Some news and views while wearing out the remote control watching the Winter Olympic Games:
•The Brandon Wheat Kings are providing a perfect personality test for their followers this month. An optimistic observation is that despite their recent struggles, the Wheat Kings (28-22-6-1) are still only one win away from retaking first place in the WHL’s East Division and securing that all-important second seed in the conference and home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs. However, the pessimist points out that the Wheat Kings have slipped to seventh place overall in the conference and are floundering after having lost seven of their last nine games. In either case, a realist will note that with 15 games left and just one point separating Swift Current, Regina and Brandon, the battle for the division title and a prime playoff seed looks like it is going to go right down to the wire.
• Is it coincidence or consequence? With Latvian import Rihards Bukarts out of the lineup with an undisclosed upper-body injury, the Wheat Kings went winless (0-2-1-0) on their three-game road trip. The 18-year-old left-winger had been Brandon’s hottest scorer with points in eight straight games (six goals, five assists, 11 points) before hitting the injured list.
• Speaking of injuries, why do some WHL coaches like Kelly McCrimmon insist on continuing to describe injuries with nebulous upper-body/lower-body labels when more and more NHL teams seem to be abandoning the practice? So much for those fan-friendly heartwarming stories of players putting in gruelling hours of rehabilitation to battle back from a broken leg, as Steven Stamkos tried to do. Returning from an obscure lower-body injury doesn’t exactly inspire the same connection with a team’s fan base. You’d think that a league suffering from a drop in attendance across the league — including almost 300 per game right here in Brandon — would want to do everything possible to provide the kind of indepth information that their followers crave, to try to generate interest and put more fans in the stands.
• The numbers game: While the Wheat Kings have scored the fifth most goals (212) in the league this season, they have only one player who averages more than a point per game. If you said right-winger Peter Quenneville, go to the head of the class. The Columbus Blue Jackets draft pick has produced 16 goals and 45 points in 39 games, but does have the second-worst plus/minus on the team at -12. Other numbers of note: The Wheat Kings are not only the most disciplined and least penalized team in the WHL (709 penalty minutes), but they also punish opponents for their indiscretions. Despite going 1-for-14 with the man advantage on this week’s disappointing 0-2-1 road trip, the Wheat Kings still sport the second-best power play in the league, clicking at an impressive 25 per cent success rate.
• You don’t have to look any further than the Manitoba AAA Midget Hockey League scoring leaders to see that a heaping helping of the next generation of Wheat Kings will come with Made-in-Manitoba labels. As teams open the playoffs this weekend, four of the top eight scorers in the league are Wheat King prospects, led by scoring champion Duncan Campbell of Brandon, who topped the league in goals (39 in 44 games) and points (85). Prime prospects Nolan Patrick (33-30-63) of Winnipeg and Brandonite Tanner Kaspick (28-35-63) tied for third in league scoring, while homegrown Brandon bantam pick Ty Lewis (28-29-57) was eighth. Add in blue-chip blue-liner Kale Clague (11-18-29 in 29 games) from the Alberta AAA Midget Hockey League, among others, and the future is indeed bright for Brandon.
•We end this week with what has been a great start for Canada in the Winter Olympics. While they didn’t win a medal, Virden pairs skaters Paige Lawrence and Rudi Swiegers were quite simply a joy to watch, with Lawrence’s enthusiasm and exuberance on full display. “It’s been the experience of a lifetime,” Lawrence told reporters Wednesday.
There have already been many memorable medal moments. Here’s hoping former Brandonite Jill Officer of Canada’s women’s curling team joins the podium parade.