Hockey is back in Fresno.
The five words that die-hard fans who have supported the Fresno Monsters since the franchise's inception in 2009 didn't think they would see, after news broke that Gateway Ice Center, a community rink that acted as the practice facility and host of occasional Monsters home games, would close down before summer due to lack of funds.
In stepped a new group of local investors and although they couldn't act in time to save the Monsters Tier II North American Hockey League franchise, which packed up and moved north to Wenatchee, Washington, their actions were enough to keep Gateway Ice Center open, at least until May of next year.
This, of course, puts the Monsters ultra-successful WSHL program back in the spotlight once again as the lone hockey team in Fresno, just like they were in 2009, when they set the league on fire while consistently playing in front of packed crowds and garnering all the headlines.
The one-sheet facility is no Selland Arena but it will do for the time being and there are currently plans in place to build on to it and add a full training center and two more ice sheets, including a 1,700 seat main arena that the WSHL team would call home.
No longer in the mix are familiar Fresno faces like, both of whom helped the franchise get its start. Eric Ballard took the head coaching job at the University of Colorado (ACHA) and Jay Johnson has chosen to take a step back and focus on his business, which sets up Bryce Dale, who has been at the helm of the WSHL team for the past three seasons, to be the go-to guy for the Monsters.
Dale has seen his role within the organization expand immensely and can now add, "General Manger' next to his title of "Head Coach" as well as a number of other roles at Gateway Ice Center, with the Monsters youth program and in the community.
Dale will certainly have his plate full but if he performs his new tasks as well as he's done with his coaching duties over his three years, he'll be just fine and so will the Monsters.
Last season was supposed to be a down year for the WSHL team, who lost a handful of top forwards and defensemen from their powerful 2011-2012 squad and even Dale seemed hesitant, at best, at his teams chances to repeat as Western Division Champions in 2013, when speaking with him a year ago.
With a young roster, which was eventually bolstered by the returns of top veterans like Nick McKee, Justin Plate and Tom McGuckin, the Monsters began the year on a tear, going 17-0-0 before finally dropping their first game on December 16.
Injuries and departures of top players to the NAHL squad, including the aforementioned McKee and Plate, as well as defenseman Cory Sikich, led to an up-and-down second half and a record of just 13-10-1 down the stretch for the Monsters, which would be considered a solid finish for most clubs but not in Fresno, regardless of what may have led to it.
Despite the second half slow down, which Dale referred to as less of a struggle and more of his young players learning to find their way and accept bigger roles, the Monsters still finished nine points ahead of the second place Bay Area Seals and took the regular season division title with relative ease, yet again.
Historically not a great playoff team, Fresno took care of the San Diego Gulls with a two-game sweep in the opening round of the post-season, before hosting the Seals with the division title on the line the following weekend.
Facing the hottest team in the league, filled with a number of new acquisitions, many of which were top-end imports, the Monsters took game one by a score of 5-2 and were just one win away from a division title.
The Seals came back the next night and forced a decisive third game with a 4-1 win however and finished off the comeback in the finale, despite being outshot 38-31 by the Monsters, with a 4-3 overtime victory.
Believe it or not, the season wasn't over for Fresno, as they received a wildcard berth into the Thorne Cup Finals in McCall, Idaho, as the sixth team to make the tournament, joining the four division winners and the host (the Southern Oregon Spartans received the host spot, as the actual host Idaho Jr. Steelheads also won their division.)
The Monsters, still short-benched and perhaps a bit fatigued, made the long trek up to Idaho and fought valiantly, nearly edging the host and eventual champion Jr. Steelheads, before falling by a score of 4-3 and following that up with an 8-3 loss to El Paso, which knocked them out of the event.
Despite another playoff stumble, Dale was happy with the way his team fought all season long, especially in Idaho, where they played a tough schedule and received a good amount of praise from a number of people who watched them play and admired the work ethic they displayed with their backs against the wall.
When asked why the playoff woes continued for the Monsters, Dale couldn't put a finger on the problem, stating, "We just have to continue to take it one game at a time. I'm not worried about whether or not we'll get over the hump, we just have to chip away and if my guys work hard and make the program proud, that's more than enough for me."
Dale, now getting acclimated to his new role, has made some changes of his own already, ordering new jerseys for the team, designing a new locker room and becoming heavily involved in the new building he hopes will be in place next year for the city to enjoy.
He's also brought in two new assistant coaches, making the team more of his own. Long-time friend Jason Rivera, the man that convinced Dale to sign his first professional contract after his career at Utica College concluded, is going to be his right-hand man and will work extensively with the goaltenders. He's also brought aboard former Monsters agitator Zach Alvarez, who wore his heart on his sleeve every time he donned a Fresno uniform and will surely coach the same way.
Dale has also been, "floored", as he put it, with the partnership he's been able to establish with the Wenatchee Wild and head coach Bliss Littler, who hosted Dale and staff at their recent training camp.
