By Sharie Epp
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2008
Dave Dakers admitted to being “a little bummed out,” after the Salmon Kings bowed out of the Kelly Cup playoffs with a Game 5 loss to the Utah Grizzlies on Sunday. At the same time, the team president still had a smile on his face.
While being eliminated 4-1 in the best-of-seven ECHL National Conference semifinal was obviously not the ideal finish, Dakers said it was impossible not to be happy with the season.
“In light of an 8-3 drubbing, it’s funny to be sitting here talking about great things, but I’m looking forward to next year already.”
“I just thought we’d be more successful in Utah.”
The Salmon Kings arrived in Utah on the high of a dramatic, six-goal comeback victory in Game 2, but after squandering a 5-1 lead in Game 3, the West Division champs never seemed to find their form against the end-to-end strength of the defensive minded Grizzlies.
“Throughout the playoffs, we had certain lines and certain players step up, but we never really had any consistency,” coach Mark Morrison said. “I think defensively, they did a lot of really good things. They blocked a lot of lanes, they blocked a lot of shots — they did a hell of a job in shutting us down.”
Just the fact the Salmon Kings made it to the second round, and fully believed they were capable of winning it, is an indication of how far the organization has come in its four-year life. In the first two campaigns, the Salmon Kings’ playoff hopes were done by Christmas, and recruiting many high-calibre players was near impossible. Among the growing pains, the Salmon Kings fired coach Tony MacAulay in mid-season, and, at last, the turnaround began.
“It’s quite a progression,” Dakers said. “We’ve made huge strides.”
The strides included bringing in exciting players capable of scoring goals in bunches, and the fun brought the fans pouring into Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre. Over the playoffs, the Salmon Kings led all minor hockey (including the American Hockey League) in attendance, with an average of 5,851 over five games.
“In the first two years, we’d get behind 1-0, and you could have gone home,” Dakers said, comparing the past with the present, which includes the winningest season in team history, and Victoria’s first division title. “We kept to our goal of creating a first class team that’s aggressively pursuing success.”
For GM Dan Belisle, the man who was brought in three years ago to whip the organization into the shape, and get the Salmon Kings “closer to being in contention to winning the Cup, the next few months will about housekeeping. He’s the last person the players will see to talk about the future, before they head off to various home bases, or a another hockey future. He’ll try to sign as many as possible as early as possible, because the team is only able to put eight non-signed players on their protected list.
After that, the next meeting will be a staff review and discussion with Morrison on where the Salmon Kings are going as a team. Then it’s a bit of a quiet time in June and July, when the staff actually gets to take a few days off, although recruiting never ends.
Like everybody in the organization, Belisle thought the team had the talent to get to the next round, and beyond, but that’s hockey. At least Belisle gets to shave off the playoff stubble that’s been sprouting on his chin, and figure out a good place at the Memorial Centre to hang the Salmon Kings’ new West Division championship banner.
“Regardless of what happened in the playoffs, nobody’s taking that banner away,” said Belisle, also focusing on the bright side of the season. “It’ll be a tough couple of days, but I think by Wednesday, we’ll all be feeling pretty good.”