From the Booth: Tony Brown Talks Hockey's ReturnAug 2, 2020
What’s up Monsters fans?! Man, it feels good to catch up with you guys after a loooooong while and I figured what better time to emerge than with the return of Stanley Cup Playoffs! I’m not sure what we’re calling this particular recurring content piece, but once a week starting today, I’ll be chiming in with three random thoughts, reflections, observations and maybe even a few hot takes.
Before we get started though, I just want to extend from our household to yours best wishes that you all are staying safe and healthy! That said, let's all do our part to wear masks, wash hands, and continue social distancing. Together, we can beat this.
Now, onto the hockey!
1. Putting a bow on 2019-20
This pandemic has robbed us all of many things and for the greater Monsters community, it robbed us of the chance to say goodbye to the 2019-20 campaign. This season was marked by significant change for the club – a new bench boss in Mike Eaves, the arrival of new difference makers on the ice and a reintroduction to some players who made massive strides this year. Usually there’s a long buildup to the end of the season whether you’re inside the playoff picture or not, but this season it all ended so suddenly. An uncertain trip back from Charlotte in March turned out to be the last face-to-face contact many of us had with our co-workers, teammates and friends and looking back now, that seems like so terribly long ago.
When I reflect on 2019-20, I’ll remember many individual moments – as one does at the end of every season – but mostly I’ll remember the way this team hung tough until the bitter end during a campaign that piled adversity on adversity.
From losing both captains (Zac Dalpe and Nathan Gerbe) to long-term injury and long-term recall respectively, to the myriad guys pressed into NHL duty due to Columbus’ shocking number of injuries, the Monsters kept heart throughout and adjusted so well with a new presence on the bench in Coach Eaves. All this came during a season in which Cleveland, for the first time in club history, rode the relentless wave of support from fans to a first regular-season AHL attendance crown. That is an honor we all share and a moving testament to how lucky us staffers and the players are to call Cleveland home.
Highlighting individuals always does a disservice to those we fail to mention but some of the big takeaways I have from this season are the blossoming of Matiss Kivlenieks into an NHL-caliber goaltender, the extremely bright future ahead for Veini Vehvilainen belied by his stellar North American debut, the arrival of Trey Fix-Wolansky as a dynamic offensive threat in the AHL, the gutsy contributions of all the PTO signees down the stretch and the hard-earned NHL debuts for guys like Calvin Thurkauf and Ryan MacInnis.
The list truly goes on – Adam Clendening’s dominant All-Star season, Justin Scott approaching the Monsters’ all-time appearance record, Dillon Simpson’s quiet leadership, Gabe Carlsson’s rock-steady year, Gerbe and Stefan Matteau resurrecting their NHL careers, Kevin Stenlund’s breakout showing…and that’s leaving out so much.
You get the picture I hope – even in a season that ended abruptly and with the club lagging in the standings, there’s so much positivity to take away and so many memories to bank. It’s true every year and this odd season is no exception.
2. A Monster contingent with CBJ
As the NHL ticks through exhibition games prior to qualifying and round robin play, the Columbus Blue Jackets continue to be buoyed by a huge number of players who cut their teeth at some point in Cleveland. By my count an astonishing 18 members of Columbus’ 31-man playoff roster played at least a few games in a Cleveland uniform at one time or another and it’s a total that should make every Monsters fan beam with pride.
At the end of the day, the AHL’s most central mission is to move players along to the big stage and the Monsters have played such a vitally important role in stocking CBJ with talent they now rely on during the two clubs’ now five-year (time flies, wow!) affiliation. Just think of that – almost 60 percent of Columbus’ roster and all three of their goaltenders wore a Cleveland sweater at some point - and all three CBJ goalies also did so this year alone! That’s quite a pipeline continuing to flow down I-71 year after year after year. I really can’t wait to watch those guys and the rest of the Jackets battle relentlessly the next few months.
3. From a hockey drought to a deluge
It took a while for many of us I’m sure, but after finally coming to terms with a hockeyless existence, the NHL is back and I’ve never seen anything quite like the feast of hockey on the docket in the next several weeks from Edmonton and Toronto.
In my opinion, the NHL deserves so much credit for committing to the geography, insulation, and coordination required to stage this tournament. Their diligence leads to our collective reward spread across just a small handful of easily-accessible networks, giving as many as five games per day, every day for the next few weeks and then the grind of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Sure, the lack of fans is and will continue to be strange and for all the broadcasters, there will be adjustments and lessons to learn when working off a monitor - but the amazing sense of community in the hockey world has only been amplified by these strange conditions and I for one, can’t wait to jealously consume these games, rooting on a smattering of friends, colleagues and acquaintances that are lucky enough to be in “the bubble” in one way or another. I hope you appreciate how much devotion its taken from every single player, coach, staffer and the league itself to pull this off.
Until next week, enjoy the games and stay diligent and safe! If you’ve got questions, be sure to fire them my way on Twitter using the hashtag #MonstersMailbag – we’ll get back to you in next week’s column.
Be well and let’s thank our lucky stars that it’s finally time to drop the puck!