Dark Chocolate Lovers Unite

by Lisa Talley | lisa@fresnoflyer.com

The door opens, and within seconds the air explodes with the intoxicating smell of chocolate. It ripples and swarms, and finds the intricate crevices of the human sensory receptors, cramming in its rich and inviting aroma. It instantly inspires a slew of pleasant childhood memories.

“It’s not exactly Willy Wonka… but welcome to our factory.” The charming, yet humble introduction by Elisia Otavi, chocolate maker and founder of Raphio Chocolate.

It may not be an expansive playground of wild colors, weird contraptions, and physics-defying candy, but there’s no question that there is a hint of magic in the air. And in all honesty, what’s the most important thing to any chocolate lover anyway? The chocolate itself, of course.

Inspired by her sons, Raphael and Rio, Elisia wanted to make a chocolate bar that she would be confident to serve them. No fillers, no preservatives, no artificial flavors, just healthy chocolate.

Seems a little like an oxymoron, but real chocolate is actually good for you.

“Doctors do recommend eating dark chocolate every day, the only rule is that the chocolate has to have at least 72% cocoa content. Meaning, the percentage amount of cocoa in the bar eaten,” Explains Otavi.

The entire Raphio collection contains a minimum of 72% with some going above and beyond to the 82%, 92% and even 102% cocoa levels. What’s more is that each batch of chocolate is made from scratch using less than five ingredients, most of which (if not all) is organic, a significant departure from the more common and commercial brand of chocolate we often find in the grocery store.

Real chocolate is made from cacao beans, which are found in cacao pods, which grow on cacao trees. Cacao beans essentially consist of cacao powder and cocoa butter – and when ground or milled over a period of time that cacao butter melts and mixes with the crushed beans developing into the smooth, melted chocolate consistency we’re all so familiar with. However, most commercial dark chocolate makers press the butter out and replace it with an oil substitute.

“Cocoa powder is what remains after the process of pressing the cocoa butter out of the ground cacao beans is complete. To make chocolate from the cocoa powder, the large commercial chocolate producers typically add the oil substitute in place of the highly-prized cocoa butter, such as soybean oil, palm oil, canola oil, or some other cheaper vegetable oil. To mix them, they add soy lecithin as an emulsifier which is a waste product… and other products to stabilize the chocolate,” Otavi further expands.

During this part of the commercial process, the chocolate tastes so bad that the chocolate producers have to add a significant amount of sugar and vanilla extract to cover up the flavor. The over processing of the bean removes the chocolate from its natural state and in doing so, eliminates any health benefits that were initially present.

Labeled ‘Single Origin Artisan Craft Dark Chocolate,’ Otavi is present through the entire process of ‘bean-to-bar’ for all of Raphio’s products. Hand-selecting the cocoa beans, the flavors are brought out through the roasting – to which Otavi will taste the beans herself. Afterwards, the beans then go through a few days of continuous grinding where the level of organic cane sugar is determined and added. Directly following is an aging period, and lastly, depending on the type of bar, the chocolate will achieve its final flavor profile before being molded in their signature Raphio shape. That’s it. No fuss, no muss.

One of the truly unique characteristics of Raphio Chocolate is that the chocolate isn’t always the same, meaning that the flavors can change from batch to batch… and it’s how Elisia Otavi prefers it.

“Just like wine and coffee, the soil, climate, rainfall, and other environmental factors do play a role in affecting the flavors of the cacao beans which are grown on the trunk of the cacao tree. The different flavor notes in my single-origin chocolate bars are pretty distinctive depending on which country and region the tree is grown,” she offers.

On the wrapping of every bar, handwritten on the back of the label, is the batch number. Because of the above factors, the chocolate can take on a myriad of complex flavors – however subtle – that change from batch to batch – much like wine. As with coffee, flavor profiles will bloom during the roasting process, allowing any natural toffee or nutty notes to come to the front. Otavi isn’t interested in deconstructing the bean to force a flavor that never existed in the first place for the sake of maintaining one flavor and one flavor only, as a craft chocolate maker she’s focused on harnessing the true characteristics of the cacao for a rich experience every time.

Visitors can also get a closer look at the chocolate making process by taking a tour of Raphio Chocolate’s factory. Bonus: there’s a tasting at the end.

