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Fifteen Thoughts on The Royals' Fifteenth Anniversary Season

Friday, May 20th
Fifteen Thoughts on The Royals' Fifteenth Anniversary Season

Reading, PA – Hi, all, Mark T. here. Below you’ll find the Reading Royals Season Ending Release in the form of a fifteen wanderings and musings on the recently completed Fifteenth Anniversary Season for the Royals: ’Fifteen for Fifteen’. I can say with considerable certainty that we’re looking forward to Number Sixteen, which I’m confident will be upon us with all due speed. See you then.

  1. The Fifteenth Anniversary Season Continued to Extend the Royals’ Tradition of Excellence

Alright, we might as well just admit it and get it out of the way right at the start—we’re disappointed that the Fifteenth Anniversary Royals didn’t win it all. Of course, every pro team in every pro league in every pro sport—and probably most in the amateur ranks in as well—expressly set winning the league championship as the team’s goal from the very first meeting—even before (in our sport, at least) the team hits the ice for the first time. For many of those teams, it’s a bit of a pipe dream. There’s really not a realistic expectation of accomplishing that goal. But that’s been one of the great things about being with the Royals’ organization for last eleven years—and particularly in the last several seasons—we’ve not only said it, but believed it, and, of course, have done it.

To be sure, when Reading first entered the ECHL, there were a couple of lean years in the win-loss column. But the organization has made the playoffs in eleven of the last thirteen seasons—and the last seven consecutively under Head Coach Larry Courville. There are only three other teams in the ECHL who have longer consecutive streaks of playoff appearances than the Royals—and only one of those teams is in the Eastern Conference, the South Carolina Stingrays, who are currently enjoying their ninth straight playoff appearance.

Admittedly, the Fifteenth Anniversary season was a bit of a nail-biter with the team claiming one of the eight available playoff spots in the final weekend of the regular season. But, once in, this year’s team proved that they certainly belonged, marching into the month of May for the fifth time in team history by winning the first round series against the top team in the Eastern Conference, the Toledo Walleye, in a decisive Game Seven on their home ice and coming within one goal of advancing to the Conference Finals for the fourth time in team history.

When you get to that point in a game, in a series, and in a season, there’s a fair amount of crap-shoot involved and you just have to accept what life ultimately gives you and move on. The ‘wound’ is still pretty fresh, but given an appropriate amount of time—and when considering the totality of the circumstances—I think when we will ultimately look back on the performance the Fifteenth Anniversary team in a fairly positive light and as a continuing step forward in our effort to make Reading one of the elite programs in the ECHL.

  1. A Big Part of Our Success in the Fifteenth Anniversary Season—and the Tradition of Excellence in Reading—Rests with the Hockey Operations Staff

As an inseparable corollary to the evolution of a tradition of hockey excellence in Reading, I’d be remiss if I didn’t recognize the performance of the entire hockey operations department. At the top of the flow chart, Head Coach Larry Courville just completed his seventh full season with the Royals. As noted above, each of his teams have advanced to the playoffs. Perhaps appropriately, Larry, who took over the team on January 6, 2009, won his three-hundredth regular season game with the Royals during this Fifteenth Anniversary Season with the team’s 1-0 victory over the Adirondack Thunder at the site of the 1980 Olympic ‘Miracle on Ice’ at historic Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid New York on March 13, 2016. In doing so, he became only the ninth coach in ECHL history to win as many as 300 regular season games in this league.

The sixth coach in Royals’ history, Larry holds virtually every conceivable coaching record for the organization, including games coached (542 in regular season; and 77 in playoffs) and games won (305 in the regular season and 42 in the post-season). There are only two coaches in the history of the league, Jason Christie (.610) and Malcolm Cameron (.631), who have coached as many games as Larry Courville in this league and have a higher win percentage (305-187-25-25 / .609).

An all-time great hockey coach is credited with once saying that “all it takes to have a great life is a good wife, a loyal dog, and a great goaltender….” Well, who am I argue with one of the all-time greats? But I’m not sure that guy ever coached in the ECHL where there are so many moving parts from day-to-day that you sometimes feel you need a Ouija board to keep it all straight. But somehow, Larry’s not only kept it straight, he’s created a lasting legacy in a market that—let’s just face it—may not have all of the “bells and whistles” that make cities like Estero, Florida, or Charleston, South Carolina, attractive venues for young and up and coming hockey stars.

Of course, one of the trade-offs in this league, when you have a coach that has had the type of success that Larry has enjoyed, is the perennial question of how long you expect to keep him. From the coach’s perspective, everyone wants to move up; from the hockey world’s perspective, everyone (presumably) wants to win. In Larry’s case, that’s a combination ripe for the picking, so to speak. Having worked with Larry for these last seven-plus seasons (and actually longer than that), I can only wish him the best. I hope he’s back with us for the sixteenth season of Royals’ hockey; but if he’s not, he’s not going to be an easy act to follow. It seems that every off-season we go through this to a certain extent. But, in fairness, we’ve had Larry for way longer than I would have ever expected in the first place, and I wish him and his family the best in anything that might come up that he feels would improve his circumstances.

