For as long as most can remember, the word Phoenix was synonymous with winning in the Western States Hockey.
The Polar Bears were downright dominant over their 12 seasons in the league, blowing teams out on a consistent basis, while currently holding the record for most all-time wins and a staggering eight Thorne Cup Titles.
Their legendary run came to a halt prior to last season, when ownership decided to sell the franchise to an aspiring group of men who vowed to keep the team in Phoenix. Although the location and recognizable team colors stayed the same, what transpired over the Phoenix Knights' first season in the WSHL was a far cry from the Polar Bears of old.
Rookie head coach Tom Helton knew it was going to be a bit of a rebuilding year when he inherited the team, which returned only one player from the previous season's roster. Making things even tougher was the newly-tight recruiting race in the desert, as the nearby Redhawks and head coach Robbie Powell worked hard over the off-season in hopes of taking advantage of the Knights' turnover and building a contender of his own.
Helton wound up putting together a respectable roster, which got off to a surprisingly hot start early in the season. The Knights busted out of the gate and won five of their first six games to begin the year, taking series from both Ogden and Valencia, two teams that contended all year.
Then, the injury bug bit, and bit and then bit some more and then re-produced and they all bit together.
One-by-one some of the Knights' top players went down to injury and it wasn't just a bruise or hairline fracture but often times season-ending injuries.
It's no coincidence that after winning five of their first six, the Knights won only once over their next 13 contests, as they quickly fell into oblivion. In fact, the Knights were so decimated by injuries that they played most of the All League Showcase with just 12 skaters and a few of those healthy skaters were kids that were called up from the local youth program to fill holes.
I got the chance to chat with Helton and his coaching staff, who are some of the nicest guys you'll ever meet, in Vegas and they were appalled at what had happened to a team that showed so much promise early in the season. As we spoke, I noticed their 45-passenger bus was barely a quarter full, as the few healthy players were only able to fill in the first few rows.
Despite the constant falling of bodies, the Knights continued to fight valiantly to the very end. It's a small miracle they all knew each other's names, as new faces graced the lineup seemingly every night.
Helton and Co. did the best they could to motivate their players throughout the year but what do you say to a team that was 5-1-0 to start the season and went 6-32-2 over their final 40 games?
You couldn't help but feel bad for the group of kids, who finished dead last in the Western Division; marking the first time a Phoenix team had failed to make the post-season.
In direct contrast to the season that the Knights had, the rival Arizona Redhawks turned a corner in their development and made the playoffs for the first time in their three seasons in the league. Don't be fooled, the fall of the Knights and rise of the Redhawks is a direct correlation.
Although winning just 11 games can never be considered a success, the bar was set very high for the Knights, who were, for all intents and purposes, an expansion franchise.
They were under new ownership, with new coaching and players, yet many still expected them to pick up where the Polar Bears had left off.
The comparisons to the Polar Bears are unfair and I find it amazing that the team was able to field a healthy lineup, let alone win 11 times.
Over the summer, General Manager Rich Caruso decided to make the change and part ways with Helton, whom he has nothing but good things to say about.
Caruso's decision wasn't necessarily based on the team's record but more of the team looking for a better fit overall, in terms of philosophy on and off the ice.
A local guy by the name of Kurt Goar assumes the position this season and if anybody is going to turn around recruiting in the desert, it's him, as he knows the landscape of hockey in the Valley of the Sun as well as anyone.
He shares Caruso's belief that recruiting in state is key and being able to pry players away from AAA hockey in the area is what will help change the trajectory of the franchise.
The two are excited to get back to work this fall, where they hope to return the Phoenix name to glory. Both understand however, that they will have to experience some more growing pains along the way, as the franchise hopes to create their own identity in the process.
Caruso and Goar are currently working the phones, trying to bring in some top-end talent and they are definitely a team that will make full use of their eight import spots.
They got good news with the return of forwards Colin Bresnehan and Daniel Gowans, who are both expected to have big years.
Bresnehan played a year with the Polar Bears prior to last season with the Knights and was one of the few guys who stayed healthy all year. He's a speedy checking forward who can also chip in offensively, notching 23 points last season.
Gowans is also a good skater who I feel, in the few times I've seen him play, has a little more in him than what he shows. When on top of his game, he's a guy that is constantly on the puck and should easily improve on his 16 points from last year.
Tommy Kaddatz is a local kid that has signed on after playing last season for the DYHA Firebirds 18AAA squad. His skill is obvious, as he was tendered by the Austin Bruins of the Tier II North American Hockey League. He's since returned home to Chandler, where he should benefit from big minutes and make the jump next year.
Al Taylor is another local boy, who played in the Phoenix Jr. Coyotes organization and is now beginning his junior career with the Knights. He's young but fills up a ton of net and will be a welcomed addition to what the coaching staff hopes will be a much quieter Phoenix crease.
Caruso and Goar are still working hard to bring in local talent like Kaddatz and Taylor and hope to fill out their roster within the next couple of weeks.
Another big change for the Knights is their move from the Western Division to the Mountain, where they are joined by the nearby Redhawks, Cheyenne Stampede, Boulder Bison, El Paso Rhinos and New Mexico Renegades.
Many believe it could be the toughest division, from top to bottom, in the entire league but Caruso didn't seem too concerned, as he's more focused on worrying about his team.
After a tough first year, the Knights will look to escape the Polar Bears' shadow this season and build their own legend, with Goar and Caruso now at the controls.
Practice begins after the holiday weekend and they are one of the rare teams that will not play a single exhibition game, before opening the season in Fort Worth September 28 against the Texas Jr. Brahmas.
Brent Maranto is the Director of Communications for the Western States Hockey League