By Angela Busch
Naples Daily News
ESTERO — Less than an hour after the Florida Everblades’ season-ending loss to the Dayton Bombers in Game 7 of the American Conference Finals on Friday night, the ice was boarded over at Germain Arena. The slap, thump, boom noise of each board hitting the ice solidified the finality of the end of yet another hockey season.
The Blades weren’t ready to be done; neither were their fans, but there it was. As clear as the scoreboard, it was over.
A day later, crowded together next to their now-empty lockers, the Blades seemed subdued. Since October, many of them had been living and breathing hockey. They lived together, most of them, in team-sponsored apartments, ate most of their meals together and were each other’s closest friends.
“Every single guy in this locker room has been like a brother to me,” Blades forward Derek Damon (pictured) said after Friday’s game, realizing that the brotherhood was about to end.
The season was in many ways another banner year for the Everblades. They finished the regular season 44-22-6, winning the South Division. In the playoffs, they swept the Charlotte Checkers in three games during the first round. Then, they beat their frequent foe, the Texas Wildcatters, in the South Division Finals, four games to two. The final game of that series, a 4-3 overtime victory, ranked as one of the best wins in team history.
The series against Dayton was in many ways a wholly disappointing one for the Blades.
“We thought we had a team that would carry us through the Finals,” said team president/GM Craig Brush. “We thought we had a superior team to Dayton.”
Instead, the Bombers imposed their will on the fleeter skating Blades, who were left to wonder what might have happened had the puck just bounced differently a couple times.
“For awhile, it’s the first thing you think about when you wake up in the morning, and the last thing you think about before you go to sleep at night,” Brush said, shaking his head.
On Saturday, as they cleaned up their lockers, met with coach Gerry Fleming and had their final physicals, each player confronted his own reality of life after the season. After all, in the ECHL, there are no guarantees. Players sign one-year deals. For those players on NHL deals with the Carolina Hurricanes or Florida Panthers (the Blades’ two NHL affiliates), the chances they’ll end up back in Florida are slim. Most are hoping to move up to the AHL. Some, such as top goal scorers Vince Bellissimo and Dustin Johner, have NHL deals that end on July 1. Their futures are uncertain, and they probably won’t be back in Southwest Florida.
By the way, Fleming has another year on a two-year extension he signed last year; associate coach Jason Nobili signed a one-year extension last year.
At least one player will definitely not be returning for the Blades’ 10th season next fall. Forward Brad Parsons, who had four goals and 12 assists in the playoffs as the team’s second-leading scorer, announced his retirement on Saturday. He is moving to Dallas to earn his MBA at Southern Methodist University. His wife, Lizzy, just finished her MBA at Georgetown and will be moving to Dallas with Brad to start a career there. The couple has only been able to live together during the summers since getting married two years ago.
Going to business school “has always been in the back of my head,” said Parsons, a Princeton grad. “I realized halfway through this season that it would probably be my last year.”
He admitted that the adjustment to life after hockey would be a difficult one.
“Honestly, I really don’t know what I’m gonna do,” he said. “I’m gonna miss just being in the locker room, being with the guys.”
Year in and year out, the Blades do continue to make the playoffs with a cast of talent that varies greatly from year to year. But next season could bring even more signficant changes, starting with veterans Ernie Hartlieb, Reggie Berg, Ryan Brindley and Brent McDonald. All are married and have settled in Southwest Florida. They have said they don’t want to play for any other team and are at the point in their lives where they don’t want to move.
Each has been an integral part of the Everblades’ tradition: Berg since 1999, McDonald since 2000 — with a break to play in Europe in ’05 — Brindley since ’03 and Hartlieb since ’04. This season, Berg became the Blades’ all-time leading scorer with an assist on April 1 at Pensacola. He became the team’s all-time leading goal scorer on Feb. 28 vs. South Carolina. But Berg, plagued by injuries throughout his career, missed all but two playoff games due to more health problems. Last week, he missed the Blades series in Dayton because he had to go to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for surgery.
After earning those accolades this season, and battering his body throughout years of hockey, it seems unlikely Berg would return for next season, though he has not made an official decision yet.
Deciding with him is Brindley, Berg’s closest friend on the team and another player who is considering retirement.
“At this point in my life, there are a lot of variables,” Brindley said on Saturday. He and his wife have two young children, one 2-and-a-half years old and the other just 1-year-old. Berg’s children are approximately the same ages.
“Last night’s game, it was just so emotional … so draining … it’s gonna take a couple weeks to settle in before I can think clearly about next season,” he said. “I do love playoff hockey. You get to see what kind of player, what kind of person you are … it’s the reason I still play the game.”
McDonald is also uncertain.
“I had a lot of fun playing this year … and I’ve been here for six years now,” he said. “This is my home.” Whether that home includes another year of Everblades hockey remains to be seen. For now, McDonald is concentrating on a new business venture. He will run a sports-specific training facility at Germain Arena starting in July, which will feature a treadmill built for hockey players that uses real ice.
For his part, Hartlieb has another team to focus on before his Everblades future is determined. He got a call Friday night to play in the World Championships of inline hockey. The tournament is in Germany, and Hartlieb leaves on Monday. He has played with the U.S. inline hockey team for the past five years.
“They called me last night after the game,” he said. “They said, ‘Sorry bout the game Ern, but we really need you.'”