Of course, Larry doesn’t do it all alone. In fact, from the coaching perspective, a very large chunk of the under the radar (often thankless) grunt work is in the very competent hands of assistant coaches Kirk MacDonald and Andy Scott. KMac not only provides the technical and new-frontier digital expertise and teaching skills that are necessary for a complete coaching skill set, but also isn’t shy about providing a bit of the ‘hard-push’ of energy that guys (and, yes from time-to-time, on-ice officials) sometimes need to stay on their toes. One of Coach Courville’s former assistants, Tim Branham, is already enjoying considerable success a head guy in the league; and you get the feeling that another one of Larry’s ‘off-spring’ is not far from making that leap from the nest. With respect to the “Icon,” Andy Scott, he’s the classic five-tool coach with a healthy understanding of the new-analytics currently making headway in hockey, as well as the old-school approach to hands-on, one-on-one teaching the game in the trenches.

And, if you really want thankless jobs, then look no farther than the hardest working men in in show business, Athletic Trainer Brian Grogesky and Equipment Manager Jason MacDonald (and his tireless crew). Grogs, who is the only member of the Royals’ organization that has been with the team for the entire fifteen years that we’ve been in Reading, and JBird, who brought NHL experience, effort and attitude to his position, comprise one of the best one-two staff punches in the league.

  1. After Fifteen Years, the Royals Organization May Be in its Most Competent and Caring Hands Ever

One thing that I can say for certain, our organization is fortunate enough to have an owner who really cares. Not just about having a winning team—and, believe me, I’ve been in the meetings—Jack Gulati does care deeply about the performance of the team on the ice. But Jack cares about everything: about how we present the building, how we treat our fans, how we interact with and support members in the community, how we work with our business partners. I’m sure this is true with many owners and ownership groups; but, at least from my experience, what separates Jack somewhat from his peers is how much he cares about ‘his people’ and their path in life. With Jack, it’s not just about what you’re doing today, it’s about what you’re doing today to build for tomorrow (and the tomorrow after that). With Jack, no problem has ever been too big or too small; and to have that type of commitment from our owner at this stage in the evolution of the Royals’ organization is tremendous gift.

Of course, the day-to-day operation of the organization rests with Team President Drew Bell, who has shown an uncanny ability to listen, learn, adapt and grow over his two years of leading the Royals. To be sure, Drew is not a paper-pusher; to the contrary, he’s an envelope-pusher. He’s not afraid to challenge the status quo. He’s constantly on the hunt for a better way or a new approach. And, there are, of course, perils in those waters, particularly for us old-timers; but good leadership requires not only the courage to take a chance, but also a willingness to listen, assess the circumstances and to correct the path if things happen to get a bit askew. To my mind, Drew has shown that capacity, as well. Short of a lead lawyer in a complex multi-party jury trial (and, believe me, that ain’t no picnic), a director on a the set of a major motion picture, or the primary surgeon in a significant medical procedure, very few people have to directly manage more moving parts than the head guy in a professional sports organization.

And, quite honestly, It’s one of those jobs where you simply can’t please everyone, and the guiding light has to be the stewardship, preservation and pursuit of the overall best interest of the organization—even if it rubs a few individuals the wrong way from time-to-time.

  1. The Continuing Success of Pro Hockey in Reading is Intimately-Tied to Expanding our Family of Loyal Fans, Casual Patrons and Business Partners

There is no more concerning trend in professional sports (or any entertainment-related activity) than a downward slide in overall attendance figures. Unfortunately, the minor pro hockey road in particular is replete with once bright and shiny markets that have been put out to pasture, see, eg, Trenton, New Jersey (which, at one time, by the way, was the hardest ticket to get in minor pro hockey).

Things are certainly nowhere near that point in Reading. Fifteen years in, Reading is a maturing minor pro hockey market. Admittedly, the overall numbers were down this season; but, by the same token, fully one-third of the Royals’ home games this year hosted crowds of well over 4000 people. We had three games with crowds over 7000, which is the most in ten years. Once again, we’ve shown that with the right effort, an exciting promotional tie, commitment from a community-based partner and a favorable date, you can still pack the house for minor pro hockey in Reading. Accomplishing that feat with more frequency is the challenge—particularly when you have thirty-six separate nights to manage.

The one thing that shouldn’t be lost in the “counting of the beans,” however, is that our fans are not beans. We have an intense core of supporters, who are the lifeblood of the organization and deserve our time, focus and energy (and sincere thanks). Many of our hard-cores have been with us for all fifteen years and have attended every game ever played in our building—and many of the other teams’ buildings, as well. I think it’s fair to say that not all of our long-term die-hards are an easy bunch. When our team is less than stellar, we’re going to hear about it (as we should)—particularly on the power play. But the vast majority of our die-hards are really pretty easy to work with, and I would like to pass on our organizational thanks for all of the extra things that many of you do to make our life easier. I would also like to thank each of you personally for giving me an opportunity to pursue this job that I love.

