I knew just a little bit because of former players of mine had come over here. Guys like Rod Sarich and Greg Jacina I had in Augusta, Schmidt from Nottingham I had in Cincinnati and Colby Cohen I had in San Antonio. I knew it was more an ECHL-type league than an NHL/AHL league, smaller benches, smaller budgets. Then I looked at who were the dominant players in the league and they were all names I recognised from the ECHL, guys like Roy, Fretter and Martin.”

It was finding more about the league and the Blaze in general that convinced Chuck that Coventry was the right destination for him. “That’s one of the reasons that I took the job, it was talking to Thommo and being able to talk shop and everything else, I enjoyed that and it helped sell me on coming here. I actually turned it down originally! It was those chats with James and Thommo that convinced me that they were going to give me a chance to do things my way. They have as well, and I hope that they think that at the end of the season, the team is in a better position than when it was when I came here.”

It’s always different seeing something from the outside and then experiencing it up close. Fortunately there wasn’t much of a difference between expectation and reality. “The league’s been about on par with what I expected. I think every team night in and night out can beat any other team. I think it comes down to depth and you can tell the teams that have that little bit bigger budgets that are maybe able to cope with the injuries better. My first ten or so games here we were playing eight forwards and four defencemen.

“I think (the injuries) are partially on the short benches, but it’s also on the players to stay up with their maintenance and take care of their bodies. But hockey’s a physical game and guys just get hurt. Some teams get it worse than others and you’ll find that it’s always one position you get hit hard. One year you might not be able to keep a defenceman healthy but have a full set of forwards, the next year it might be the forwards instead.”

One of the bigger changes for Chuck is the lack of a supporting cast in terms of assistant coaches. Across the board, the EIHL does not have the luxury that the AHL or the KHL has in terms of having a ‘coaching team’. “It’s been a little different working by myself. This is the first time in my coaching career that I’ve never had help. So that’s been an adjustment, because I’m used to having somebody that I can bounce ideas off and be the buffer between myself and the players. Now I find myself having to be the nice guy and the hammer at the same time!”

Fighting with injuries and support would make you think that it’s been a hard slog for Weber. Not quite the case. “I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s a totally different style of hockey with the focus on the league. You manage things differently including the players. From my standpoint, it’s been a great education on how to maximise this group’s talent and this group’s potential and I think from the record we’re starting to show that we can do that.”

It’s difficult to predict what will happen in the future, particularly in fast moving professional sports like hockey. Whether Weber is still here come August is yet to be seen, but the legacy that he leaves behind in terms of coaching practice, training habits and general hockey knowledge will last a long time.

The playoffs are worth it

The glimmer of hope that the Challenge Cup gave has now faded, with the Cardiff Devils the worthy winners over the two legged semi-final played last month. With honours in the league a distant memory as well, the focus of the Blaze now shifts to the remaining piece of silverware on offer, the playoffs.

There are a lot of people who knock the playoffs; they’d like longer tournament with a best of five or seven series and more emphasis put on the trophy. That would be great, don’t get me wrong. I like playoff hockey. The intensity is raised a notch. But the infrastructure around the league across all 10 clubs just doesn’t support that at this moment in time.

You’ll notice that in the review of March and April 2005, the playoffs were played in a group format. It’s not a bad idea, but that format led to a lot of ‘dead rubber’ games where teams had qualified for the final weekend or were eliminated. So that isn’t an ideal solution either.

So we are where we are with the playoffs. It’s a good end of season tournament and the players will want to win it, because they are professionals. It’s still a trophy and it’s a route into European club hockey and therefore should be taken seriously, no matter what the format is.

Belief

Belief is everything.

If you can’t believe in yourself when you are trying to achieve something, then no-one else will either.

And that is what Coach Chuck Weber has instilled into the Blaze players, a little bit of belief in their own abilities. The majority of this side is the team that Weber inherited on arrival that looked done and dusted for the season.

Since then, Coventry have resurrected their season in the Challenge Cup and are now pushing hard to maintain a playoff spot in the league standings. This calendar year, they have beaten Nottingham, Cardiff and Braehead – all teams at the top of the table.

The home weekend against Belfast followed straight away by the Challenge Cup semi final first leg will be a true test on how far the Blaze have come since Weber’s arrival. Two close defeats in Belfast came at the start of Chuck’s reign and now he will look to turn that around on home ice, welcoming the currently inconsistent but ultimately very dangerous Giants to the Skydome.