The Chocolate Factory Tour

Could you blame us for taking the tour? Talking chocolate just isn’t the same if it isn’t coming from the first-hand experience. Fortunately for us, Elisia and her husband invited us to their factory to get an inside look at how their chocolate is made.

Near the corner of Barstow and First, in a quaint and unsuspecting suite, is Raphio Chocolate. You can spot them by their signature and ornate logo design displayed in the window.

Otavi takes us to the back room – a quick two room jump from the front door – where the smell of chocolate seems to be bursting at the seams. There, she walks us through her roasting process and then proceeds to hand us each a single bean.

Somewhat like a walnut, the bean cracks under the pressure of our fingers. A light shell fragment away from the more substantial pieces of the bean and we’re told to eat one of the more solid parts. It was almost like eating a chocolate covered coffee bean – chocolate notes were present, but a prominent bitterness immediately overtook the sweetness. This – in its near unaltered state – was the authentic taste of chocolate in its purest form.

Otavi takes us through the separation process where the beans are crushed, then separated into cacao nibs (the inside of the bean) and cacao husk – the outer shell of the bean which is not thrown out. Instead, it’s used to create a sort of loose leaf tea – this helps to ensure that Raphio Chocolate’s process is virtually waste-free.

The next room – moving closer to the front – holds the grinders. Want to know where all that explosion of chocolatey goodness in the air is coming from? Here. The room with the grinders. *tip – try not to drool.

This is the stage where Otavi decides the percentage of cacao by adding the organic cane sugar to the mix. However, if it’s the 102% cacao, no sugar is added, and the ‘chocolate-making’ ends here.

The next step was what I found the most surprising – I assumed that after the mixing, the chocolate would be molded, chilled, and packaged, however, it wasn’t. The chocolate first goes through an aging process. Again, the comparison to wine deepens.

Chocolate, as Otavi explains it, will continue to develop specific flavors and change profiles during an aging process that is anywhere from 2 – 4 weeks. Huge blocks of chocolate line the shelves of their grinding room, patiently waiting to be plucked from the stack and molded for public enjoyment.

Once a block of chocolate is ready, it’s taken through a tempering process to achieve that beautiful, glossy finish with a crisp, familiar snap when broken.

And now we’re on to the tasting.

Ecuador

(the only bar in the Raphio line with 72%, 82%, 92%, and 102% cacao)

We start with a sample of the 72% cacao. It is reminiscent of most craft dark chocolate I’ve tasted, but the Ecuador carries a nuttiness that pushes back the bitter bite of the cacao.

Next up, the 82% cacao. As a dark chocolate lover, this hit the sweet spot (figuratively) on the spectrum of punchy cacao with a full body of flavor that teeters on the edge of being coffee-esque.

*tip – rinse with water between each tasting

We’re on to the 92% cacao, and we’re getting closer to that real original flavor. The punch hardened on the taste buds and stayed on my pallet long after the chocolate has melted. Definitely a great way to pack a lot of flavor into smaller portions.

102% – this is not for the faint of heart. No sugar, no sweetness, just pure cacao. If you like your whiskey neat and your beer sour, this is for you.

Peru

Coming back down to the 72% line was a near shock in terms of the difference. For me, it almost widened my pallet – jolting it awake if you will – to the depth of flavors present in the other bars.

The Peru line held a sweetness closer to that of brown sugar mixed with a little bit of fruit, complimenting the cacao by using its bitterness to give the bar its full breadth of flavor.

Nicaragua

At the time of my writing this, this bar was out of stock on the Raphio website. The Nicaragua steps closer to the brown sugar with a more profound range, without any fruity notes to combat the cacao.

Tanzania

A personal favorite. Where the other bars stayed true to the round, full-bodied flavor of the cacao, the Tanzania bar shared the spotlight equally with its different characteristics.

*tip – do not chew the chocolate, but let it melt on the tongue

The cacao hits the taste buds, but almost immediately backs off, what replaces it is something akin to honey. The melting chocolate coats the mouth with a roughly similar consistency, but as quickly as it arrived, it disappears, and the honey has transformed into an unfamiliar fruit. By the time I think I’ve figured it out, the cacao reappears and finishes the experience.

