By Mike Griffith
Californian Staff Writer
The Bakersfield Californian
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. – There was supposed to be hockey Monday night at Rabobank Arena — Game 5 of the ECHL National Conference semifinals between the Bakersfield Condors and Alaska Aces.
Instead, the Aces are back in Anchorage, Alaska, resting and preparing for a meeting with Idaho after sweeping the Condors four games to none.
In place of a pre-game skate Monday morning, players filtered into the locker room one by one and headed into the coaching office for postseason meetings, and a hint of where they stand with the organization as it casts off a season that ended too soon and looks ahead to the next.
Late Saturday night, players lingered in the locker room long after a 3-1 loss, each dealing with the finality of the season in their own way.
“It’s very disappointing,” said center Mike Hofstrand. “The guys we have in this dressing room … we’ve battled throughout the year. The guys have always stepped up. It’s a tough loss. Especially losing four straight, that’s really tough.”
For 15-year veteran Kevin St. Jacques, the loss may have been his last. Age (36 years) and 1,065 games (including 122 playoff games) have taken a toll.
St. Jacques will attend a fire academy starting in late summer which stretches into December and could lead to a career.
“I love to play the game, I love to win,” St. Jacques said. “I’d love to end on a good note, with a championship. Every year it gets harder and harder to prepare for the season, let alone play in the season. Right now my body doesn’t want to do a thing.
“If this was my last game, I played in front of the best fans I’ve played for in my entire career.”
“You need special teams to win playoffs,” he said. “Our penalty kill was there but unfortunately our power play (0-for-32) wasn’t there. To win you need to be clicking on all cylinders and that was one part of the game we lacked.”
To be fair, the Condors were also missing some key ingredients that helped them establish a franchise high for points (94) and road wins (21). Defenseman Scott Balan blew out a knee March 7 and all-star rookie Todd Griffith broke his left hand March 13. Defenseman Andrew Oke had has season come to an early close due to a medical condition and talented, but uncommitted, center Alex Kim was suspended from the team April 7, on the morning of the penultimate regular-season game. Then, powerful center Alexandre Bolduc was recalled to the Manitoba Moose on the eve of the first playoff game against Alaska.
“Not to make excuses, but if not for injuries we probably would have battled like last year (to a Game 7) to get to the third round of the playoffs,” Condors coach Marty Raymond said. “But without Balan and Griffith and having Bolduc called up was a big blow to us.”
Griffith came back for Game 3 of the series, which Bakersfield lost 1-0 in overtime, and played in Game 4 despite re-breaking his hand during Friday night’s game.
“That’s a lesson learned,” Raymond said. “We’re just going to have to have a little more depth as we progress down the year. Whether or not we acquire an affiliation (with National Hockey League team) I think we’re going to have to prepare as if we’re without one. Then if it comes it will be like a bonus.”
The Condors had 12 returning players this year (including Scott Borders who did not play until late in the season due to injury) in an attempt to make a run for the Kelly Cup. There will be far fewer returning players next season, in part due to the ECHL rule limiting teams to four veteran players.
“You can only have four veterans and we’re going to have to make some tough decisions,” Raymond said. “Some guys have been here for a while, but we’re going to get some new blood. There’s going to be some familiar faces back but we’re going to get some new faces.
“If you don’t win a championship you try to readjust your aim to go farther. We have to find a way to get a little better.”
The process of retooling the team will soon shift into high gear, but it’s been in motion for sometime already.
“It already started about three weeks ago,” Raymond said. “It’s not that we expected the season to be over at this time, but we already started planning about what type of team we’re going to have the they guys that deserved to be back.
“Playoffs were a big indication of who should be back and not. The season is a big part of the exam, 75 percent for the year and a big 25 percent push (during playoffs). Some guys marked good in the playoffs and some didn’t.”
Raymond said he hopes to field a team very similar to this one with a few tweaks.
“We’re going to have to be a bigger team, a tougher team,” he said. “Character-wise, we need guys who won’t back down, who will work and dig in the corners. We’re a blue-collar city and we have to have even more of a blue-collar type of team.”