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Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2008 02:34 pm

Ice dreams

They’re off to a slow start, but the season is young. The Jr. Blues plan for a comeback.

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Justin Hochsprung wins a face-off for the Springfield Jr. Blues.
Emily Thompson

A hockey coach with a little less optimism might see the return of only two veteran players as a season-staller, but not Chris Wyler. In fact, the Springfield Jr. Blues head coach welcomes the change.

Last year's team was more of an "inheritance," Wyler says, with a 25-man roster that included 12 returning players recruited by his predecessor, Nick Pollos. This season, Wyler and assistant coach Andy Maher drafted a new game plan for the Jr. Blues, one of 19 Junior A hockey teams in the North American Hockey League [see Amanda Robert, "On the edge," Oct. 4, 2007].

They've brought back fan-favorites and goal-scorers Jon Gaffney and Matt Globke, but also have handpicked new rising stars — some from as far away as Alaska, Massachusetts and the Ukraine — to fulfill their vision of how the game should be played. They looked for good "hockey sense" and skill, as well as quick action instead of brawn on the ice.

"The game has changed in the past few years," Wyler says. "It's gone away from the big, bruising type of game to more of a fast-paced, skilled, skating-type game. We feel we've brought in some players who can play that style of play for us."

Several of the new Jr. Blues have already caught the attention of college scouts, including 18-year-old New Jersey native Jack Callahan. Wyler calls the former Junior B player from the New Jersey Rockets one of the most highly recruited defensemen at his age in the country and a "tremendous asset on the blue line."

Callahan was initially drafted to the United States Hockey League — technically a step up from the NAHL — but when the move didn't pan out, his old pal, Gaffney, and Wyler and Maher urged him to choose Springfield. So far Callahan says it's been "a blast," especially his first appearance at the Nelson Center, playing for more than 1,100 fans at the Oct. 17 home opener.

"It was a rush," he says. "To get to start in front of all of those fans, it was incredible. I've never experienced anything like that."

The coaches found another popular pick in Mike Schaber, an 18-year-old high school hockey player from Blaine, Minn. As a senior, Schaber scored 32 goals and had 29 assists, earning him recognition as one of the state's best high school players. Wyler says he's not a "prototypical Minnesota high school player, but plays with a little bit of jam and a little bit of grit."

As a team, this year's Jr. Blues are younger than most others in the NAHL; 10 of them were born in 1990. Wyler calls them "tremendously coachable," but admits that inexperience has been a weakness. The team started its season with a 2-2 record, but quickly stumbled into an eight-game losing streak (including a loss to reigning NAHL Champion and rival St. Louis Bandits at the home opener).

The Jr. Blues came back on Oct. 25 and 26, sweeping the Wichita Falls Wildcats in two games, expanding their record to 4-7-2. They faltered again at both of last weekend's home games, losing 2-1 and 3-0 to the Topeka Roadrunners. The team currently sits in last place in the South Division, which, according to the NAHL, houses eight of the league's top 10 scorers and two of the top five goaltenders.

When talk of winning records and success comes up, Wyler revisits last year's Jr. Blues, who climbed from a last-place finish in 2007 to the Central Division playoffs in 2008. Anything can happen in a 58-game season, he says.

"I tell everybody all the time, the season is a marathon, not a sprint," Wyler says. "It's not always the team that's the best team in September, October and November that's the best team in March, April and May. We proved that last year."

Wyler identifies another success story in the promotion of several former players to a higher level of play:

—Matt Larke, a forward from Michigan, plays for professional International Hockey League team, the Port Huron IceHawks.

—Klemen Sodrznik, a defenseman from Slovenia, plays pro hockey in Slovenia.

—Cory Patterson, former team captain and forward from California, plays for St. Norbert College.

—Taylor Kennedy, a forward from Missouri, plays for University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

—Steve Mohler, a forward from California, plays for Curry College in Boston.

—Darren Rowe, a defenseman from California, and Jared Rickord, a forward from Skokie, Ill, play for a USHL team, the Cedar Rapids Rough Riders.

—Dan Weiss, a defenseman from Missouri, plays for USHL team, the Lincoln Stars.

"At the end of the day, that's what it's all about, developing players here," Wyler says. "Whether they go on to school, pro-hockey, or maybe a higher league, it's certainly what we're all about."

The Jr. Blues take on the St. Louis Bandits in Chesterfield, Mo., Friday, but return to face the No. 1-ranked team at the Nelson Center at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com

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