With the exception of last April, remembering that I didn't have this blog in 2005, this is my least favorite entry to post. The end of the season. Thud. Over. One day you're playing and planning a return trip to Knoxville. The next you're at home wondering how a season could go by so quickly.
This has been one of the most trying seasons of the 9 that I've been privileged to cover the Cottonmouths. Last night, in a classic understatement, Derek Pallardy called it 'dealing with a lot of adversity'. I'd say that about sums it up.
The way I see it, things were normal for 7 games. 7 out of 56...that's not so great. Early season growing pains, ups and downs, integrating the rookies into the lockerroom and lineup. Through Nov. 20, the Snakes were 2-4-1 and on a three-game losing streak. Nothing to be concerned about, right? Three games in the course of a long season are pretty insignificant. Then the team went to Biloxi on the day before Thanksgiving.
The season was irrevocably changed on Nov. 21, though nobody knew it at the time. On that night against the Surge, co-captain Orrin Hergott, the league's longest tenured player, the Snakes' little spark plug, went down for what turned out to be the season and his career. I know some would disagree that the loss of one player could have this effect, but it did. Think about it, the Snakes were back on their heels from that moment until the horn sounded last night.
Derek's concussion occurred only 10 days later, and John Sullivan's shoulder injury and subsequent surgery were the cornerstones of this team's offensive problems. I told Jerome last night that in Knoxville on Friday I didn't even write down the lines to start the game as I always do. YOU HAVE NO LINES, I told him...lol. We both laughed. I wasn't kidding.
Hockey is a game of inches and timing is everything. You don't have to look back too far to remember the amazing timing of Orrin, Derek and Dr.-to-be Greg Beller. On this year's team, in their brief time together, John, Jordan Braid and rookie-of-the-year-to-be Matt Gingera had it. But the only way to develop and maintain the precision of a line is to practice and play together...a lot. Like day in and day out. Not for a few days until somebody else is felled by injury...UGH.
Hockey players play hurt every night. There is not a guy who left that ice last night that doesn't have something hurting. They play through it until (a) they can't handle the pain or (b) the injury seriously affects their performance. Just look at the roster to see how many position players were on the ice all 58 games. THREE. Kevin Kessler, Kyle Johnson and Sam Bowles. I know for a fact that at least one of the above has been hurt since training camp!! But they play through it, somehow.
Fortunately, both goaltenders stayed relatively healthy, though Ian Vigier was hurt late in the season. Bless his heart. Tough year for Ian. How long he's been hurt is anybody's guess because these young men, shockingly, are seldom forthcoming about injuries. :)
Significant injuries to the D included those to Tom Maldonado, Chris Bailer and Bret Tyler. Fortunately, none of the above were as serious as those to Derek, Orrin and John. But their timing was bad. First Bret sat out almost a month, then Tom and Chris missed games at the same time. Defensive pairings are very important to a team, also. With Tommy Fitzpatrick spending only 32 games here, the pairings were often jumbled like the offensive lines.
This season saw the return of Ken Porter for another cameo and we all met two other soldier Snakes, Biff McNally and Marcel Alvarez. Ya'all know I have a soft spot in my heart for all who serve our country, but I have to say, again, what a privilege it was to tell Biff's story. A young man with a Purple Heart and Snakes logo on his chest doesn't come around every day. One more reminder that soldiers are heroes, not athletes. Grateful for all they do!
Winning three games to close out the regular season gave us all hope for the post-season. Surely that momentum coupled with a full bench for the first time since January would translate into a highly-charged and equally successful series with Knoxville, right?
A confession: I got a bad feeling when the Ice Bears scored first on Friday night. Not that I thought for a second that the Snakes were throwing in the towel. No way! But in a short series, for a team that's struggling offensively, it's always good to score first. Of course, when it happened again on Saturday night, my heart dropped even faster.
