#?? Aaron Connolly
Born: Northfleet, Kent, England
Announced as signed: Basingstoke Gazette, 16th May
The steady stream of Thursday signings for the Herd continues with the news in the Gazette this morning. Coach Doug Sheppard today announced the first new signing for the Herd in the form of Great Britain under 20s captain, Aaron Connolly from Slough Jets.
19 year old Connolly was something of a prodigious talent, icing in the ENL whilst 13 years old for Invicta Dynamos scoring 1 goal and 4 assists in 3 games. After changes in the rules regarding juniors playing up, Connolly returned to the junior ranks at Invicta before switching to Chelmsford. 2008/09 saw Connolly excel at both u16 where he scored 85 points in 17 games and u18 where he scored 41 points in 10 games. He made his return to the ENL with the Chieftains the next season going a point per game at 16 years of age with 36 points (21+15) in 36 games.
Connolly split the 2010/11 season between the Chieftains and Slough Jets as part of a two way contract. 39 points in 30 games for the Essex side saw Connolly called to spend more time with the Jets where he was part of the team that won the EPL Cup over the Bison. Connolly has stayed with the Jets full time since, playing 84 times in the last two campaigns for a total of 45 points. He was also alternate captain for the Jets in 2012/13.
At international level, Aaron represented GB at u18 level before playing the last two campaigns at under 20s. He was alternate captain in 2011/12 before being named captain for the Division 1b campaign this season.
To get a better idea on the newest member of the Herd from someone who has watched a lot of him, I asked Slough Jets match night DJ and Jets TV presenter Mark Denholm for his thoughts on Aaron; “(Aaron is) a fast developing young talent, plays a never give up game, happy playing the puck or the body and a great addition to the Bison team. He’s worked well with Shep before, the two enjoyed success at Slough and he’s had another year of development since. He had pp and pk responsibility too last year despite his season being cut short by injury which he battled through. He’s someone I’d like to have kept at Slough but wish him all the best for the new challenge.”
Connolly will always be remembered for that night on 3rd March 2012 when Slough beat the Bison 8-3 and the young forward scored a hattrick and 2 assists in a lacklustre performance for the Bison that started badly and got worse. Connolly however is more than one performance and his history shows that. Debuting in the ENL at 13, high scoring seasons at junior and ENL, trophies and big performances in the EPL, scoring goals at international level; there’s a consistent streak of high performance there.
The team is still in its forming stage at the moment, there are only 5 forwards on the roster so where Connolly fits in exactly at the moment but of course his linemates that 5 point night were Joe Greener and Doug Sheppard. Hazarding a guess, Connolly will be used across the second and third lines depending on matchup and chemistry but I’d almost expect that Greener-Connolly-Sheppard line to start the season together unless Bison add a more established British centre to the roster between now and opening day.
Key for Connolly is the fact that (according to him) he’s overcome the shoulder injury that saw him miss time last season. Given that Sheppard is very keen on him and is likely to use him in a variety of situations as Koulikov did last season, the Bison need him to be fit and raring to go. Injuries happen, we all know that but one of the real crimes of last season was how much time both Connolly and Andy Melachrino lost to shoulder/collar bone ailments.
The other question that gets thrown up by this signing is who is Aaron replacing? I don’t feel he’s the like for like replacement for the now retired Greg Owen so you have to think one of the lower end Brits possibly as a replacement but I’ll leave that to your imaginations. We’ve signed one of the hottest up and coming players in British hockey and I’m more than alright with it.
Welcome to the Herd, Aaron. 5 point nights in Basingstoke aren’t mandatory but we won’t say no.
#97 Joe Greener
Born: Basingstoke, Hampshire, England
Announced as signed: Basingstoke Gazette, 9th May
With people speculating over who will be replacing those players who have left the Bison, coach Doug Sheppard satisfied the fanbase’s need for information by announcing another returnee from last season’s squad in the form of Joe Greener who adds the moniker of assistant coach to his playing role.
Greener, 26 came through the Basingstoke junior system making his debut for the Bison in the BNL in the 1999/00 season. After more time in the junior ranks, Greener progressed to the senior side once again in the 2002/03 BNL campaign where he scored 5 points in 31 games for the Bison.