Peppermint, Coffee, and Clementine Olive Oil

New to the Raphio line is the inclusion bars utilizing additional flavors. Peppermint – using organic candy canes – is here just in time for the holiday season. Coffee – featuring coffee flavors from locals Kuppa Joy Coffee and Clementine Olive Oil, another collaboration with the local company, Enzo Olive Oil Company.

The Clementine was a pleasant surprise, hearing the words ‘olive oil’ doesn’t inspire a clear direction of how this flavor is going to fit with the dark chocolate, but one taste explains it all. The bright citrus cuts through the cacao and a symphony of orange flavor bursts in the mouth.

It’s clear how this bar won Gold in the International Chocolate Salon as well as Gold in the Best Chocolate Bar category. Their Coffee bar also took home a Bronze.

But of course, each person’s pallet is going to be different, and you’ll have to do a little bit of tasting on your own to find your perfect dark chocolate adventure.

Raphio Chocolate, the locally owned and operated artisan craft dark chocolate company, invites you to take a tour, partake in a tasting, and experience a time-honored treat in a delicious yet healthy way.

Follow them on Facebook and Instagram @Raphio.Chocolate to stay up to date on tours, news, and giveaways. A full location of where to find their bars and cacao products for purchase can be found on their website www.RaphioChocolate.com.

China Peak Celebrates 60 Years

by Lisa Talley | lisa@fresnoflyer.com

For Central Valley locals, we all have a bank of memories brimming with similarity. It’s spending those torturous months of summer dragging our inner tubes and floaties to the river, lazily drifting on the cool water to escape the heat. It’s the smell of fried, heart-wrenchingly delicious food during the fair, the crack of a baseball bat over Chuckchansi stadium, driving up the winding roads to the flush campgrounds of Shaver Lake, and in the winter, driving up a little further to hit the slopes at China Peak.

The first trip is always what sticks out the most for many. “Who knew the mountain was so big? I would have never guessed all of this was just outside of Fresno,” we all say as we admire the waves of flawless snow blanketing the ground, crisp air in our lungs turning into billows of steam as we exhale our “Oooo”s and “Ahhh”s.

Since the resort’s opening in 1958, China Peak has been making lasting first, second, and umpteenth memories. In having survived changes in ownership and a devastating drought, the resort is coming up to its 60th birthday, and on December 16th they’ll be hosting their 60th Anniversary Party to celebrate their history, influential figures, and of course, all the people who love the mountain.

To kick things off, China Peak will be rolling back their lift tickets to historic 1958 prices. As it stands now, the current prices range from $53 to over $80 depending on the age of the purchaser and the time of year. However, taking things back to the original 1958 prices mean that lift tickets are only $5. Nope, not a typo. As of December 1st, lift tickets are just $5 for the day of the 60th Anniversary Party.

Of course, all good things cannot last, and the tickets are a limited quantity. However, it won’t be the only time discounted tickets will be available, lift tickets priced at 1968 prices ($12) will be available after the first set runs out. Once that block has been sold out, then the costs move up to 1978, 1988, and so on. As each set is first come, first serve, patrons will have to keep a close eye on the website so as not to miss it. They’ll become available, online only, at 12:01 on December 1st.

“It’ll be a mad dash to get those tickets at those low rates,” says Tim Cohee, Managing Partner, and Operator of China Peak.

Aside from the massive discount, the resort will be hosting a full day of entertainment. Starting off the day is a DJ at 11 am, followed by a live music performance at 2 pm, beer tasting provided by local brewery Sequoia Brewing Co., photo booth, and contests for the best outfits and gear from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. Prizes for the contest include lift tickets and lodging nights.

Amidst the celebration, there will also be a toast to honor Joe and Joanne Weirick, former owners and treasured members of the Shaver / Huntington Lake communities who both passed away in 2015 and 2017.

Having owned and operated China Peak for 14 years, Joe Weirick, a Fresno local, purchased the resort in 1964 from the bank after the ski area’s original owners filed bankruptcy. From 1964 – 1978 the Weiricks transformed China Peak from a single chairlift and a few rope-tows to adding more lifts, building runs, installing the original snowmaking system, as well as adding new buildings to the resort.

Snow Summit, a large ski corporation based out of Big Bear Lake, purchased the resort in 1982 and was operated by majority owner, Dick Kun. The December 16 celebration will also honor his contributions to the mountain from 1982 – 2010.

