Early exit letdown for Blast

By Brian Smiley, Brantford Expositor

It didn't take long for things to go south on the Brantford Blast.

A week after his team had its Allan Cup Hockey season snuffed out, Blast owner and general manager Peter Ham got right to the point when asked about the 2016-17 campaign.

"It was another great season," Ham said. "It was one of those seasons that was building like we've had for the past several - but it fizzled out."

Boy did it ever.

The Blast won four of their five games in January and were holding onto third place in the six-team league. Included in that streak was a 3-1 win against the eventual regular-season champion Stoney Creek Generals in a game where goaltender Brett Leggat was lights out.

But in February, the tide turned as Brantford went 2-5, including back-to-back season-ending losses to the Generals that pushed the Blast to fourth place.

Ham said Stoney Creek set itself apart from the rest of the league and he joked that in those final matches, there should have been two pucks on the ice - one for the Generals and one for the Blast.

"That is the best team I've ever seen in all my years of senior hockey," Ham said. "They are beautiful to watch."

For years, Brantford has had a certain swagger where it didn't go out and try to win, it expected to win. With their tumble down the standings and a first-round playoff battle against fifth-place Dundas on their schedule, the Blast lost some of that luster and they couldn't recover as the Real McCoys swept the best-of-three series.

"If your team is going south heading into the playoffs and you've got the prospect of having to play a two of three games in four days on a Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, the guys are right off their sequence," Ham said.

"Our guys are Friday night guys. Our guys understand they play Friday nights and some Saturdays. Their lives are geared for that."

After battling back from a three-goal, third-period deficit to take a 6-5 lead late in Game 1, the Blast lost all momentum in the series when the Real McCoys scored late in regulation and then in overtime to take the opener. Brantford was then eliminated two days later with a 7-3 loss.

Even if the Blast had got by the Real McCoys, they would have had to have faced the dangerous Generals in the second round. Stoney Creek went on to eliminate Dundas in four straight games.

"You can always beat a superior team but let me say this: Stoney Creek is the finest senior AAA team I've ever played against," said Ham.

"That's a lot of good teams. I've never seen anything like it. They have 25 pros and a lot of them fresh out of upper echelon leagues. They have another gear or two.

"They've done an unbelievable job of building that team down there."

So, while Ham believes the core of a championship team is still intact in Brantford, there's work to be done.

"We've got to add more talent," he admitted, while praising his assistant general manager.

"Darren Watson has done a great job in recruiting. He filled in and had the depth of 30 players and did a great job.

"The thing that we have to do now is we have to get some more (former professionals). It's not easy but we're going to change."

One player the Blast added last season that made a huge difference was Charlie Stephens. The former NHLer only played in 17 games but he wound up leading the team in scoring with 17 goals and 19 assists.

"It was a surprise," Ham said of Stephens' arrival.

"It turned out he was the greatest addition we've had in a long, long time. The guy played 17 games, he got 36 points and he had zero penalty minutes. Zero. It's not because he's shy. He goes between the dots down low."

While Stephens has told Ham he'll try and help bring in some fresh blood, the general manager is on his own when it comes to a coach. Ham said he wants defenceman Jeff Caister to concentrate on playing and that the Blast may not have another player/coach under Ham's watch.

"He put in a fantastic four years with us as a player and a player/coach - and I have a feeling that the days of the playing/coach are over for me," said Ham.

"Jeff did a marvelous job. He's such a nice man, so full of energy and wit. I would really love him back to play for us."

Even though the coaching job is becoming public just now, there has been interest in the posting.

"I've had inquiries from guys who I know that are coaches and who I've always respected," Ham said. "They've asked to talk to me but I'm trying to catch my breath.

"I've had other people who have surprised me, good players, top players who would like to come here and coach.

"We have lots of interest in coaching the Brantford Blast."

And Ham left off with one final thought about the future - the organization will be making a push to bid for its first Allan Cup Canadian senior men's hockey championship since hosting, and winning, in 2008.

"We're going to bid on the 2020 Allan Cup," he said. "We've got the tools and we've got the resources so that gets me very excited. I know I've got a lot of support in the OHA/Hockey Canada community.

"That's what's really getting me excited. The future looks very, very exciting."

ICE CHIPS . . . Brantford finished second among all Ontario Hockey Association teams in attendance by averaging 1,163 fans per game. The junior B Sarnia Legionnaires snuck by the Blast by averaging 1,268. "I take great pride in that and our whole organization should take pride in that," Ham said. . . . The best-of-seven ACH championship schedule has been set. The following are the details (*If necessary): Game 1, March 18 in Stoney Creek at 7:15 p.m.; Game 2, March 22 in Whitby at 8 p.m.; Game 3, March 24 in Stoney Creek at 8 p.m.; Game 4, March 25 in Whitby at 7:30 p.m.; Game 5*, March 26 in Stoney Creek at 6:30 p.m.; Game 6*, March 29 in Whitby at 8 p.m.; Game 7*, April 1 in Stoney Creek at 7:15 p.m.