"Slap Shot" meets "A Season on the Brink" in this twisted tale of minor league hockey in the place with more pro teams than any place in North America: TEXAS!



October 16, 2002
Cup or bust
CHL teams ready to embark on meaningful regular season


By JASON COHEN
Faceoff.com correspondent
Guess which league has the best playoff format of all the minor pro loops?

Not the WCHL, which advances four teams out of six (an improvement over last year, when all eight clubs made it). Not the ECHL, which takes 18 out of 27 and has that wacky one-game play-in. Not the UHL, where 8 out of 10 are in the hunt. Even the AHL is unconventional: 20 out of 28, with a best-of-three first round for eight lower-seeded teams.

So give it up for the Central Hockey League, which takes the lowest ratio of qualifiers (8 of 16) and offers fans the most straightforward ride: a best-of-five first round followed by a pair of best-of-sevens. Four division winners get an automatic bid, with two at-large teams from each conference.

Two, three, or even four good clubs get squat. Some might say that's bad, excluding markets from playoff excitement in a business that's all about crowd-pleasing, but the reward is an unusually relevant regular season, right from the first month.

The 2002-2003 campaign begins October 17, with a 64-game schedule that finishes March 18. On paper, five clubs can almost count on playing after that, including last season's four division winners and conference finals loser Bossier-Shreveport. Five more teams are on the inside track for playoff action, and another four could scrape into the mix. Here's how the Ray Miron President's Cup chase breaks down:

CUP OR BUST - These teams will call their year a failure if they don't get to the finals.

MEMPHIS RIVERKINGS.

Coach: Doug Shedden (third season).

Last year: first place, Northeast.

Repeating's tough, but Shedden's done it before (with Wichita). MVP Don Parsons leads a dangerous forward group that also includes Michal Stastny (nephew of Peter), who had four GWs in Memphis' last eight playoff wins (all in one-goal games). Former CHL defenseman of the year Derek Landmesser returns after one season away, while battle-tested keeper Mark Richards is joined by Toronto prospect J.F. Racine.

AUSTIN ICE BATS.

Coach: Brent Hughes (fourth season).

Last year: first place, Southeast.

Hockey Confucius say: Cup-winners must feel the pain of character-building humiliation before they taste success. Ice Bats say: two seasons of character-building is enough, thanks. The "STP Fuel Line" (CHL points champ Dan Price, top assists man Brett Seguin and fourth leading scorer Gerald Tallaire) leads the charge, but to measure up to Memphis, Hughes added defense, goaltending (Matt Barnes, a cup-winner with the Amsterdam Tigers last season) and toughness.

OKLAHOMA CITY BLAZERS.

Coach: Doug Sauter (eighth season).

Last year: first place, Northwest.

The league's dynasty franchise (10 straight playoff berths) almost reminds one of the Red Wings. Astounding depth, including living legend Joe Burton (519 career goals), explosive Marty Standish, new additions Jonathan DuBois and Blair Manning and blue-line scoring machine Hardy Sauter. Sure to be more focused after last year's post-championship hangover, but goaltending is more Vernon/Osgood than Hasek/Joseph.

BOSSIER-SHREVEPORT MUDBUGS.

Coach: Scott Muscutt (third season).

Last year: second place, Northeast (playoff team).

After three straight WPHL titles the Bugs hung around .500 early in its first CHL effort, then returned to form in March and frightened Memphis in a semi-final that was closer than the cup round. Ken Carroll and Jonathan Forest form the league's best goalie tandem; experienced core (Dan Wildfong, Mark Rupnow, Jim Sprott, Trevor Buchanan, Jason Campbell) gets whole squad buying in to Muscutt's system.

ODESSA JACKALOPES.

Coach: Don McKee (fourth season).

Last year: first place, Southwest.

Speaking of systems... Odessa will find out whether it's the trap or the personnel, breaking in ten new players along with last season's Goalie of the Year Mike Gorman and top blueliner Scott Hillman. Even with more offense they won't have another 100-point year, but getting past the first round of the playoffs is what matters.

PLAYOFF SCHEMERS - The favorites for the three remaining spots.

TULSA OILERS.

Coach: Garry Unger (seventh season).

Last year: second place, Northwest.

One year ago, a very good second-half team until it mattered most. If the blue line comes together, the Oilers ought to fix that, thanks to goaltender Rod Branch, returning forwards Chris Johnston and Pat Hallett and new arrival Todd Marcellus, who played for Unger in New Mexico. So did talented defenseman Regan Harper, but his health is still in doubt.

NEW MEXICO SCORPIONS.

Coach: Pat Dunn (first season).

Last year: fourth place, Southwest.