By the same token, if we want to continue to what we’ve got here—and, believe me, we do—we simply have to re-double our effort to bring new people into the fold. Some of these may turn into hard-core supporters, and we’d love to increase that base. But what we really need are people (and particularly families) who are willing to include us in their monthly entertainment option—those who are probably hockey fans at some level, but have a bit more casual approach to their support of the local team. From our end, we need to do all we can to ensure these patrons that a trip to downtown Reading to watch the Royals is worth it. Our hard core fans can play a role here, too, particularly in encouraging people in the community who may not have been here in a while to give the latest version of the Royals a shot.

From what I can see, the Royals’ ownership and management group are aggressively pursuing all of the avenues available to increase our ticket sales, which includes undertaking a significant restructuring of the internal operations of our organization. All of us with the Royals are excited about that, but I would also encourage each of us—me included—to continue our individual to efforts on the expansion of our fan base.

Along with the support of our fans, there’s another whole group who provide invaluable support to our organization, our business partners. At the risk of stating the obvious, operating a pro sports team is a complex, multi-faceted operation that requires embracing partnerships with a wide variety of our local business leaders. It’s meant to be a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship that benefits the Royals from a revenue standpoint and pays off for our business partners in their operations, as well. The list of business partners with the Royals is extensive, but growing that list is also critical to the ongoing viability of minor pro hockey in Reading.

  1. This Fifteenth Anniversary Season Proved to Be the Most Productive and Active Year In Team History with Respect to Giving Back to Charities in Our Community

Along with a tradition of success on the ice, the Royals organization has been a consistent contributor to the Greater Reading Community for fifteen years. That tradition continued with considerable aplomb in the Fifteenth Anniversary season as the Royals organization donated almost $300,000 in cash and items—well over a third of which was in actual cash—to local organizations and individuals in need. At the risk of tooting our own horn, I dare say that it would not be easy to find another for-profit organization in the size category of the Royals that contributes a comparable proportion of its overall revenues back into local charitable causes.

A big chunk of the Royals contributions this season were the direct result of the nine game ‘Community Series’ that included traditional favorites such as Pink in the Rink, the Army-Navy Veterans Day Game, the Penn State University THON game, Battle of the Badges, Shelter Night, and Autism Awareness Night. But the biggest single hit of the Fifteenth Anniversary season may have been the very first Flyers’ Alumni Game at Santander Arena, which not only drew a star-studded line-up to Reading and an energized packed-house crowd, but also brought in over $45,000 in conjunction with the Flyers’ Alumni Association.

The Royals’ organization not only contributed financial resources to the community, but also donated a pretty significant chunk of our most important resource, as well—our time. Over the course of the Fifteenth Anniversary season, the Royals’ players, management, staff, and, of course, our greatest ambassador—Slapshot, made over 65 separate appearances at various events throughout the community—and we’re currently involved in lining up a summer full of activities as we begin the process of building momentum for Season Sixteen.

  1. Our Fifteenth Year was the Twenty-Eighth for the ECHL, Which Continues to Show A Willingness to Adapt, Adopt and Expand

The Fifteenth Anniversary season for the Royals was also the twenty-eighth year the ECHL, which continues to evolve and grow in what I believe has to be generally perceived to be a positive direction. First of all, the three new additions to the East Division—the Adirondack Thunder, Manchester Monarchs, the Norfolk Admirals all served to increase a northeast geographic footprint for the league which is only going to expand once again in 2017 with the addition of another New England team in Worcester, Massachusetts. With the ongoing westward movement of teams in the American Hockey League, one wonders whether other markets in our region are going to open up. For instance, Portland, Maine, would not be a bad add to our part of the world. Now, if we could just figure out a way to get Trenton and Atlantic City back in the league again….

One of the outstanding elements of professional hockey has been a willingness to continue to adapt the rules in an attempt to maximize the entertainment value of the game while staying true to history and heritage. The most readily apparent rule change installed by the ECHL (as with the NHL) this past year—the shift to three-on-three in overtime—pretty much played to rave reviews throughout the hockey world—even if the Royals didn’t have much luck there or in any type of OT for that matter. (See below).

To be sure, many of us may miss the rough-and-tumble ‘wild-west’ days of old-time minor pro hockey. But those days are never coming back. That being said, the game of hockey and the athletes who play it are, in my opinion, head and shoulders above anywhere it’s ever been. The speed of today’s game makes guys from the earlier eras look like they’re standing still. The excitement of hockey is still based on intensity, even if it doesn’t erupt into the fisticuffs of years-gone-by that many fans remember with fondness—at least not with the same frequency (unless, of course, Derek Mathers is in the line-up).

In my opinion, the one way you could immediately ramp up the intensity of very game is to make each game more meaningful. And you do that by simply reducing the number of games played. I subscribe to the personal philosophy of more is not necessarily better, particularly when more means playing three professional hockey games in three days—or four in five as we do in the ECHL with a Sunday afternoon cap which can easily turn into a long and slow slog that really doesn’t advance the cause of entertainment value to any significant degree. I am one of those people arguing for a shorter season. Hockey is a winter sport. There is no reason for it to be played in June—or even late May. I understand that there are economic realities that will probably carry the day, but fewer games with larger crowds seems to make more sense to me.