“[Dick Kun] actually hired me to start my ski career about 40 years ago, he and I became close friends. He died about a year ago at the age of 76, he was an important person in my life and had a lot to do with my success,” shares Cohee.

Tim Cohee purchased the ski area from Kun in 2010 and has been the majority owner of China Peak ever since. Between Joe and Joanna Weirick and Dick Kun, these influential figures of China Peak’s history owned and operated the resort for 42 out of its entire 60 years of existence.

Like the Weiricks, Kun also heavily improved the ski area. Through a whopping $20 million investment, China Peak (then known as Sierra Summit) saw an upgrade in lifts, the addition of new lifts, new runs, the improvement of existing runs, the addition of a new snowmaking system, new parking lots, and additional base area facilities.

“He really developed it into, I think, and what many people would call one of California’s best mid-sized mountains,” Cohee adds.

Honoring both the Weiricks and Kun means also toasting to their legacy of passion, dedication, loyalty, and love for the mountain as it undoubtedly continues to resonate with the local community. Decades of building lasting memories for the Central Valley is, in large part, due to their hard work.

And the hard work indeed continues under the careful supervision of the current managing partner, Tim Cohee, but where each owner focused on improving the equipment, Cohee now focuses on the personal experience China Peak offers the resort’s guests.

“I think what the ski area was lacking under the watch of Snow Summit and its managers was real attention to detail regarding servicing the guests. I think what everyone would say is that we bring a real sense of service to the resort in terms of literally everything,” Cohee continues.

In fact, since taking the reins in 2010, Cohee’s team took on the task of remodeling the hotel – an aspect of the resort almost wholly overlooked during the last few decades as previous owners emphasized equipment. Also, updates and improvements had been made to the menus, cooking facilities, bars, seating, and welcome facilities.

The majority of ski areas in California – roughly 70%  owned by large corporations – leaves only a respective 30% to be held by private individuals. According to Cohee, it’s also part of what – in a way – makes China Peak rare. That, and being a stunning mountain in an unexpected place.

Fresno and the Central Valley have a knack for surprising its out-of-area visitors. It’s not uncommon to hear outsiders vocalize their shock at what the Valley has to offer in terms of just about anything, from the art scene, local music, sports, and of course, the vast landscape of foothills and mountains all around the Valley. Fresno is an untraditional market with a surprisingly impressive resort.

“If China Peak were transplanted into Lake Tahoe, it would be a competitive ski area,” Cohee says from his 40 years of experience working in more traditional markets, Lake Tahoe included.

The success of the resort is a combination of dedicated owners and operators driven to providing an unparalleled experience, hard-working staff, and loyal visitors. Without each, China Peak wouldn’t be at the benchmark of an incredible 60 years. And as such, the 60th Anniversary is a celebration of a long journey the resort has been on since 1958, and a celebration of the community that, regardless of ups or downs, has shown their support throughout the years.

Join China Peak on December 16 as they look back at the past and step forward into the next 60 years.

For more information about the 60th Anniversary Party, visit www.SkiChinaPeak.com. Lift tickets sold at the historic prices are good for December 16 only, no exceptions. More details on the sale of discounted tickets can also be found online or by calling the resort at 559-233-2500

On The 30-Year Plan

Glen Delpit and The Subterraneans share how they kept it together for three decades.

by Don Priest aka The Hound Dog | kfsrbluesdog@gmail.com

30 Years! About one-third of a lifetime! How many of us can say we’ve been doing something for 30 years, like living in the same house, working at the same job, staying with the same spouse?  In this age of transience, longevity seems almost a lost art.  But that art is not lost on one local band that will be celebrating their 30th Anniversary at Fulton 55 on Sunday, December 3d.

Yes, Glen Delpit and The Subterraneans are 30 years old! Hard to believe, even for them, that a band which began as a side project for the now defunct “Houserockers,” is still performing today.

“A lot of luck and a great mix of personalities,” is how Glen Delpit attributes their longevity.  “Easy going, even-keeled individuals that get along well and are open to a lot of ideas.”

Yes, there have been some changes in personnel over the years. But the core group of Glen on guitar and vocals, with Dean MacDonald on lead guitar, John Suhr on keyboards and Joe Luppino on drums have been together throughout. Even the newest member, bassist Chris Eacock has been a “Sub” for eight years.

