A new hockey tradition begins today in South Lake Tahoe.
South Tahoe’s newly formed hockey team, Lake Tahoe Blue, will play the Fresno Monsters in a home-opening series at 7 p.m. Friday, 8:30 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. Sunday at the South Lake Tahoe Ice Arena. The three-game series promises to be heated.
“Fresno is our No. 1 rival,” general manger Chris Collins said. “It will be chirpy on the ice. The guys are very competitive and a lot of them know one another, and the fact that we were able to knock them out and play in the Western Conference Championship last year was a huge deal. It hasn’t fallen on deaf ears.”
Lake Tahoe Blue, which is part of the Western States Hockey League, was actually formed last year in San Francisco and known as the Bay Area Seals, and it wasn’t an easy start for the Seals in that inaugural year. They dropped 15 of their first 18 games, and didn’t post a win for nearly three months.
In December, however, the team made a huge turn around.
Collins picked up three players in mid December who had an immediate impact — forwards Kristian Kucera and Filip Ondracek and goaltender Filip Orcik. Orcik recorded 48 saves in his first game, and the Seals started their improvement.
Behind their three new players, the Seals opened the second half of the season with an 11-game win streak, all against division opponents.
The team was on a roll, and Collins added four more players — Grand Prairie, Alberta natives Scott Nordstrom, Mac Putio and Corey Wamsteeker along with Tier II power forward Nick Anderson — keeping the momentum alive as the Seals started a postseason run.
First they took down the Valencia Flyers in Round 1 to advance to the Pacific Division title against the Fresno Monsters. Fresno was leading the division, but the Seals had chipped their way into second place in the standings.
Fresno took game one 5-2 at home, but the Seals surged back to pick up the next two games, the final in an overtime victory, and capture the division championship.
With the title, the Seals earned a spot in the Thorne Cup Finals in McCall, Idaho.
Once at the finals, the Seals once again shook off an opening loss to El Paso and rebounded with a win against the Dallas Ice Jets to make semi-finals. In the semis, the Seals faced El Paso against, but this time came out on top 7-2 and advanced to the Thorne Cup Championship Game.
Their Thorne Cup run came to halt, however, with a 4-2 loss to the Idaho Jr. Steelheads. As runner-up, the Seals went on to play in the United Hockey Union National Championships in Las Vegas, Nev., where they once again fell to the Steelheads in the championship game.
The Seals finished the season second in division standings with an overall record of 26-16-4. Fresno finished 32-13 to lead the Pacific Division in standings.
“Not may expansion teams go to national title games, but we used a formula where we didn’t freak out,” Collins said. “We evaluated and got through suspensions and injuries and then we found what it took as a group to win and ultimately that starts and stops with our community.”
New town, new team
Now Lake Tahoe Blue hopes to bring that winning formula to South Lake Tahoe.
“The players recognize that there’s a chance to start something new in this town, and they’re taking that very seriously,” said Greg Jamison, club owner and former President of the San Jose Sharks. “Not only do they want to win, but they want to be a part of something that they think can grow and have a chance to be here for a long time.”
The team lost a few stats leaders to the higher levels, but it returned four key players.
Power forward Nick Anderson is well-known in the hockey community. He returned to the team to stay close to his family and help Lake Tahoe Blue establish roots in South Shore. At 6-foot-4 and 195 pounds, he can score goals, fight, hit and is a big impact player for the Blue.
Also leading the team at forward will be Martin Vachal, whose size and puck control is a huge threat to defenses.
On defense, returner Mark DaVaughn will also be a big impact player for the blue.
“He’s 6-3, a tremendous skater, has Division I potential. He’s fast and very physical,” Collins said.
Frankie McClendon, who backed up Orcik last season, returns to goal this year. He will split time with new net minder Troy Turpin.
Turpin is set to start Friday. He came to the team on a tryout basis after playing in Helena, Mont., the last two years in the American West Hockey League.
“He’s been a surprise for us,” Collins said of Turpin. “He’s actually been our most consistent net minder. He’s been very good in games and he fits the mode of net minders being different. He’s quiet and unassuming, but on the ice he’s very focused and has actually been very good for us.”
Another new player for the Blue is forward and Swedish-born Sebastian “Foppa” Forslund. The forward put up nearly 100 points in his league last year and has already emerged as a big contributor this year.
“He’s incredible offensively. Fans will like his style of play,” Collins said.
The Blue also picked up top defender Mattia Bartolotto, who has played in high-level leagues for the past three years.
“He’s not the biggest player, but he’s fast, he’s tenacious, he can put points up and he’s very physical,” Collins said.
Catching up with Blue
Lake Tahoe Blue opened its season Sept. 20 in Ontario and has been on the road for two weeks.
“We’ve actually done pretty well. I wanted to be 3-3 after our first six games and we’re 2-4 right now, but we had two brutally tough road trips,” Collins said.
The Blue finished the first series in Ontario 1-2, and arguably should have won all three games. Injuries, however, held the Blue back during the series.
“Our kids played their heart out and we statistically dominated them, but it’s early in the season and you’re on the road,” Collins said.
The next road game in Dallas was a similar story, and Lake Tahoe Blue emerged 1-2 again.
“We completely outplayed them in two of three games, but again we’ve had slow and nagging injuries that have kept three to four guys out in the first six games and we haven’t overreacted to that,” Collins said. “We’re just played hard and as the general manager I can tell you I like were we’ve been the last two or three games. I really see it coming together.”
The Blue will try to put it together against Fresno this weekend for their first series win.
“It’s a big rivalry and it’s fun because rivalries are what the sport is all about,” Collins said. “They’re good. Fresno one of the marque franchises in our league.”
Brent Maranto of Western States Hockey League contributed to this report.