Additionally, and it’s a bigger issue that can be fully addressed in this forum, but the one element of the game that seems to a focal point—along with most other pro sports—in the effort to increase entertainment value is figuring out ways to increase scoring. If I can get on my soapbox for just a moment on this, I promise I won’t be long; but the hockey world needs to immediately revisit the legal limitations on goaltending equipment. I believe that every piece of goaltending gear not directly and intimately to the safety of the goaltender should be removed—starting with the absolutely ridiculous dimensions of the chest and shoulder protectors (and jerseys) currently being worn, which turn guys who weigh about 180 pounds into a cartoon-looking versions of the raging Hulk. That’s not about protecting anything. That’s about stopping the puck. I also think you can reduce the width of the pants, the width of the pads, and the allowable dimensions of the gloves to open more space in the net. I know goalies hate this; but the sport is running out of options with respect to reasonable ways to increase scoring, and, to my mind, this is the one change that can be made tomorrow without completely obliterating the integrity of the game.

One final note on the evolution of the ECHL, particularly with respect to rule “changes”, I would further suggest that the three levels of professional hockey get together and formally adopt the Pat Richards’ Rule, which calls for absolute uniformity of rule enforcement throughout the three leagues. This would result in a couple of crucial and immediate upgrades in the ECHL including the league-wide installation of a quick and effective system of video review of disputed goals along with the immediate employment of a two-referee system throughout the entire regular season. I don’t believe it’s too bold to state that these changes are coming at some point in the future, and we might as well just bite the bullet and get it done right now.

  1. One Thing That Hasn’t Change After Fifteen Years in the ECHL—the Affiliation Relationship with the NHL/AHL is Crucial to the Team’s Success

The one area in which the ECHL continues to evolve in a positive direction—albeit not quickly enough for most of us—is the ‘one-pipeline’ minor pro player-development model that has been the standard in “affiliated baseball” for years. Putting aside all of the promotional elements designed to attract ‘non-traditional’ fans (and families) to minor pro hockey, to my mind, this is the single most important change that minor pro hockey could make to increasing fan interest and loyalty on the hockey side.

In short, I don’t believe that fans mind losing premier players to a higher league as long as they perceive that player as a prospect going to a related organization for the improvement of his career. To the contrary, fans love to see guys advance their careers—then they “knew them when”….That’s particularly true when fans can actually watch the progression of a player’s career because of the geographic proximity of the related pipeline of teams—a luxury that has been available over the last two seasons in Reading with our affiliation relationship with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and Philadelphia Flyers.

What fans don’t like—and I don’t presume to speak for everyone—but I’ve heard it enough to have a pretty good feel on this one—fans (and let’s leave the coaches out of this for the moment) don’t like having the premier players from their team suddenly end up with a team with which you have absolutely no connection whatsoever. The ‘free-agent’ to the AHL system that is currently in place for ECHL-contracted players grates the people who spend good money to watch our games to no end. Fans don’t understand it. They have very little tolerance for it. As I understand it, it’s a contractual anachronism established under the collective bargaining agreement for the benefit of players under an ECHL contract because their contracts are not “annual” deals—and it also serves pretty well for those AHL teams who have historically built their rosters “on the cheap”.

Now, nobody loves the players more than me. I actually see them as brothers and (particularly as I get older) sons, for whom I wish nothing but the best. But, if we’re talking about the best-interest of minor pro hockey on every front (including the perception that sports fans have of the lower leagues), the ECHL, AHL and NHL need to adopt a simple hard-line, no-exception position that every team in the ECHL must be affiliated with one AHL team and one NHL team and that is it. No more. No less. The players are under annual contract within that organization and (unless traded or released) can move up and down within that system as the hockey ops guys see fit—and that’s it. And, I’m a strong advocate that the movement of those players should be a pure meritocracy based on performance.  You want to move up, play better.

The players’ contracts should slide in value depending on the league in which they are playing; and each league should have a salary cap within which they must act. Of course, you’d need to install a professional tryout agreement system in the ECHL like currently in place in the AHL. I’m not sure I’ll still be on this planet when this system is finally established in professional hockey; but when it is, I believe everyone associate with “affiliated –hockey” will benefit, including the team at the top of the pyramid.

Now with respect to the Royals’ affiliation relationship, we have had the opportunity to be affiliated with no fewer than five NHL teams in my eleven years with the team. The most successful relationship we’ve had with respect to moving players from Reading to the NHL was probably the relationship we had with the Los Angeles Kings (2001-08). The most successful relationship that we’ve had with respect to results in the ECHL was clearly the Washington Capitals (and Hershey Bears), who provided sixteen different players to the Royals’ in the championship season.

The most promising relationship in my opinion, however, could be one that we have had over the last two seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers and Lehigh Valley Phantoms. The geography is a huge factor. The history, although not universally beloved amongst Royals’ fans, is strong (as evidenced by the success of the Flyers’ alumni game). Have we fully capitalized on the potential of this relationship in the first two seasons of our affiliation with the Flyers? I don’t quite think so. That’s not to say that we haven’t had a number of quality players filter to Reading from the Flyers through Lehigh Valley. By the time playoffs rolled around this year, the list was pretty impressive: Goumas, Alderson, Pettersson, Lamarche, Comrie, Sundher, Marcou and Ouellette (and Mathers during the regular season). But at least part of the late-season influx of players from the AHL was due to the fact that Lehigh Valley did not make playoffs.