As for the music of the Subterraneans, it’s all original and springs from the fertile imagination of Mr. Delpit.  A prolific songwriter who has penned over 500 tunes, he strives to make his lyrics as poetic as possible and follows the examples set by those he considers The Masters.  “T.S. Eliot said, ‘If you’re going to steal, (and everybody does), steal from the best. No use stealing from someone mediocre’ and I follow that rubric,” he says. Thus his songs may contain ideas based on “couplets from Robert Johnson and other early blues greats like Charley Patton, ideas and lines from Hank Williams and of course the master B. Dylan. I doubt I would have written much without his inspiration,” he says.

The result is something he calls “Bluesrootsy Americana,” a style based on Blues/Rock and Folk that’s very lyric driven and very danceable.  Glen has written so much material that the band has already produced 5 CDs worth of his tunes and is currently working on the 6th.

Of course over a 30-year period, you’d expect there to be some significant memories, like the first gig at “The Oly” and early shows at “The Wild Blue”- two legendary venues from days past.  “The Blue was like family. I met my wife there,” says MacDonald.”   The band has also backed Bo Diddley and opened for The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Booker T, Dave Alvin (who Glen describes as “the best roots artist in the country”) and most recently for Los Lobos. “That was a real treat,” says MacDonald.

But more than people and places, it’s really the music that keeps this band together. “I love to play,” says MacDonald.  “And if there’s an opportunity to play in front of people that makes it even better.”

As for playing with ‘The Subs’ he offers, “We started as bandmates and turned into friends.”

Friends that have been making music together for over 30 years.  Happy Anniversary Glen Delpit and The Subterraneans!

Think Local. Shop Small

by Lisa Talley | lisa@fresnoflyer.com

Last year, shoppers spent a staggering $655.8 billion on Black Friday, just one single day of sales and specials. Even more, those numbers are split between in-store and online purchases as shoppers find fewer reasons to compete shoulder-to-shoulder in crowded stores for their prized item, putting online sales at $3.3 billion in 2016. As expected, the top numbers went to the most significant discounters: Amazon, Target, Best Buy, Walmart and Kohl’s. But imagine what would happen if small and locally owned businesses got a piece of that pie.

Currently, California outdoes all the other states with the highest number of small businesses (those employing under 100 people) and ranking number one in the nation. In fact, according to a U.S. Small Business Administration report in 2015, 99.2 percent of employers in the state are small firms (employing under 500). That’s 6.5 million employees who work for a small business and likewise, millions of reasons to spend dollars at local establishments.

When we choose to shop local, we decide to support local in a real and practical way. Whether it’s stopping in for breakfast at Chicken Pie Shop in Tower or grabbing a Poke bowl at 201 Kitchen in Hanford for lunch, the revenue they earn from your business is more likely to go back into the Central Valley. Everything from taxes, rent, and fees to purchasing supplies and services from other local vendors, it’s all money pouring right back here at home to improve and strengthen the local economy.

There are also some additional perks that you’ll be hard-pressed to find at the big stores as well.

It’s not uncommon for patrons to walk into a small business and unknowingly engage with the owner who is either helping their sales force move items or holding down the front desk to assist customers. In this event, a customer who is looking for the best deal has an increased chance at negotiating a better price if they’re working with the owner. Each business has their set of costs, but without a large corporation tying their hands with regulations and strict policies, the owner can work with their customer on-the-spot to beat the competition.

Building a holiday wish list can, for many, be a bit of a ritual – tireless research for the right model, brand, technical specs, price and for the store offering the best deal – however, small businesses tend to be overlooked as shoppers plan their Black Friday and holiday shopping. The Central Valley has plenty to offer and a wide range of small, locally owned businesses to choose from.

Here are just a few we’ve had the pleasure of working with.

1. Jensen & Watts – Owner: Jeff Johnston

Family owned and operated since 1960, this Fresno business specializes in outdoor equipment. Lawn mowers, generators, power saws, edgers, chainsaws, vacuums, etc. Jensen & Watts also provide parts, services, and accessories for Stihl, Honda, Tanaka, Briggs and Stratton, Kawasaki, Ariens, and Tecumseh.