Dale's well aware of the pros and cons of not having a Tier II team in his own backyard any longer but he is eager to be the only game in town again and is also excited to do his own recruiting and not feel as though he can lean on the NAHL program, if he needed to.
What may be boiling in Fresno is a return to the pomp and circumstance that surrounded the Monsters during their inaugural season, where they were headliners, recruited players who wanted to play at the Tier III level and had the support of the entire community, which is a recipe for success no matter where you put a team.
Dale and staff are working hard to bring in top-end talent and win hockey games but like many others around the league, he's quick to point out that the Monsters pride themselves on moving their players on to college and higher levels of junior hockey, as seen by the eight players from last season that have committed to go elsewhere this fall.
With Dale able to put his stamp on the program and things moving toward a beautiful new arena and a new buzz around the team, don't be surprised to see the Monsters keep doing what they've done since entering the WSHL; win hockey games in bunches.
Players Moving Up:
Forward Justin Plate and defenseman Cory Sikich, both of whom received call-ups to the NAHL club last season, have already hooked-on with the Wenatchee Wild and are expected to be mainstays in Littler's line-up this season.
Also moving on to Tier II junior hockey is goaltender Corey Foster, who is heading north of the border, where he'll play for the Hamilton Red Wings of the Ontario Junior Hockey League.
Forwards Mike Fabie and Filip Winkler are both still in the mix for NAHL spots as well and each will be attending camps in the coming weeks with a good shot at sticking.
The Monsters also moved three players on to Becker College in Worcester, Massachusetts, as a skilled trio consisting of forwards Nick McKee and Kyle Godfrey, as well as defenseman Tommy Nourie, will play Division III NCAA hockey for the Hawks, while also gaining an invaluable education.
Forward Alex Roskell is planning on playing hockey for a Canadian university and has a few options on the table, as well.
Unlike last season, when the Monsters returned very few veterans to begin the year, Dale has already inked a number of key veteran returners.
His top four defensemen are essentially set, with Michael Freeman, Gunnar Dircks, Mark Shroyer and Dan Fitzgerald all coming back. The group includes a little of everything, including offense, size and skating ability.
A good number of forwards are also returning to Fresno, including Austin Browning, who led the team with 48 points last season (not counting McKee and late season pick-up Andrii Istominov.)
Also returning is speedster Jordan Fontaine, who was one of the best players at the Thorne Cup Finals and is always moving his feet and wreaking havoc. Shilo Vega was a point-per-game producer before he left the team halfway through the 2012-2013 season but he should be in for the long haul this time around. Rounding out the group are role players like Conner Osborne, Nico Wilton and Carter Dahl, all of whom should see expanded roles this season.
The only real void, as of right now, is goaltending, as none of the four Monsters goaltenders from last season are slated to come back.
Dale was quick to nab a couple of defensemen from the 18AAA ranks to round out his top six, as he picked up Alex Schwartz from the California Titans and Wesley Morales from the Utah Regulators.
He is also currently in talks with a number of Canadian forwards but has yet to finalize any deals but he has picked up a number of young prospects from the western United States.
The group is led by Thomas Peach, who had over 100 points at the AAA level last season with Spokane, Jacob Haynes, a local kid with a great set of hands and Michael Caruso, a gritty forward who Dale expects to work hard and learn the junior game in year one.
The only goaltender currently on the roster is Matt Saldano, who played 16AAA last season and is expected to develop and eventually compete for playing time going forward.
Dale likes the Monsters regular season schedule and the overall quality the WSHL, now up to 24 teams, will be showcasing this season. He feels the WSHL has the most even playing field of any Tier III league around and it should make for a competitive and fun year of hockey.
Going along with their tough divisional schedule, which consists of six games each against the Lake Tahoe Blue (formerly the Bay Area Seals), San Diego Gulls, Valencia Flyers, Ontario Avalanche and Long Beach Bombers, the Monsters will take to the road for series at the Ogden Mustangs and Southern Oregon Spartans. They'll also play host to the Seattle Totems, who will be looking to rebound after a down year and the Idaho Jr. Steelheads, which should help rekindle a vicious rivalry that has transpired over the years.
Dale isn't looking ahead however and has his sights set clearly on September 27, when the Monsters invade Long Beach for their season opener.
They're not going to surprise anyone this time around but with Dale now grasping the reins a little tighter and the pieces falling into place around him, the new-look, back-from-the-dead Fresno Monsters are going to be tough to handle, just as one would expect.
Brent Maranto is the Western States Hockey League's Director of Communications
* Disclaimer: This site may contain advice, opinions and statements from various authors and information providers. Views expressed in this article reflect the personal opinion of the author, and not necessarily the views of JuniorHockey.com. JuniorHockey.com does not represent or endorse the accuracy or reliability of any advice, opinion, statement or other info provided in the article, or from any other member of this site.