With Cody Rich sharing the league scoring lead and team captain Mason Wade settling into fifth place, the Bellingham Blazers have climbed to the top of the Northern Pacific Hockey League standings.
More importantly, the Blazers are improving as the season goes along, just as they did a year ago.
Bellingham made its debut in the league last season and gradually climbed to third in the final standings. Then it put everything together for the playoffs and pulled out a pair of overtime wins in the final to rally from behind and take a five-game series win over the regular-season champion West Sound Warriors in the Cascade Cup final.
The Blazers and Warriors are battling again. They see each other often in a five-team league, and after West Sound had the advantage early, Bellingham has won the last four meetings during a 17-game winning streak that has improved the Blazers to 31-5-0-0.
“It’s just the process for us over the course of the season is about development,” Blazers coach Mark Collins said. “We have a few new players. We have a talented team, but early on, teams were able to take advantage of our mistakes.”
The mistakes are less common, and the support for returnees Rich and Wade is more plentiful for the Nor-Pac’s top team.
“We got some real good natural goal scorers on the team,” Collins said. “We recruited some out-of-town guys, and that has taken a little pressure off Cody and Mason.”
Ty Hubbard, from Fort Collins, Colo., was added this season and is second in scoring among Bellingham defensemen behind Scott Hansen, a holdover who joins Rich and Wade in playing for their hometown team.
Collins has coached both Rich and Wade since their Peewee days and has watched each player add to his game this season. Both are closing in on their production for all of last season. Rich leads the league in goals (41) and game-winning goals (9) and has 84 points in 35 games to share that lead with Peter Mingus of the Warriors.
“Cody has always had such a tenacity to his game,” Collins said. “The best way to describe him is relentless. He wants the puck on his stick all the time.”
Rich had eight points Jan. 25 in a game against the Vancouver Vipers, producing his second four-goal game and fourth hat trick of the season in the process.
“He has phenomenal speed flying down the right wing,” Collins said. “And, now he’s shooting the puck properly. He’s able to pick targets.”
Wade, a center, has four short-handed goals while scoring 25 goals and adding 39 assists in 32 games. Collins played Wade as a defenseman in his youth days because of his puck-rushing ability, but Wade never quite got comfortable in that role. He has continued to develop since the Tier III junior team started in Bellingham last season.
“The reason is he’s kind of understanding what’s good about his game,” Collins said. “Last year, he tried to do too much one-on-one. Now, he sees the ice better.
“He’s seeing where Cody is and is able to hit him flying up the wing. We’ve used so much more give-and-go this season. We’re a quick team. If we can get teams to turn over the puck, we can go.”
While his own game progresses, the team captain likes what he sees from the team.
“Our team is a lot more skilled this year,” he said in a story on the team website. “There are a lot of younger guys who want to move on. ... Last year, we were obviously good, too, but the chemistry is coming together sooner than last year.”
That is a bad sign for the rest of the Nor-Pac.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
Long days, great games and high intensity – it’s tournament time. Gary Cutler is the USA Hockey supervisor of officials in Western New York. He’s officiated countless tournaments at both the local and national levels. Cutler sat down with USA Hockey to discuss teamwork, tournament-time preparation and what officials can do to be selected as postseason officials next season.
USA Hockey: What does your current position entail? What are some key responsibilities?
Gary Cutler: My current volunteer position as supervisor of officials entails many different responsibilities throughout the season. It all starts immediately after national tournament week, with organizing local seminars in the fall, participating in summer camps, and solving any registration issues an official might have. We are also identifying those officials that potentially can work in postseason tournaments, the Junior Officiating Development Program or a USA Hockey summer camp. We also communicate with leagues about rule changes or rule interpretations and solve any issues that arise during the year with officials.
USA Hockey: What do you like most?
Gary Cutler: The most enjoyable part of my position is seeing officials improve their officiating skills from their very first seminar they attended up to the level they are presently officiating at, whether it is getting a postseason assignment, working in the Junior Officiating Development Program, college assignments, international assignments, or even working in professional leagues.
USA Hockey: Tournament time. What is your initial reaction when you hear those two words?
Gary Cutler: Long days. Most postseason tournaments consist of 12- to 14-hour days of being at the rink observing officials and making sure the officiating side of the tournament runs as smooth as possible.
USA Hockey: What are some unexpected duties or responsibilities that come with tournaments that officials might overlook or forget?
Gary Cutler: Throughout the entire tournament, the officiating program is a team more than ever. Every official should be helping their teammates so everyone can do the best job they are capable of. A lot of officials have more than one rulebook in their referee bag. An official should have complete knowledge and understanding of the rulebook that they are using, whether it is a regular-season game or a postseason assignment.
USA Hockey: Do officials tend to feel more pressure during tournaments, especially semifinal or championship games? How should they cope with that and stay focused on the task at hand?
Gary Cutler: Most definitely a semifinal or championship game brings a lot more pressure on the officials that have been selected to work these games. The officials that do these types of games generally have these attributes that give them the opportunity to succeed?
USA Hockey: Can you feel the intensity ramp up during tournaments, from the players, coaches, parents, etc.?
Gary Cutler: When tournament time comes around, everyone’s intensity level is increased. As each day of the tournament passes, the intensity level grows until the conclusion of the championship game.
USA Hockey: What can young officials do to position themselves for consideration as officials for next year’s tournaments?
Gary Cutler: It all starts in the summer. Start a physical fitness program over the summer, so when the season comes around, you are in the best physical shape you can be in. Go to summer development camps. When you attend a seminar, come with a positive learning attitude. Officials have the opportunity to be identified as potential candidates for tournaments at these seminars. During the regular season, work hard at every game, for the entire game. Constantly look into the rulebook/casebook so you have a complete understanding of the rules. Improve your officiating skills every game. This can be done by reading your manuals and reviewing the videos on USA Hockey’s website. If you are evaluated, listen, take notes and implement what the evaluator discussed with you when you are officiating games. The moment you enter the arena, put yourself in the proper position to make the proper call.