After a lackluster season that featured several uninterested players, the Utah Grizzlies were looking to make major changes heading into the 2007-08 campaign.
Utah coach Jason Christie, who suffered his first losing season (22-42-8) of his seven-year career, and Utah execs reached out to the New York Islanders with hopes of landing an affiliation. Four months later, the Grizzlies have a completely different look.
They’ll open the season Friday night against the Victoria Salmon Kings with nearly a dozen players under contract with the Isles.
Entering his eighth season as a head coach in the ECHL, Christie has certainly made a lot of contacts along the way.
The Isles’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, are coached by Jack Capuano, who coached in the ECHL from 1996-2001, making stops in Tallahassee, Knoxville and Pee Dee. Bridgeport’s assistant, Pat Bingham, coached the Wheeling Nailers from 2003-05, while Islanders’ scout Toby O’Brien coached the Johnstown Chiefs from 2002-05.
For Christie, the Islanders were exactly what the Grizzlies needed in order to make a quick and successful turnaround.
“We got a hold of the Islanders after (last) season, and we just proposed our facility here and the city,” Christie said. “I just think it’s a good fit with Jack Capuano being from the (ECHL), and Pat Bingham’s there coaching as well. Toby O’Brien’s doing the scouting. We kind of all come from the same background. It’s been a good feeling to be a part of this.”
Christie made sure to bring back the players who brought their hard hats to the rink every night last season. One of the members of that small group is forward D.J. Jelitto, who was furious about how things unfolded down the stretch.
“Guys got into trouble … they didn’t take the team seriously,” said Jelitto, who had 15 goals, 14 assists and 70 penalty minutes in 70 games last season. “It was kind of a big circus. Some guys would show up to play, and then the rest of the guys would just sort of go through the motions and try to get through the game. That sort of happened all year. Toward the end of the season, a lot of the guys sort of quit. They wanted nothing to do with it. That’s why we finished second-to-last in the league.”
Christie admitted that there were attitude problems late in the season, despite the fact that his team was in a playoff run until the final week. It’s why the roster has practically made wholesale changes this time around, and why the affiliation with the Islanders was basically a necessity.
“In a game situation, I really noticed it a lot,” said Christie, who has 275 career wins to his credit. “Some guys were just kind of happy to make a paycheck. They were just playing the season out. It was frustrating, just because you knew you had a handful of guys who wanted to win. It came down to the final week there. We were still in it. It was kind of tough on guys who really wanted to do it.”
The 23-year-old Jelitto is hopeful that things will be completely different in 2007-08, which would also likely lead to more fans going through the turnstiles at the E-Center. Of course, the affiliation with the Islanders was just the first step in the process.
“I think it’s something the team needed,” said Jelitto, a Utah native. “It’s something that should get more fan support here. It’s definitely going to help. Hopefully, the guys coming in from Bridgeport have the same mentality like they want to win and they want to play.”
While Christie did nothing but win in his coaching career up until last season’s bump in the road, the 38-year-old is confident that it will only help him in the long run. Certainly, his resume would lead one to believe that last season was merely an aberration. One would hope that a quick turnaround would lead to a coaching opportunity in the AHL for Christie.
“As a coach, you have to learn every day,” Christie said. “Just going through last year, just trying to keep guys headed in the right direction, you really learn a lot. The positive thing is I learned a lot just about guys. It’s important for me to take all that knowledge and bottle it up. I’ve got to feed it to the players this year.”
Even with last season’s struggles, Christie’s mindset is the same as it was when he first became head coach of the Peoria Rivermen back in 2000. In his rookie season behind the bench, Christie guided Peoria to the Kelly Cup Finals – a far cry from what he was forced to go through last season. Nonetheless, his smile remains as wide as Salt Lake City.
“It really brings you back to reality,” Christie said of last season. “You just know how much of a grind it is every single day. You have some good days and some bad days. Last year, we had more bad days than good. I’m excited. I love coaching. I love coming to the rink every day. Even last year, as bad as it was, it was good to have the group of guys that really wanted to win and compete. You feel happy for those guys when you seem them working and competing hard for you.”
And with the Islanders by his side, there should be plenty of more guys who come to the rink every night wanting to win for one of the top ECHL coaches of this decade.
“Just the way the Islanders have been, right from top to bottom, it just adds that extra excitement at our level,” Christie said. “We’ve been able to just be part of that family.”
Time to drop the puck -- The ECHL season got under way Thursday night with the Wheeling Nailers visiting the Johnstown Chiefs. With 10 more contests on tap Friday night, here’s our top five teams to watch in 2007-08:
1. Elmira Jackals – It’s their first season in the ECHL, but that doesn’t mean the Jackals won’t make a quick impact, especially with Steve Martinson behind the bench. Where Martinson goes, victories follow. It’s that simple.
2. Florida Everblades – Gerry Fleming’s squad is always one to contend with, and it shouldn’t be any different this season. Florida has reached the conference finals in three of the last four seasons, which makes us wonder – how is Fleming not coaching in the AHL?
3. Phoenix Roadrunners – Brad Church goes behind the bench for his first full season after replacing Ron Filion late last season. He did a solid recruiting job during the summer, bringing in the likes of defenseman Reagan Rome and forward Justin Maiser. Much like the way Church played the game, the Roadrunners should not be short on character.
4. Trenton Devils – All eyes will be on this squad, which will be loaded with players under contract with the parent club. Should Rick Kowalsky’s club enjoy a successful campaign, more clubs will likely follow New Jersey’s model.
5. Alaska Aces – New coach Keith McCambridge has huge shoes to fill, now that Davis Payne has landed with the club’s AHL affiliate in Peoria as an assistant. Can McCambridge continue the winning tradition that Payne established in the Great White North?