It was a case of another season, another major overhaul of the playing roster for the Genting Casino Coventry Blaze. While the club retained its impressive group of British players, only two imports – defenceman Justin Hache and forward Dillon Lawrence – returned to the Skydome for the 2019/20 season.
Faced with the challenge of replacing the goal-scoring of Ben Lake, Tim Crowder and Shawn Pauly, head coach Danny Stewart brought in proven Elite League goal-scorer Evan Bloodoff from the Fife Flyers, consistent points accumulator Andrew Johnston, NHL-experienced forward David Broll and first-year pro Johnny Curran. The forward group was rounded out late in pre-season by the skilful and speedy former Dundee Star Charlie Corcoran and the vastly experienced Janne Laakkonen.
On the blue-line, Blaze fans’ calls for a big-bodied defenceman were answered with the arrival of Justin Hamonic, while the signing of Elite League play-off winner Drew Schiestel from the Cardiff Devils added experience to a relatively young roster. The D-core was rounded out by two first-year pros in Dillon Eichstadt and Chris Pohlkamp, who was joined on the roster by his older brother Matt, a forward with East Coast Hockey League experience.
Netminder had proved a problematic position in the 2018/19 season, with Miika Wiikman, Miroslav Kopriva and former NHLer Matt Hackett all taking turns between the pipes. Coach Stewart pinned his hopes on Canadian goalie Jamie Phillips to bring some stability to the position, with the reliable Jordan Hedley returning as back-up.
After beating the Steelers 6-4 in Sheffield in their opening game, the team lost four of its next five. But they gelled as a group and proved they could play with – and beat – the league’s best, ending the Blaze’s double-digit losing streak to the Giants along the way. The Challenge Cup was a disappointment again, with the team ending up in a “play-in” game with the Manchester Storm for a quarter-final berth. A heart-breaking 3-2 loss on home ice threatened to derail the rest of the season as the team lost five league games in a row.
Netminder again proved a problem position, with the unconvincing Phillips replaced just before Christmas by American C.J. Motte. Motte’s arrival acted as a catalyst for an upturn in the team’s form. His ability to play the puck and his all-round performance imbued the whole roster with confidence, as well as making the team more solid defensively.
With just two defeats in regulation in over 20 games following Motte’s arrival, a campaign that looked to be skidding suddenly turned into a very special one for Stewart’s men. A playoff spot was confirmed in the last week of February, a welcome change from fighting up until almost the last game to secure a place in the top eight, and when Luke Ferrara scored with just six seconds left in regulation time to secure a hard-fought 3-2 home win against the Dundee Stars on March 8, the Blaze found themselves in third place in the table and poised to play a pivotal role in the title run-in. But that game proved to be the last of the campaign, with the rest of the season cancelled days later because of the coronavirus outbreak.
While there was a distinct feeling left of what might have been, getting into third spot was a great achievement for a group of players who appeared to have something different from Blaze teams of recent seasons. They were a real ‘band of brothers’ who had a genuine camaraderie, a team-first mentality, and a passion and never-say-die attitude which showed on the ice and endeared them to the Skydome faithful.
Hache, Schiestel and the impressive Hamonic brought an air of calm and experience to the defensive unit, while Eichstadt and Chris Pohlkamp had impressive first pro seasons and showed maturity and game awareness beyond their years. On offence, any lingering fears about where goals would come from were allayed by the form of Ferrara, with Johnston, Bloodoff, Matt Pohlkamp, and Corcoran all making significant contributions.
Laakkonen’s vision and experience were crucial to the team’s success, while Broll quickly became a fan favourite and proved to be more than just an imposing presence on the ice, being elevated to the team’s leadership group during the season. Curran added energy to the line-up, while Lawrence impressed again in his second season in Coventry.
The Brits were all impressive. Venus, in his testimonial season, had a career year in terms of goals and points and thoroughly deserved his return to the GB set-up for the Olympic qualification group in Nottingham in February. David Clements continued to develop and impress on the blue-line, while Alex Forbes benefited from more ice time and showed his value and versatility by playing on defence when the team was short-benched.
But the most impressive was Ferrara. Fresh from playing for GB in the World Championship in Slovakia, he enjoyed the best campaign of his career, finishing the truncated season at the top of the league’s goalscoring charts with 33 and becoming the first British forward to achieve that honour in the Elite League era. He was, quite rightly, named to the league’s First All-Star team, alongside Motte, who finished with the league’s top save percentage (92.68%). Laakkonen’s skilful and creative contribution saw him finish with the most assists in the league (40) and was rewarded with a place in the Second All-Star team.