He got his plane tickets in the mail on Saturday morning.
Johner, by nearly all accounts the Blades’ fastest skater, scored two shorthanded goals to help the Blades win a thrilling Game 6 against Dayton on Thursday at Germain Arena and force the decisive Game 7. His contract with the Florida Panthers is now up, and he’ll spend the summer trying to catch on with an NHL team. He said the Panthers reps told him to take a few weeks to relax after the season, and then they’d be back in touch.
“Hopefully I can go to some camps and work out with some teams,” Johner said of his summer plans. “Otherwise, I have a trainer at home … that may be all it is. I also need to gain some weight.”
First, he has a 55-hour drive home to Alberta, Canada — all by himself.
“I might fly someone down to drive with me,” he said, seeming to realize the magnitude of the trip. “That’s a long, long drive.”
Johner played 36 games with the Everblades last season and 67 this year, missing just two games on a call-up to the AHL’s Rochester Americans.
“You don’t get a chance very often to get a group of guys like this together,” he said. “I’ll remember how exciting it was to come to the rink every day … how much fun we had together.”
Johner’s statements echoed the sentiments in the locker room as a whole, a feeling that with the season ending, a camaraderie, a bond had ended, too. The loss had undermined a Florida Everblades team that melded talent and heart — a team that somehow, sadly, couldn’t do what everyone, including the Blades themselves, expected in the playoffs.
As Johner said, it’s not often a team like that comes together. It’s also not often that all of an ECHL team’s affiliates exit the playoffs before it does, as the Blades’ NHL and AHL affiliates did this year. That allowed players such as David Brine, Mike Card and Chris Lee to come down to the Blades for the final two games against Texas, plus the Dayton series.
Card, who has no official affiliation with the Everblades but was loaned from Buffalo, will in all likelihood not return. He played just 15 games with the Blades this season, 50 with the AHL’s Rochester Americans and four with the NHL’s Sabres.
Lee, the skilled slap-shooter who scored in overtime to put the Blades past Texas in that decisive Game 6, is hoping to get an AHL contract next season. He started this year with the Everblades but then was loaned to the AHL’s Omaha Knights, where he played 32 regular-season games and scored 17 regular-season points, adding three goals in the six playoff games.
Lee said his final talks with the Knights went well, but the decision if he’s given a contract with them will be up to the NHL’s Calgary Flames GM, Darryl Sutter. The Flames are the Knights’ NHL affiliate.
A big question mark in the offseason will be forward Dan Baum, whom the Blades tried to get throughout the season and finally acquired in a trade on Dec. 21. He played just five regular-season games and two playoff games once acquired, though, stemming partially from a three-game suspension on April 3 due to a comment made in a game against the Texas Wildcatters. Baum was a healthy scratch throughout most of the playoffs, and then he missed the final player/coaches meetings on Saturday after he was left at the team apartment building without a ride.
Fleming did speak with Baum over the phone, though no decisions have been made about Baum’s future with the team.
The oft-penalized forward is undoubtedly the Blades’ most physical player.
Brush said he’s “not confident at all” about the return of goalies Craig Kowalski and David Shantz to the Blades. Kowalski’s contract with the Carolina Hurricanes expired this year, and Shantz is in the first year of his contract with the Florida Panthers. Kowalski finished the regular season as one of the ECHL’s top goalies, finishing fourth with a .918 saves percentage and ninth with a goals against average of 2.61. Shantz had a 2.96 goals against average in 23 games for the Blades this season and was the club’s lone All-Star.
“I think they’ve both proven that they should get a chance to play in the (AHL),” Brush said.
For the rest of the team, some who are on NHL contracts and some who just saw the expiration of their one-year ECHL or AHL contracts, the future is all-too uncertain. For most, the furthest ahead they can see is the long drive back to their homes in Canada or the northern U.S. Most voiced a desire to move up to the AHL, but if they stay in the ECHL, they want to remain in Florida.
“In the ECHL, this is the place to be,” defenseman Steve Czech said.
The uncertainty for the players mostly means a lot of waiting around to see what decisions might be made by various coaches and general managers. For Fleming and Brush, the uncertainty means a summer of hard work.
“There will be lots of pounding the phones,” as Fleming puts it. He and Brush will travel extensively to scout players, as well.
Next season will be the 10th year of the Blades franchise, and it’s clear that 10th year could bring lots of changes. Brush promises the Blades will still set themselves up to win the Kelly Cup each year.
“Each year we’re expected to do well, to go far in the playoffs, and we will keep doing that … we’ll keep coming back until we get the Cup,” he said. “As I sat there Friday night with about five minutes left and watched it disappear, while almost every seat at Germain Arena stayed filled, I just felt so bad for our fans.”
The scene at Germain Arena is much different than that just one day after the heart-breaking loss. Now, for the Blades, the scene is more heart-wrenching. The ice has been covered with turf to welcome the Florida Firecats arena football team. A few Blades playoff posters have been covered with footprints around the arena concourses. The penalty box, the boards, which so many players slammed their bodies into with abandon throughout the season, have all disappeared.
As the players trudge out of meetings with Fleming, they too start to disappear, some of them for good. But as Brush says, the Blades — the team that has brought hockey to sunny Southwest Florida and captivated kids enough to convince some of them to trade their high-tops for skates — well in some form or another, the Blades will be back.
In four and a half months, to be exact.