Greener pastures beckoned (bad pun alert, Ed.) as Joe moved to Sault Ste Marie, Michigan in the US to play for the Soo Indians, first in the Mid Western Elite League before progressing to the Indians’ North American Hockey League side in 2004/05. Joe would remain in the NAHL, one of the top junior leagues in America and a feeder league for many US colleges and Canadian major junior leagues for a further 3 years with the Cleveland Barons and finishing with 2 years as part of the Traverse City North Stars. Greener finished his NAHL career with a respectable 66 points (31+35) in 163 games.
Greener returned to Britain in 2008 to ice for the Bracknell Bees chalking up 51 points in 45 games before spending the next three years with the Slough Jets. In 157 games in Berkshire, Joe chalked up 218 points alongside his defenceman brother Adam. In Joe’s time at Slough, the Jets won 2 playoff titles and 1 EPL cup beating the Bison in the final. Joe also led the league in assists in 2011/12 whilst captaining the side. For 2012/13 Greener followed Doug Sheppard to Basingstoke and tallied 49 points in 46 league contests and, in case you live in a hole, scored the overtime powerplay goal that sent the Bison to the EPL playoff weekend for the first time. In the EPL, Joe has 318 points (89+229) in 248 games. His international careers stands at 4 caps for GB under 18s in 2005 but was recently called into the long squads for the Olympic qualifiers and the recent world championships by Tony Hand but missed the cut for the final squad on both occasions.
“I still have some unfinished business with the Bison and that is to bring back a trophy. Last season was a frustrating one for me as I was only fit for about 25 games and 10 of those were at the end of the season.” – Bison press release
So let me get this straight; Greener feels he was only fit for about half the season and went over a point per game? Talk about putting statistics and performance into context.
When you consider how much Bison fans booed him when he was playing for Slough, there’s a beautiful irony to the fact that it was Joe Greener’s shot over Dean Skinns into the roof of the goal that sent the Bison to the EPL playoff semi finals. The numbers spoke for themselves however and even the most hardened critic of Greener had to concede that signing a player who had 70 points plus for three consecutive years was probably a decent signing when he was announced at last season’s season ticket night. Now obviously factors conspired to lessen his output in 2012/13 but even then he came up big on more than one occasion, two goals against Manchester, one at Altrincham and one at home, stand out as moments when Joe came good in the clutch.
The term power forward couldn’t be put to better use to describe Joe’s game. Those of use with long memories remember the press release announcing the signing of Danny Stewart and realising what a great work of fiction it was when this finesse winger with soft hands was described as a power forward when you compare him his game to Joe’s. As gritty as a gravel path but with massive point scoring ability (you only need to see his wrist shot), there is arguably no finer player in that role in the EPL as Joe Greener. It adds a dimension to the Bison’s forward line up that other teams can’t match at the moment. Teams can put a gritty guy on their top two lines, there’s plenty of guys like that in the EPL who do that job really well but few have Greener’s talent and offensive output.
The announcement that Greener becomes assistant coach into the bargain bears a bit of discussion. Firstly he’s younger than me and now helping to coach the Bison which just makes me feel like the oldest man alive so cheers Joe. Secondly it shows that Greener’s got a plan and ambition in mind with what he wants to do with his career which I find interesting. He’s got his sights set on returning to America and coaching out there and it’s something to keep an eye on for the future. Thirdly is what this brings to the recruitment side of things. Sheppard touched on it in the article in the Gazette today (here) that Greener has good contacts in North America. Different avenues become open to Sheppard in terms of who is out there now which is never a bad thing. It’s the best thing in the world to have lots of viable, high quality options for positions and the players that Greener can attract in this new position only add to that.
I’ll be honest, I can’t confess to being Greener’s biggest fan when he signed. Read his welcome piece that I wrote last season, I had wilfully been one of the people jeering him in a Jets jersey. I did however say that he was an upgrade on the players that we had at the time which I think he proved beyond doubt. The other thing is that Greener, like Jeremy Cornish before him in a Bison jersey, is someone you have to watch week in, week out to appreciate. You get a better appreciation of the guy’s skill set and what he brings and after a year of it I have to think this is a good re-signing.
Welcome back Joe, looking forward to what you can do when fully fit.
