By Craig Westcott | The Shoreline, January 9 2019 (Vol. 31 No. 43)
They may be called the Blues, but Conception Bay South and Paradise’s senior hockey team is red hot in East Coast Senior Hockey League play this year, sitting in first place at mid-season and quietly nursing hopes of making it to the Herder play-offs.
If the CB Blues get there, they’ll face one of the rugged, semi-professional teams from the Central Newfoundland division that so far have battered and outgunned all others but the Blues in inter-divisional play. When the Blues and Grand Falls Cataracts met earlier this season, the Central squad edged the Blues 7-5, cementing the win with an empty-netter. The Blues will host the equally-skilled Gander Flyers at CBS Arena in February.
“So far, so good,” Blues head coach and general manager Jonathan Kavanagh said Tuesday of his team’s performance.
The Blues have played 11 games, winning eight, for 16 points. The Cataracts and Flyers are tied for second place with 14 points each. Clarenville is in fourth with 13 points. The Caribous are followed by the Southern Shore Breakers, St. John’s Caps and Northeast Eagles, respectively. The Blues have eight games left in their schedule with the next one not until Jan. 25. Kavanagh is hoping the players won’t be rusty after such a long break. The end of the season will see a road trip to Central.
“The Central teams are still semi-professional hockey teams, still paying 100 per cent of their rosters, they’re operating with budgets probably 10 times the size of mine,” Kavanagh allowed.
“When we met and agreed to this interlocking play, part of what they agreed to was that over the next season or two they were going to dial back to a no-paid player format. Basically they said if they just all of a sudden showed up tomorrow and weren’t paying anyone, they wouldn’t be able to ice a team, that they need to kind of slowly introduce it, slowly add some players who are more local-based. Unfortunately that hasn’t really happened… In fact, Grand Falls is probably stronger than they have been in previous years. So it’s a two-tiered system right now. We don’t pay any players, don’t provide any gear… whereas everyone on Grand Falls and Gander is paid and that’s why they play there. Gander’s best player and starting goaltender are born and raised in CBS but play out there because they get paid.”
Because there are only two teams in Central, if the East Coast teams weren’t playing them in an interlocking format, those two teams probably wouldn’t have a league, Kavanagh said. The three team West Coast league, consisting of Corner Brook, Port aux Basques and Stephenville, are registered as Senior B teams, a notch down from this league and won’t be eligible to send a team to the Herder finals.
The CB Blues are stronger than most of the other teams in their division so the contests against the Central teams are not as daunting. The Northeast Eagles, by contrast faced 81 shots and lost 8-2 when they tangled with the Cataracts last month.
“Our record so far shows that we have a chance to get out of the East (as the Herder contender) and hopefully the fans are seeing this,” Kavanagh said. “We’re definitely getting better attendance than we had in our first two years in CBS. A winning team helps with that.”
What makes the Blues better than their East Coast competition, Kavanagh said, is that the players are extremely young and extremely fast. “That’s kind of our signature, that we’re fast,” he said. “We overwhelm teams with speed, force their defense a lot, and that speed means we’re back and in a good position defensively. A couple of teams have commented to us that we’re tough to play because we’re on you so quickly. And that’s the same for our forwards and defense, we’ve pretty much got young, fast legs top to bottom… No matter who you’ve got out there, they’re coming at you with speed. Our speed and our work ethic are what’s really defined us so far this year and what’s led to our success.”
The Blues have a good number of players in the top point getters chart, led by Chris Hodge and Lucas Lush, both first year players. Forward Kyle Tibbo was off to a rocket of a start, earning 11 points in just four games and leading all scorers before suffering an injury that has kept him out ever since. Kavanagh is hoping to have Tibbo back after the break. “He’s been back practicing the last couple of weeks,” said Kavanagh. “He’s definitely a piece that will be back in the lineup for the home stretch and into the playoffs that we’re looking forward to getting back.”
Like Hodge, Tibbo is a CBS native who played college hockey on the mainland. Tibbo was also a team leader in Junior A hockey on the mainland. Defenseman Riley Baggs, also a CBS native, has mainland junior A experience too.
“Fifteen of the players who have suited up this year are from CBS, plus we have had four Junior players called up who are CBS natives,” Kavanagh noted. “Its also fair to say that the team is benefiting from a great local Junior feeder system that has produced a number of great players for us, including Stephen Ledrew, Ryan Power, Michael Lawrence and Luke Peddle, just to name a few.”
It marks a big difference from last year, when at the start of the season the Blues had 12 rookies in the lineup. “This time last year we might have had two or three wins,” said Kavanagh. “However, I think in our last six regular season games we won five of them, so we came on towards the end of the year… And we’ve pretty much got all of our core guys back from last year and we were lucky enough to add Tibbo and Hodge, and Lush and Baggs. We basically took what was a solid core last year and improved it significantly with some young guys from CBS.
Having played a close game against Grand Falls, Kavanagh said the Blues are looking forward to meeting Gander for the first time. “They’re supposed to be the favourite here,” he said.
“Realistically they should be able to come in and beat us. They’re a semi-pro hockey team paying their players. But we’re pretty confident that we’ve put together a very strong team and kind of feel that we might be able to give them a little surprise if we play as we have been playing.”