Located at 516 N Chestnut Ave, Fresno. (559) 255-0465 www.JensenandWatts.com

2. Fresno Hock Shoppe – Owner: Robbie Van Gronigen

Fresno Hock Shoppe has been a Belmont Ave figure, locally owned and operated, for 30 years. Robbie took over ownership five years ago, although he has worked for the Hock Shoppe the entire 30 years it has been open. The pawn shop sells a variety of items like guitars, basses, musical instruments, tools, electronics like tablets, laptops and game consoles, and firearms. The staff, always eager to help, are known for their youthful and energetic approach.

Between now and Christmas, Hock Shoppe is offering 30% off jewelry and select electronics (except layaways).

The Fresno Hock Shoppe also offers a variety of items on eBay, and you can also check out their inventory on their website at www.FresnoHockShop.com

3. TV Guyz – Owner: Edgar Sandoval

Locally owned and operated for three years, TV Guyz – if the name didn’t already give it away – specialize in TVs, computers, gaming consoles, and games. One thing you wouldn’t expect is that they also offer furniture. TV Guyz can also repair cellphones, computers, and gaming consoles.

Currently, TV Guyz is offering $60 Firesticks (Kodi installed) $130 Fire TV box, and 32 inch TVs for $90 during the holiday season.

Located at 4843 N Blackstone Ave Fresno. View their inventory and services at www.TheTVGuyz.com (559) 493-8403

4. Karkazian Jewelers – Owner: George Karkazian

Family Owned since 1978, George Karkazian opened his first store on West & Shields, and soon after, Karkazian Jewelers moved to the corner of Shaw and Willow where they established themselves as one of the Valley’s leaders in jewelry/watch sales and repair for over 40 years. In July 2007, Karkazian Jewelers added a second location in north Fresno at the corner of Friant and Ft. Washington. In February 2009, Karkazian Jewelers moved their Clovis location two blocks to East, right on Shaw Avenue between Willow and Peach.

Karkazian Jewelers focuses on quality jewelry with a pleasant buying experience. One of the few jewelers that can cut and polish your chipped diamonds.

Located at 493 W. Shaw Ave Suite B Clovis (559) 297-0201  9447 Ft Washington Rd #110 Fresno (559) 434-9009 www.KarkazianJewelers.com

5. Bebe O’s Vintage Boutique – Owners: Lupe and Martin Oftedal

Born and raised in Fresno, Lupe and Martin opened up Bebe O’s after Lupe suffered an injury at work. They began selling new and used designer clothing and are now a vintage only store. Specializing in vintage fashions and furnishings, Bebe O’s also offers vintage party wears perfect for themed parties. Customers can even rent pieces for a special occasion in which you’ll receive some tailored attention.

Lupe and Martin say it’s not unusual to have a client several hours in the shop as they are trying on a variety of clothes and fitted properly.

Bebe O’s is also active in the local community, often involved in fundraising efforts. Some of the causes they’ve raised money and items for include cancer, autism, homelessness, battered women, and education. In fact, on December 16 they will be hosting their 8th Annual Christmas Party and Toy Drive. There will be refreshments, entertainment, plus discounts and giveaways. Admission is a donated unwrapped toy.

Located at 1130 N Wishon Ave, Fresno. (559) 445-1928

6. Deans Coins – Family Owned Over 30 years

This family owned and operated pawn shop carries a variety of items including jewelry, TVs, tablets, and tools just to name a few. For the holiday season, they’re offering 10% off all TVs.

Located at 2325 E McKinley Ave Fresno. (559) 264-4653 www.DeansCoins.com

Be safe as you head out to hunt down that perfect must-have thing on your wish list, but don’t forget to check out the local guys – you never know what you’ll find. Happy shopping!

Relentless. Tenacious. Monsters.

The Fresno Monsters Hockey team is coming back strong for the 2017-18 season.

by Lisa Talley | lisa@fresnoflyer.com

The Fresno Monsters are currently 6-6 for the 2017-18 season. The Tier II Western States Hockey League (WSHL) team opened the season with a three-game series in Lakewood, CA on September 28 against team rivals, the Long Beach Bombers. A quick look at the stat sheet and it would be easy to assume that things are sailing into a repeat of last year’s disappointing season for the Monsters with an ending 25-22 record… but anyone making that assumption would be wrong. So very wrong.