“The Lives of Conn Smythe – From the battlefield to Maple Leaf Gardens: A hockey icon’s story” by Kelly McParland (Fenn/|McClelland)
Price: ￡8.39 (paperback)/ ￡7.97 (Kindle)
If you have even a passing interest in hockey and you’re not familiar with the impact Conn Smythe had on the sport, you need only look to the very end of every season. Before the Stanley Cup is presented, Gary Bettman presents the Conn Smythe Trophy to the player voted most valuable to his team in the playoffs. The trophy itself sums up two of the things that Smythe himself put his love and effort into; Maple Leaf Gardens and Canada itself, a fact that becomes very clear in McParland’s book.
The book is split into 4 parts, each containing a few chapters and doesn’t scrimp on the details of Smythe’s life. From ‘Poor Boy’ to ‘Builder’ to ‘Warrior’ to ‘Mogul’, McParland sets about chronicling the life of a man who changed the sport of hockey and had a massive impact on the cultural history of the Canadian nation in the twentieth century, the impact of which is arguably still being felt.
Smythe lead an extraordinary life. By the age of 31 he had gone from being raised in abject poverty by his widower father, attending private school, changing school, running off to rural Ontario to become a homesteader to returning to become the on and off ice leader of the University of Toronto Varsity Blues to being a prisoner of war in world war one to founding a successful gravel business to being hired and fired as general manager of the New York Rangers. I’ve also left out a ton of stuff there.
Smythe is the founder of the organisation we know today as the Toronto Maple Leafs, renaming the Toronto St. Pats in 1927. He spent time as general manager, governer and coach and then, in the middle of the worldwide recession of the late twenties and thirties decided to build arguably one of the most iconic sports arenas in the world.
He rejoined the army in the second world war in his 40s and caused a political crisis when he criticised the training methods of Canadian soldiers. He became majority holder of the Leafs, he was a horse race trainer, he put Foster Hewitt, the original voice of hockey on the air; there is no way for me to adequately summarise this book without doing the research McParland did justice.
The book itself is a fantastic read. It is long, the paperback clocks in at over 330 pages but it doesn’t feel too long. If you’re interested in hockey or biographies, the length of the book really isn’t an issue and I personally struggled to put it down. With personal ties to hockey in Basingstoke, to discover that this titan of the sport spent time at a Canadian military hospital in the town in the second world war was really interesting for me.
It’s detailed and goes off at tangents at times to explain aspects of Smythe’s family life or the other people crucial to the story (Frank J. Selke for example) but all the threads are tied together and it makes the picture of Smythe the man feel more complete. McParland doesn’t sugar coat the story in any way and like all good journalists (McParland is a columnist for the National Post) leaves the reader to make the decisions over the morality of decisions whilst putting across all sides of the argument, something that really comes into its own when discussing the end of Smythe’s time at the head of Maple Leaf Gardens. The only criticism I have of the book is the end feels rather rushed. When you consider the detail McParland went into over the course of the book, the last 9 years of Smythe’s life are covered in 1 chapter that lasted 6 and a half pages and it just felt like the brakes had been put on too sharply. I appreciate that Smythe may not have been that active or there might not have been much to write about but it felt jarring.
That in mind, this is a great book that I am pleased I spent my money on. This is the third book I’ve reviewed here on the blog and I have to say that it’s probably the most accessible of the three in the sense that I don’t think that being a hockey fan is crucial for enjoying it. There’s a great story of a man and a bit of a story of a country and its changing attitudes as well as a bit of Canada’s role in both world wars (something we in Britain hear little about).
The hockey fan, particularly the Maples Leafs fan will love this book as it provides history and insight into one of hockey’s most influential people and, though Senators fans won’t thank me for saying it, one of the enduring huge names in professional sports worldwide. Whilst Leafs fans might get more out of it than fans of other NHL franchises, some of the stories in it will appeal to fans of all teams.
They say to know where you’re going, you need to know where you’ve been. This book will help you learn about one of the game’s most important figures in its history. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
#11 Zach Sullivan
Born: Redhill, Surrey, England
Announced as signed: Bison website 1st May
There seems to be a lot of in/out with Bison announcements at the moment; player leaves, club announces a returnee which has happened 3 times in a row. Following on from the news that Alex Symonds is off to Swindon and a few people jokingly wondering if Doug had signed anyone for the blueline, Coach Sheppard responded by announcing Zach Sullivan would return for a second season with the Bison.