There have been some additions with Jim Jorgensen and Vladimir Nikiforov joining the side. Both players seem to fit the need in terms of offensive creativity, but also leave the coach with another problem. With everybody fit, there are two too many imports – so who does he sit out? Ultimately that may be decided on game day fitness as much as anything else, with a lot of games to be played in the run up to the playoffs.

That’s all you need entering the playoffs – a healthy side and a little belief.

February 2005

Silverware was on offer in February 2005 for the Coventry Blaze with the Challenge Cup final against Cardiff, but with eleven games on the slate in total, the side could not afford to be distracted by the cup and take their eye off the league campaign.

The run up to the first leg of the cup final was pretty smooth; wins against Sheffield, Nottingham and a warm-up event against Cardiff were only tempered by a narrow defeat on a long trip up to Dundee. The Blaze went in to the tie as favourites and had every reason to be confident.

The first period was a tight affair. Goals from Adam Calder and Tom Watkins for Coventry and Rob DavIson for Cardiff saw the Blaze take a 2-1 lead into the second period. The Blaze shifted a couple of gears for the second and extended the lead to 5-1; Chris McNamara, Wade Belak and Ashley Tait picking up the goals. A final goal in the third period for Joel Poirier confirmed an emphatic 6-1 lead after the first leg.

Always keen to keep the side on an even keel, Coach Paul Thompson pointed out in his post-match press conference that it was only halfway through a 120 minute game and his focus now was solely on the league campaign and the two games at the weekend. A comfortable road win down in Hampshire against Basingstoke followed by a home win against Belfast continued the Blaze’s good form.

An exodus of fans and players on coaches left the Midlands for Wales on the 24th of February 2005 with a mixture of hope and expectation. Yes, a five goal lead was strong but not insurmountable and it wasn’t so long ago that the Blaze had been runners up in every competition they entered. Gamesmanship from the Devils came from the outset, refusing entry to the rink to the team when they arrived and leaving them waiting on the ice for an age before starting the game.

It was a physical affair, with Andre Payette and the Devils’ John Craighead fighting from the off and both being ejected before the end of the first period. Goals came too as Jon Cullen and Dave Matsos scored for Cardiff with Tait splitting them with a marker for Coventry and the period finished 2-1. Cardiff continued to throw everything at Coventry in the 2nd period and took the game to 4-1 with goals from Nathan Rempel and Vezio Sacratini before Thompson called a timeout to allow the Blaze time to cool off.

More fighting occurred as Belak was thrown out for beating up (and down) on Russ Romaniuk after the forward had cynically targeted Neal Martin’s damaged shoulder with a heavy hit. The British core of the side showed their worth as Russ Cowley scored on the PP, followed up by Tom Watkins bringing the game to 4-3. From then on, there was only ever one team in it. A long, hopeful blast from outside the zone from Jozef Lukac went in early in the third. Coventry sealed the victory on the night with young forward Bari McKenzie, on a two-way contract, picking up the winner. Not many people noticed him score it however as a fight broke out as the goal went in seeing Graham Schlender ejected. McKenzie even had a job convincing some of his own team mates that he’d scored!

The Blaze fans went into rapture at the final buzzer; they filled an entire end at the old Welsh National Ice Rink and the celebrations lasted a long time in Cardiff and back all the way to Coventry. Coventry had successfully won its first trophy at the top level of ice hockey in the UK and had its sights firmly set on securing the next two. Only a day’s rest was possible before taking on Nottingham and Fife at the weekend, taking the full four points and putting themselves in the driving seat in the league.

2nd February 2005 – Sheffield Steelers 1 – 2 Coventry Blaze
5th February 2005 – Coventry Blaze 4 – 2 Cardiff Devils
6th February 2005 – Dundee Stars 1 – 0 Coventry Blaze (XO)
13th February 2005 – Coventry Blaze 3 – 1 Nottingham Panthers
16th February 2005 – Coventry Blaze 6 – 1 Cardiff Devils (CC)
19th February 2005 – Basingstoke Bison 2 – 6 Coventry Blaze
20th February 2005 – Coventry Blaze 2 – 1 Belfast Giants
24th February 2005 – Cardiff Devils 4 – 5 Coventry Blaze (CC)
26th February 2005 – Nottingham Panthers 0 – 3 Coventry Blaze
27th February 2005 – Coventry Blaze 4 – 3 Fife Flyers (OT, XO)