I think it’s also fair to say that there have been times over the last two seasons where the Royals were hopeful that the geographic proximity between Lehigh Valley and Reading would provide more immediate dividends—if only for a short-term stints, which appears to be at no- (or low-) risk advantage for both teams—and the Flyers’ organization as a whole. At the same time, it’s important to keep in mind that the hockey operations personnel for the Flyers and Phantoms must prioritize their focus on achieving success at the highest level of the game. But, when considering the long-term best interest of the organization, it would seem that the best way to ensure that all players remain as sharp and confident as possible would include getting them as much competitive game-based ice-time as possible.

Now, it goes without saying that the Flyers—or whatever NHL team with whom we are affiliated—control their players. The Royals have to be able to adapt and deal with that reality. The one thing we can say for certain is that it’s darn near impossible to compete in the current structure of the ECHL without support from contracted players obtained from an NHL or AHL team. You need organizational depth that translates into premier players filtering to our level. Sometimes I think the most difficult element to communicate in this regard—particularly for the players—is the simple fact that all because a player may happen to begin his career—or land at some point—in the ECHL, it doesn’t mean that that player is lost forever. To the contrary, our hope is to develop a level of communication and trust that results in a pipeline of players actively moving through the three teams within the organization that benefits all three teams. Our role at the ECHL level to help those young players develop their skills and build their confidence to the point where they can evolve into effective players at the highest level of the game. And, ironically perhaps, the team that ultimately may reap the biggest benefit from the pipeline of talent is the team at the top of the pyramid— in fact, it seems like it’s worked pretty effectively for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

  1. The Fifteenth Anniversary Season Proved Coach Courville is Still a Master of Mid-Season Roster Adjustments

If we’ve learned anything about the roster in the ECHL—particularly when Coach Courville is in charge—it’s what you see is not necessarily what you’re going to get—at least not for 72 games. Every season we wonder whether Larry can pull off a transaction or two that serves to improve his team over the course of the season…transaction or two? In the Fifteenth Anniversary season, the Royals used no fewer than thirty-four skaters and six goaltenders, and perhaps more importantly, there were no fewer than seven acquisitions by the team that had significant impact on the outcome of the season: Yannick Tifu, Scott Tanski, Nikita Kashirsky, Kevin Young, Joey Sides, Mike Pelech, and Adam Morrison.

Within those players, the Royals got 53 goals (which 23.9% of the team’s overall production), one of the best face-off guys in the league, and a goaltender who racked up seven wins (three by shutout) and had thirteen games in which he picked up at least a point for the team—all from guys who were nowhere on the radar at all when last season started. I think it’s pretty safe to say that the Royals wouldn’t have gotten anywhere close to the second round of the playoffs without these transactions.

Every year we wonder whether it’s possible for Coach Courville to reach into his bag of tricks and come up with a rabbit or two; but he’s answered that question in the affirmative every time. I’m not exactly sure what the criterion is for Coach of the Year (or Hockey Ops Executive of the Year) in this league, but perhaps more than any other pro league out there, you’re ability to adjust on the fly as the team is picked apart by call up and injury seems like it ought to factor somehow or another.

  1. The Royals Should Be Able to Re-Unite a Strong Core of the ECHL-Contracted Players from the Fifteenth Anniversary Squad

Without question, one of the most difficult elements of the ECHL—particularly within the current structure of the minor professional hockey world—is constructing (or reconstructing) the team from season-to-season. It’s been compared to recruiting an NCAA Division I college football team—if every player on your team graduated from school at the end of every season. Understanding that within the current system there very few (if any) guarantees, one of Coach Courville’s great strengths has been his capacity to find, recruit and return quality players from season-to-season.

Looking back at the Fifteenth Anniversary team, there are certainly a number of players—at varying stages of their careers—who were under ECHL contracts who you’d love to get back. Although the process of signing guys whose ECHL rights are held by Reading has already begun, the reality is that there probably will be a fair amount of movement amongst the ranks due to every imaginable explanation, from opportunities abroad to those who may have arrived at the end of the road in their individual pro career.

Without trying to analyze the available options for each individual player, there are some broad generalities that can be addressed with respect to the ECHL guys. For the youngsters, there seems to be some likelihood that you’ll be able to return the Minnesota triumvirate of Justin Crandall, Derek Johnson and Joe Rehkamp—each of whom had notable rookie seasons. Crandall was the team’s Offensive Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year, and Johnson earned the team’s Unsung Hero Award. Rehkamp earned an early season call-up to Lehigh Valley and stayed there pretty much for the whole year, which was testament enough to the quality of his play. You wouldn’t have minded having the fourth “Minnesota Musketeer,” Austin Farley, as well. He came within mere millimeters of winning both overtime games in the Eastern Conference Semis against Wheeling; however, he’s apparently already signed a deal in Sweden and will ply his trade on the Continent in his first full year of pro.