Sullivan, who turns 19 in July burst onto the senior hockey scene in 2010/11 staring for the Invicta Dynamos in ENL 1 South. After starting 2011/12 in Kent, Sullivan’s confident and assured displays on the blueline saw him receive a call from then Slough Jets coach Doug Sheppard to step up to the EPL full time which he did with aplomb. Then only 17, Sullivan was an integral part of the Jets side that won the EPL playoffs, logging a fair amount of ice time and being used in critical situations. When Sheppard made the jump from Slough to Basingstoke, the GB under 18 and under 20 international followed, scoring 4 points and tallying just 20 PIMs in his first campaign for the Bison.
“He has the ability and game craft well beyond his years and is another super returnee for the Bison.” – Bison press release
I don’t know who writes the Bison press releases but they excelled themselves with this one. They also rendered a chunk of what I was going to write largely redundant with one sentence but without labouring the point too much, one of the big strengths of Sullivan’s game is that he doesn’t play it like an 18 year old.
That’s not to try and do a disservice to young players but many of you will understand what I am getting at; learning on the job, making mistakes is all part of development as a hockey player but Sullivan doesn’t get many rushes of blood to the head. Maybe this is having played more senior hockey than other players his age having an impact and he is by no means a perfect player as he will likely be the first to tell you but how comfortable do you feel when Sullivan is on the ice? I venture a high percentage would respond positively to that question.
Taking age out of the equation altogether, Zach is a just a reliable stay at home defenceman who takes few penalties. 20 penalty minutes across a season works out to a minor penalty every 5.4 games if I’ve done my maths correctly. When you consider Sullivan’s ice time that’s a fantastic stat, showing that he can be trusted not to do daft things at crucial moments. He’s not high scoring but that’s not a big concern (though given Banners On The Wall protocol on defensive defencemen; if you want to turn into PK Subban and score lots of goals, Zach you go right ahead). The number one job of a defenceman is to defend. Secondary scoring is nice but Sullivan won’t be expected to cover that load.
As we don’t know who else will be on the blueline at the moment, it’s tough to see what role Sullivan will play. The easy guess is 2nd or 3rd defenceman depending on who else is signed but he will get used in a variety of situations and on a second powerplay unit assuming Sheppard tries a lineup that leads to a 4 or 5 forward powerplay again.
I like players like Zach Sullivan; solid, dependable, not overly flash but crucial to success. Sure I like the flashy players too but Sullivan’s game lends itself to the old saying about defenders that if you don’t notice them then they’re doing something right. At the business end of the season, much like Alex Symonds, Zach shone in the pressure situations. Sheppard called the playoff semi final the youngster’s best game of the campaign. He acknowledged in the press release announcing his return that there are things to work on but as the press release also said, a super returnee.
Welcome back Zach, repeat performances appreciated.
With Joe Miller’s announcement on Thursday, it was greeted with the news this morning that his fellow countryman Alex Symonds will not be returning for the 2013/14 campaign with the Bison.
What have we lost?:
In Symonds, the Bison had a top end British defenceman. He wasn’t a high scoring player but he was a high quality, defensively solid player who played a vital role in the Bison’s success. The good thing with Symonds was his consistency. He was a 60 minute player in games and, whilst not error free because nobody is error free, could be relied upon to give very good performances night in and night out. This only improved at the tail end of the season and especially in the playoffs where his play earned him 2 out of the 3 man of the match awards from the Bison’s games in a rare example of them being done correctly. Whilst rarely used on the powerplay due to the five forward strategy that Sheppard used, he was a player that could play in all situations and appeared on the second powerplay unit, the PK and pretty much everywhere.
Where has he gone?:
Alex has “done a Lyle” and moved closer to home by joining the Swindon Wildcats who also announced the departure of former Bison defenceman, Joe Baird.
Symonds iced for the Wildcats in the 2006/07 season.
Who replaces him?:
As we’ve signed no defenceman yet, then technically nobody but Coach Sheppard will have something up his sleeve, including recent rumours that he’s tapping some of his old Elite League contacts in a quest to coax players to come to the EPL.
Whilst the article in the Swindon Advertiser (http://www.swindonadvertiser.co.uk/sport/icehockey/10384097.Symonds_in_at_Wildcats_as_Baird_exits/) makes it look like that Symonds is a replacement for Baird, he’s more a replacement for the Dundee bound Paul Swindlehurst in my opinion. Given his performances over the last couple of seasons Symonds has, at least at EPL level, earned the right to be a team’s number one British defenceman and that’s what I think he becomes at Swindon unless they have massively upped their budget.