I went into last night fully expected to head back to Knoxville today. My husband asked me yesterday if I'd thought about watching it on the web since I have to work tomorrow...a full day, like regular people...UGH. haha. I told him that if the boys were playing, I'd be there. There was never a question.
Last night began eerily like Friday night with a goal late in the first. Well, ya'all know how the rest of it went. The second goal was a killer. My first thought was that this hill the guys had to climb just became a mountain. Turned out, the mountain was way too steep.
As the final seconds counted down, I kept saying to myself...I hope nobody does anything foolish and nobody gets hurt. This is going to be tough enough for them to swallow. Less than a year after raising the Cup, they're not only swept but shut out in the first round.
After the horn sounded, the guys had to watch Knoxville celebrate, which of course the Ice Bears earned and well deserved. But the guys were hurting and I knew all they wanted to do was get to their locker room, a private sanctuary where they could mourn together this season of promise.
The handshake that ends a series is one of hockey's most cherished traditions. Guys who were whaling on each other minutes before become gentlemen and congratulate each other. It was good to see Orrin and John join the line as well as owner Wanda Amos and all of the support staff who do such a great job night in and night out. I noticed Tyler McCrea and Flip Weaver there. I'm sure there were others, like my pal Barney Slayton.
I couldn't help but feel badly for Brett Hammond, Mark Thorburn and Corey Bellamy, all of whom watched in street clothes, part of the team earlier in the season, but not now. Kind of a strange no-mans-land for those guys.
I also wondered which of the guys we were seeing in a Snakes' uniform for the last time. I predicted last season that many would leave and not as many moved on to the real world as I thought would do so. This season, I believe that number will not only be significant, but this team could lose some key, very skilled players. Next season will probably be a major rebuilding year for the team.
As they left the ice, emotion hit different players in various degrees. All struggled to maintain their composure. Most succeeded but a few just couldn't. It breaks my heart when they cry. I can take almost anything but the sight of these young men so disappointed and the finality of that walk to the locker room. But they'll bounce back and move on. It'll take a little time. Right now, it just plain hurts.
Thanks to Derek for talking to me after the game. Hands down my least favorite time to intrude on them. I asked for Derek and one other player to come out and only Derek did, which I really appreciated. He was calm, professional and...well, the Derek he always is.
Hate it that I won't see my pal Paul Ezell 'til next season. Paul does such a great job of protecting the referees, linesmen and me, plus acting as my timekeeper on those looooong games when I'm super pressed for time.
Don't know if anybody in the league has a loyal assistant like I do. I'll miss our pregame chats, Kevin Mills, and thanks for always getting my stat sheet to me at the end of the game.
Chris and Lori Icenhour and all of their crew do such a great job with their video work. Have heard from disinterested third parties that theirs is the best in the league and I certainly believe it!!
Will miss Snakes fans Juan Mora, Joe Searcy, Tami Neese and her sweet family and of course, my dear friends Miss Flit and Joe Simmons, Harlan, Mary Beth, Sarah and Nathan Hendricks. Dave Kessler and Danny Spencer, let me know when ya'all come down here from Newnan. Maybe we can do lunch? :)
One more post-season duty. My annual Q and A with Jerome will probably run on Sunday, so ya'all keep an eye out.
Final thanks to my editor, Kevin Price, for entrusting me with this beat and giving me a long leash on which to run...haha. He gives me support, space and splashes the great pics of the L-E photography department over the pages of the Sports section year round. I couldn't ask for more...ok, that was a lie. Occasionally I do ask for more, sadly, but I know I get way more than I deserve!
Thanks to you, my readers, who let me know that you enjoy the inside scoop on your Snakes. To the parents who enjoy this connection to keep up with their boys, know that I love being able to do that for you.
Thanks to my husband, Larry, who's in the unique position of having a wife who covers hockey...bless his heart. Larry and Reese, fortunately, are big fans and don't resent too much the time this beat takes from them. With our Lindsey enjoying her first season as a fan, this has been a good hockey year for the Gierers.
Nine seasons in the books...wow.