With respect to the more mature players, there are a number of guys you’d love to have back in the purple and silver (and orange?) next season including our own version of ‘Mike & Mike’—the UMass boys, Mike Pereira and Mike Marcou. Pereira proved that he’s one of the most electric skaters in the league and ended up leading all players on the Royals’ active roster with nineteen goals. Marcou, who last season was under a two-way AHL contract with Lehigh Valley, won the team’s Heart Award and again proved that he is amongst the league’s best in puck-moving defensemen, who can play with a little Long Island-edge if necessary.

Amongst the grit guys who have a little of time in the saddle, Ian Watters has proven his worth as a leader and as a relentless force on the ice. Very few guys generate as many scoring chances purely on their own wit and wisdom (if not a whack or two) as does Ian.  In a similar vein, Scott Tanski proved to be a valuable early season pick-up for Reading, and immediately earned his stripes on and off the ice as an important part of the organization. He’s the type of player who, at an appropriate value, brings that indomitable energy to those mid-season slogs where some players have a tendency to wane.

From the skill side of things, the value of guys like Mike Pelech, Cam Reid and Kevin Sundher is easy to recognize, and the Royals hold the ECHL rights for all three players. Pelech is a veteran which gives him certain options not available to Reid or Sundher, but all three of these guys are the type of players who may be able to garner interest at another level or league. On the back end, Adam Morrison showed that when he’s fully healthy he can be a dominant back-stop in this league.

Then you got the more veteran guys such as Yannick Tifu (see below), Nikita Kashirsky, Kevin Young, and Todd Perry, each of whom will have decisions to make, which are probably best considered when the bumps and bruises have more fully healed and you start thinking about the walking through the doors of the gym in the off-season.

And, oh yeah, we don’t want to get everyone overly excited at this point, but we’re told that there may be a surprise or two out there for the Royals’ faithful when we do start to announce players who have already signed in the not too distant future. Full disclosure for the Securities and Exchange Commission, I am operating with a bit of inside information here. But even Gordon Gecko couldn’t put his secret sauce to work until the market rang the bell (so to speak)…

  1. Not Surprisingly, the Fifteenth Anniversary Squad Felt Right at Home On the Road

One trend that didn’t slow down for the Royals in the Fifteenth Anniversary Season was the team’s performance on the road. I think it’s pretty safe to say that, in recent history, no team in the league has had more success on the visitors’ collective ice surface than the Royals, who have won twenty-or-more games on the road  for six consecutive seasons (and went 20-11-2-3 there this season). In fact, this year marked only the second time in team history that the team has won fewer than twenty games on home ice (16-15-4-1) and still made the playoffs. Interestingly, Coach Courville’s all-time record on the road is (151-91-17-11) translates into a .611 win percentage, surpassing his teams’ performances on home ice (154-96-8-14), which is a .607 win percentage.

The Fifteenth Anniversary Royals actually save their best on the road for last (well, almost): the first round Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the top seeded Toledo Walleye, who had only lost eight games on home ice all season long, but fell three times to the Royals at Huntington Center in Toledo in the first round series. That series culminated with the first Game Seven victory on the road in team history. Unfortunately, much of our road dominance came tumbling to the ground in the one building where we’ve had our moments—not all of them good: WesBanco Arena in Wheeling, West Virginia. Now to be sure, the Royals (finally) snapped a ten game winless streak at WesBanco this year with a 6-0 win on February 6, 2016; but that overtime loss on the shrunken ice of Wheeling with just 37.1 seconds left the first ever experience for overtime in a Game Seven for the Royals may take a while to wash clean from our collective memory banks.

  1. Don Koharski Jokes Aside, the Fifteenth Anniversary Team Feasted on Donuts…

Anyone who’s followed the wandering discourse of my thoughts over my time with the Royals knows how I feel about team goals against average. Cliff Notes version: it’s the one statistic that I believe most closely correlates with the only stat that really matters—wins. Of course, the first thing that comes to mind when we consider “GAA” is the performance of the goaltenders; but really team GAA is just that, a team stat and a reflection of the overall defensive strength of a the group from top to bottom.

That being said, at some point, goaltending performance is still at the heart of a team’s ability to keep the puck out of the net. And as with most teams in professional hockey, the 2015-16 Royals had a few ups and downs in net. There was a period during the team’s early to mid-season struggles when the overall team save percentage dipped well below .900 (down as low at one point to .874). But as the season progressed, that number actually took a relatively steep uptick and ended up at .908, which was thirteenth best in the league.

Certainly, a big part of the goaltending push down the stretch reflected the performance of Martin Ouellette, who won six straight from late February (02/20) through early April (04/09) and ended up with a 2.10 goals against average, which was third best in the league (and the second best ever for a goaltender in Royals’ history—to Barry Brust—for a goaltender who played over thirty regular season games with the team). Similarly, Ouellette’s .922 save percentage was second best in team history for a goalie logging over thirty games.