Dunn brought back goalie Luciano Caravaggio and assembled all kinds of up-front weaponry, including Tobin Praznik (50 goals for Corpus Christi in '98-'99), Peter Brearley (44 for Topeka in '00-'01) and holdovers Peter Ambroziak, Tyler Baines and Chris Richards. Could gel into greatness if the overall defensive ethic is different from the Martino Era.

LUBBOCK COTTON KINGS.

Coach: Bill McDonald (third season).

Last year: third place, Southwest.

Four time champion "Macker" (once in the CHL and three times in the pre-UHL Colonial league) won't miss the playoffs two years in a row. Defense has both stability (James Sheehan, Derek Holland) and flash (Barry McKinlay, Gatis Tseplis); Jan Melicherchik and Blaz Emersic are the skill guys in a sea of grit. Neil Savary returns in goal.

SAN ANGELO SAINTS.

Coach: Brent Scott (second season).

Last year: third place, Southeast.

Most likely to have a Cinderella season: big-hearted team with devoted fans in league's smallest market escapes the clutches of evil owner, takes advantage of the void left by defunct San Antonio and works a playoff upset.

More overall toughness than last season and a gamebreaker in Jamie Thompson, but depth and goaltending don't compare to other conference teams.

FORT WORTH BRAHMAS.

Coach: Todd Lalonde (third season).

Last year: third place, Northeast (playoff team).

The underdog of the group, with more questions than answers. Can a team that's almost 50% 21 and 22 year-olds form a winning squad? Is one top line (sniper Kyle Reeves, underrated Joe Van Volsen and whoever) enough if the second scores its share of ugly goals? Is Lalonde the coach who went 90-39-10 his first two WPHL seasons (for Waco and Central Texas) or the guy who's closer to .500 in three years since? The last-minute return of d-man Mike Tilson will help. Matt Mullin steps in for departed all-star goalie Kory Cooper.

PLAYOFF DREAMERS - Four clubs which made significant improvements. Now they have to do it on the ice.

WICHITA THUNDER.

Coach: Jim Latos (second season).

Last year: third place, Northwest.

With a rebuilt "D" and last year's top minor league scorer Jeff Petruic (57 Gs, 57 As) joining Travis Clayton, Jason Duda and Tom Gomes up front, the Thunder may have a shot at overtaking Tulsa and Fort Worth.

INDIANAPOLIS ICE.

Coach: Ken McRae (first season).

Last year: fourth place, Northeast.

If anyone can recruit a winning club almost from scratch, it's former Ice Bats assistant and NHL/IHL player McRae, who also knows a thing or two about team D. Bernie John anchors the blue line; newcomer Randy Holmes will be familiar to WPHL fans from his year in Waco with Lalonde.

AMARILLO GORILLAS.

Coach: Joe Ferras (second season).

Last year: fourth place, Northwest.

The only WPHL team to never make the playoffs, Amarillo added to that streak in the CHL last season. Shedding the Rattlers name may end the curse, but a 20-25 game turnaround is much to ask. Adding all-star d-men Mark DeSantis and Brandon Carper as well as winger Henry Kuster is a start; Dorian Anneck (44 Gs) leads the offense.

CORPUS CHRISTI ICE RAYS.

Coach: Al Sims (first season).

Last year: fourth place, Southeast.

Sims will crack the whip while his team smothers opponents on the Igloo's tiny ice. Talent was not the problem last season; now the Rays have more of it, including ex-Iguanas goalie Brent Belecki, newcomer Rob Giffin and explosive stalwart Layne Roland. By emphasizing defense for the first time in franchise history, the Rays will be a factor in the conference.

PASS THE SAND WEDGE - Unfortunately, there's no trophy for "Best Team on the Rio Grande."

LAREDO BUCKS.

Coach: Terry Ruskowski; Expansion franchise.

Ruskowski specializes in start-ups (Columbus, ECHL; Houston, IHL; Knoxville; UHL). This year, he pours foundation, with many spoiler triumphs, lots of fights for newbie fans, decent offense from one line and mucho work for goaltender Lance Leslie. Next year, playoffs.

EL PASO BUZZARDS.

Coach: Craig Coxe.

Last year: second place, Southwest (playoff team).

With just four guys back from last year's conference finalists the Buzzards' streak of six straight postseason stints will end. Grinding, high PiMs club will win its share of games, just not as many as the other Southwest teams. D-men Trevor Folk and Aaron Boh may not join the team because of immigration hang-ups.

LEAGUE NOTES: Taking its cue from the NHL, the league plans to install protective netting at most arenas, and the "hurry-up" faceoff rule will be in effect... Fans who visit the CHL web site this season will have access to real-time game info and complete box scores minutes after the final buzzer sounds, courtesy of new statistical provider Pointstreak... The CHL has also revised its shootout, returning to the five-round format used by the Western Pro league, with subsequent sudden-death frames. Last year the shootout, which follows five minutes
of four-on-four OT, lasted three rounds.


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