Whilst many point to the injury to Reynolds as the incident that cost Bison the EPL title, it was the injury that Symonds suffered that proved just as costly because it depleted the defence so much the depth the Bison had on defence vanished. When Fojtik went, Symonds stepped up his game and his icetime. When Reynolds went down injured, he responded again to carry more of the load but when he went down injured, it cost us.
I like Symonds as a player and would have had him back in a heartbeat but, as with Lyle the chance to play closer to home has proven a big lure along with whatever plans Ryan Aldridge has up his sleeve at the Link Centre. Such is hockey, such is life sometimes. Some people will see this as a bad sign that the Bison have lost such a high quality defenceman but Sheppard has pulled aces from up his sleeve before and he can do so again.
Thanks for your efforts Alex and all the best at Swindon, just not against us.
#23 Joe Miller
Born: Caerdydd, Cymru
Announced as signed: Basingstoke Gazette, 25th April
After announcing the return of Joe Rand last week, Doug Sheppard announced a further forward would be rejoining the Herd for 2013/14 in the shape of high scoring British forward, Joe Miller.
Miller, 28 will be entering his 3rd season with the Bison after a career that has seen him travel the length and breadth of England and Wales plying his trade. After coming through the junior ranks in Cardiff, Miller’s career has seen stops in the BNL, EPL and EIHL with the likes of Telford, Coventry and Manchester. Miller was part of the Peterborough Phantoms EPL grand slam winning side of 2008/09 and won the 2010/11 EPL title with Manchester after his mid-season move from the Phantoms to the Phoenix. After winning the league trophy with the Phoenix, Miller was snapped up by then head coach Steve Moria for the 2011/12 campaign and Miller’s been part of the Herd ever since. In 102 games for the Bison, Miller has 56 goals and 60 assists for 116 points despite missing a chunk of the 2012/13 season with a groin injury. Miller’s EPL career sees him averaging 1.29 points per game in 472 contests and should play his 500th career EPL sometime in early 2014. Miller has also represented Great Britain at under 18 and under 20 level.
Two weeks in a row, two very popular forward signings from Doug Sheppard; it’s the good standard Bison PR at the moment. Those who were hoping a new signing this week, the inevitable question of who our starting netminder will be still looming, need to remember two things; new signings generally come at season ticket night with a bit more of a fanfare and Joe Miller is a cracking signing.
Having lost Greg Owen to retirement, Miller becomes all the more vital as part of the team because at EPL level he is a high end Brit. He scores goals, goes to the front of the net and into the corners. Miller has the ability to be both the gritty and the skilful player as and when required. When at Manchester he was overused on a straight checking line which is not his forte. Miller is a creative player and yes he can check and yes he can grind and yes he has a good two way game but his skillset means if you stick him on the third line just running around hitting, you’re wasting a large amount of his talents. Miller is responsible in his own zone but let’s be honest here, Joe is best going forward. You put the puck on his stick and watch him go.
That said we shouldn’t play down the defensive side of his game. As crazy as it sounds, I find it really entertaining watching Miller on the penalty kill. You should try it one time during the next season. Sheppard’s penalty killing strategy generally allows one man to play very high on the forecheck and pressure the other team. Sheppard does this when he’s on the ice and Miller is the other player who really excels at this task. Many is the time he’s managed to force turnovers or at least force the other team back into their own zone to kill off some of the powerplay just by getting into the zone and hassling the other team. His foot speed also provides opportunities because if the puck is dumped into the zone, Miller can generally catch most defencemen even if they have a bit of a headstart.
Joe Miller is a player that all EPL coaches would jump at. Whereas we don’t know what Rand’s exact role will be, we can be pretty certain as to how Sheppard will use Miller because it works really well. Who Miller plays alongside remains a mystery for now although given Rand’s return many would expect to see them play together on occasion. If Greg Chambers could be persuaded to return we could also see Miller link up with Chubbs once again. Who would centre that line would be the key question as whilst they wouldn’t need to have all of Owen’s attributes they would need to match his skills in puck distribution.
If Miller remains injury free he is capable of 30 goals and 60-70 points across the year and that is a great weapon to have in Coach Sheppard’s arsenal. Welcome back Joe, Cymru am Byth and all that.