But it wasn’t just Ouellette who contributed to what may have been our most easily identifiable team record in the Fifteenth Anniversary Season and, in my opinion, the best way to guarantee a win—shutouts. Nine times this year the Royals flat blanked the opposition—four by Ouellette, three by Adam Morrison, and two by Connor Kanpp—which topped the eight shutouts racked up by the Barry Brust-led Royals in the 2004-05 season.  A couple of the tastiest donuts this season, included a 2-0 win over the South Carolina Stingrays in the second game of the regular season at North Charleston Coliseum; the 1-0 win over the Adirondack Thunder at historic Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, New York, on March 13, 2016; and the first win at WesBanco Arena in over two years, 6-0, on February 6, 2016.

  1. It’s Not So Much How Many as to When…(But We Still Could Have Used a Bunch More)…

We’ve all heard Pat Richards’ immutable theory of relativity on power play goals, which is to say that they’re always welcome, but PPGs take on a certain special definitive flavor when scored at critical moments of the game. But, this season for the Royals, that Theory rang equally true at even strength, not just on the special teams, where the Royals were left wanting in a number of big moments in big games—but, in all fairness, this year’s team was left wanting in the goals category in many of the not so big moments, as well.

Now, it’s important to note that, when compared with the rest of the league, the Royals weren’t really a low scoring team: the 222 regular season goals was tied for tenth best in the twenty-eight team ECHL. However, when compared with the history of the team, this was not a very productive offensive club. Only one group (2008-09—and, oh boy, when you’re compared with the 2008-09 squad that’s usually not a very good omen) scored fewer goals than the Fifteenth Anniversary team in the past eleven years. (NOTE: For those of you who are interested—or booing—the 18.6% power play scoring ratio, which was 19.9% on home ice, actually compares very favorably in historical terms). The 2014-15 Royals had six different players score over twenty goals (and one who scored thirty). This year we had one (Robbie Czarnik), and he was traded in early March. In the championship season, only two guys scored over twenty, but you had nine guys who scored sixteen or more. This year we had five reaching the sixteen goal plateau.

I understand that scoring is down throughout hockey. The smart money seems to place causation in several areas, including the increased availability of video analysis, which is said to lead to less mistakes in defensive coverages at all levels of the game. I’ve already expressed my belief that the goaltending gear needs to be significantly reigned in—the complexity of which, by the way, may be compounded by the fact that human beings (and particularly, it seems, goalies) are getting bigger all the time and that the best athletes in the game are now playing on the back end in contrast to years gone by when there was a tendency to just throw the ‘fat-kid’ in net.

But, if we’re looking for areas where the Royals are going to need to improve, depth of offensive firepower is one place to look. That being said, to me the bigger part of the story for the Fifteenth Anniversary team was, to paraphrase an old hockey quip, the Royals had “a bit too much Swedish, and not enough Finnish….” (See Below.).

  1. The Fifteenth Anniversary Season Celebration was Missing Something…Oh Yeah, Post-Regulation Time Fireworks….

Sure, chicks love the long ball and everybody wants more goals. But in a short study of the Fifteenth Anniversary season, what I believe we really needed was more BIG goals. When you look at why the Royals just inched into the playoffs by a nose as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, a big part of that was that the 2015-16 team left a lot of points on the table.

First and foremost, the Fifteenth Anniversary Royals ended regulation time twelve times this year in a tie and won only twice.  That translates into a .167 win percentage, which was far and away the worst in the ECHL—and way far and away the worst the team has ever done. (Interestingly, the only team that was remotely close to the Royals in this regard this season was the South Carolina Stingrays, who had a .286 win percentage in overtime and shootout games.) Just as a matter of comparison, the Florida Everblades went 10-3 beyond regulation time in 2015-16 for a league-leading .769 win percentage. If the Royals had those numbers, the team would have literally run away with the East Division.

Of course, a big part of the problem for the Royals in ‘ties’ this year came as a result of relatively woeful shooting in the skills competition. The team went two for twenty in the shootout—again the worst in the league and the worst in team history. Now, granted, the sample numbers could be skewed somewhat because the league (thank the heavens above) went to the three-shot skills competition this season in contrast to the interminable five-shot method of years past. But, noting that, you got the feeling that the LAST thing we needed this year was MORE attempts in the shootout—particularly when you add in the fact that the team had four penalty shots this year—including one in playoffs—and missed all four of those, too.

Unfortunately, the Royals anemic results in ties also bled into the performance in overtime, where the team won just once in nine games resolved in OT, including both of the playoff games that required additional time for resolution (which included an OTL in the longest game in team history at 104:22 in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Nailers). And I don’t need to tell Royals’ fans where we’d be right now, if we’d have bagged even one OT winner against Wheeling in that second round series.

Certainly there are considerable vagaries involved in scoring big goals in big moments…Chaos Theory looms large. A bounce here—a bounce there—and you’ve got a completely different result. I also don’t need to tell anyone who was around for the championship year about the number of bounces that went our way that year, particularly in playoffs. But the lack of big goal scoring in the Fifteenth Anniversary year was palpable and was reflected ultimately in its Evil Twin: the number of blown lead losses (and the concomitant lack of appearances from the sweet Glinda Good Witch of the North: the come-from-behind win).

  1. Okay, I Get it with the Mind, But A Lead is a Terrible Thing to Waste, Too….

Somewhere in the distillation of the mathematical formulae explaining the mysteries in the universe, there is one immutable law that doesn’t even seem to be shaken by the gravitational tug of a black hole…when championship hockey teams get a lead, they don’t give it up. Or, in words to which most of us can more readily relate, coffee is for closers. Unfortunately, there were a number of days in which the Fifteenth Anniversary Royals were probably left Jonesing for their morning joe…

This year, the Royals experienced sixteen blown lead losses in the regular season and two in playoffs—Games Six and Seven of the Eastern Conference Semis (yikes). That was not a team record. Actually, the twenty-three total BLLs in 2011-12 (a team that had many interesting parallels with this year’s club—notably sneaking into playoffs on the last day of the regular season) holds that distinction.

The league statistics don’t account for BLLs (in short, defined as a game where the team held a lead at some point and failed to claim the two points). However, if you look at a critical snap shot of this stat—performance in games where the team held a lead entering the third period—it’s apparent that the Royals did not compare favorably with the rest of the league. In fact, the 2015-16 Royals went 21-4-4 when leading after two periods. The eight non-wins in those games “led” the league and only the 2011-12 team (21-5-6) had more blown leads in the third period than this year’s team.

Probably the single most deceptive statistic of the year for Reading is that the team scored 83 third period goals (considerably more than the first or second period), which was second only to the Orlando Solar Bears (87), and the Royals played to a league best plus-22 (+22) in the final frame. The fact that this stat is woefully skewed is borne out by the realization that the Royals only had thirteen come-from-behind wins in the regular season (and one in playoffs)—the fewest for the team in the last eleven seasons, including the 2008-09 year when the Royals had fourteen regular season come-back wins. The championship team had five come-back wins—in playoffs, alone.  The team came from behind to win after trailing into the third period of play only twice (2-21-2-1).

Ultimately, to me at least, this is what the game is all about. Do you have the structure, discipline and intelligence (and willingness to sacrifice—See eg, Ethan Cox) that it takes to counteract the opposition’s push and sense of urgency when you are holding a lead down the stretch? And, when you’re trailing, can you elevate your energy, effort, enthusiasm (Pat Richards’ “Three- E Hockey”)—can you ramp up the team’s combination of desire and desperation to overcome the opposition’s effort to hold you at bay? I don’t see the word talent anywhere at all in there…and, to me, that’s what makes this game great.

  1. The Guy We All Loved to Hate—and Now Hate to Lose….

Oh yeah, another thing that makes this game great is the people that you meet while you’re around it. I’d like to close out this Fifteenth Anniversary season, for me, at least, with a special note of thanks to all of the players who led this journey over the last seven or eight months. I want to thank each of you personally for allowing me to be a part of it.

I noted it earlier, but we’re probably going to lose some very important players to retirement at the conclusion of this Fifteenth Anniversary Season. There are many great lyrics in the musical lexicon out there, but my two personal favorites have to be: ‘Say something once, why say it again’ courtesy of David Byrne and Talking Heads; and ‘All Things Must Pass’ from George Harrison. But I would be remiss if I didn’t say this one more time: thanks to Yannick Tifu.

I haven’t spoken with Yannick since the end of the season. (Maybe I’m trying to avoid that conversation). And I do not know what Yannick’s plans for the future are. I know he’s happily married to a beautiful young lady who apparently has a great job in the Great White North. I know he’s played eleven seasons of pro hockey—over 700 games—which is heavy wear and tear for anyone, but particularly for someone who’s around the puck a lot, as Yannick certainly was.

Four of Yannick’s pro seasons have been here in Reading. If you would have told me that when he was buzzing around for the Dayton Bombers or harassing us to no end as a member of Elmira Jackals, that Yannick Tifu would end up being one of the all-time great Royals, I would have laughed in your face. Some of our fans might have spit on the ground. But, my, oh my, how things change in life.

We all know about the guy you love to hate; but how about the guy everybody loves to hate who turns out to be the guy everybody just flat loves? Yannick’s numbers with the Royals are remarkable: 221 regular season points (84g-137a) in 245 career games with the team, which places him second or third all-time in virtually every category—and first in several others, including post-season games for Reading. He captained the Royals to the 2013 Kelly Cup Championship—a season in which he played all 94 games it took to take home the hardware. He’s a four-time Fans’ Choice Award selection for the team, which may say it all.

I’m not trying to do a post-mortem here. Only Yannick can decide when his time has come, and I’m sure we’ll break the numbers down in more detail at a more appropriate time. But rest assured, regardless of the depth of statistical analysis, the numbers are not going to capture what Yannick has meant to this team and, quite honestly, to me personally. He’s been one of those people you meet in life that you never forget. And, I’m not saying it was his last, but if Yannick Tifu were to go out on a game-tying goal with 1:50 left in regulation in Game Seven of a second round playoff series, that’s really not a terrible way to do it.

So that’s all I have at this time. As a final note, I’d like to extend my personal thanks to the people who supported all of the projects that I was involved in this year; and for me that would include the good folks at CBS Sports Radio in Reading and BCTV. I’m looking forward to getting another shot at this thing in fall and I look forward to seeing all of you then. Have a great summer, everyone.

Mark T.

End 16 05-20