Looking past the next two games, this time against the Valencia Flyers, the Monsters rose to the occasion after a 2-8, 2-5, loss and hit hard in the third set with an impressive 11-3 win. That’s more than enough to turn heads because luck doesn’t bring an 8pt lead – that’s the signature of dedication and hard work.

The Monsters took to the start of the season with only 12 players – a staggering number compared to the 20-25 on the opposing teams – not reaching a full roster themselves until well after the start of the season. And although it’s arguable that the increase in numbers for the team played a significant role in helping to boost the Monsters’ performance for game three against the Flyers, it would be short-sighted. Anyone looking for a sense of what the core spirit of the team looks like this year only needs to look closely at the opening games in Lakewood – where the players showed grit and determination.

“That weekend, those guys showed me a lot of character, a lot of passion, a lot of heart. The 2nd game we lost with 2 seconds left, the 3rd we missed the net with 15 seconds left after we pulled the goalie. That 3rd game we kept pressuring and I’m thinking we’re going to collapse, we’re going to get so tired in the 3rd period, but these guys kept coming and coming – it showed me what kind of character we have in that locker room, and they made this coach very proud,” says Head Coach Kevin Kaminski.

Each game in the first series the Monsters lost by a single point, by a few mere seconds, and all with only 12 players taking the brunt of every other shift.  Even still, the team powered through, holding their ground with resolve, skill, and willpower; it isn’t difficult to imagine how different those games would have been had the team arrived with a full roster.

The following three-game series against the San Diego Sabers showed an upswing as the Monsters dominated 2-1 through the weekend with a 5-2 start, an impressive 6-0 second game, and a 1-3 loss with the Sabers pulling the win in the third set.  The most recent series against the Phoenix Knights at the Monsters’ home venue, Gateway Ice Center, showed not only the fans but the league that the team means to finish big this season. October 19, 20, & 21, the Fresno Monsters swept the weekend with a notable 6-3, 9-3, and a demolishing 11-0 to round out the three-game sweep.

Team Captain, Cody Key, is optimistic about the team’s performance moving forward, “The guys this season have a lot of heart, a lot of drive, so I think this year we have a good [team] to go all the way.”

Bringing back a number of players this year – defensemen Daniel “Goodie” Goodwin (20) and Logan Domagala (19),  as well as veteran Cody Key (20) – the team has also signed on several new talent both national and international – Fresno native and forward, Daylon Mannon (18), goalie Adam Barvik (20) and defenseman Ondrej Gabrhelik (20) both from the Czech Republic. Players from Canada, Hungary, Latvia, and Slovakia also round out this year’s  talent.

The incorporation of international players brings with it the addition of different styles of hockey and provides yet another active layer in the team.“The European guys, they bring a different kind of hockey out here to the states… they’re more skilled in that they do a lot of finesse with the puck. All the guys from the states, they bring a gritty attitude to the ice. It’s good to have it all on the team,” says Key.

As it stands, however, the season’s top scorer (at the time of this article) goes to a local. Daylon Mannon – debuting both with the Monsters and the league this season – holds the title with the 18 goals and 16 assists for a total of 34 points over the course of 12 games.

“I couldn’t do it without my teammates, Cody Key, Rudy, and my defense, honestly,” says Mannon of his success through the start of the season, “I talk a lot to the vets on and off the ice, they tell me what I should and shouldn’t do because of [their experience]”.

The Monsters’ identity and the foundation are rooted in a strong work ethic and unity. As stated by Kaminski, “a relentless work ethic and a physical brand of hockey.”

“Here in Fresno everyone bonds together becomes a family. We sacrifice our bodies and put ourselves on the line day in and day out for each other,” Key adds.

Defenseman Logan Domagala is holding down the ice as an enforcer for the Monsters with a total of 44 minutes in penalties so far – a responsibility he shares with fellow defenseman Daniel “Goodie” Goodwin.

Although fighting in hockey has changed over the years as the game has put more emphasis on speed and skating ability, throwing off the gloves is still a very present element.

“It happens. When you’re down by a lot or have a [teammate] get run – cheap shotted or whatever it may be, you have to protect your young guys and your goal scorers. Some of us just have to do it,” shares Domagala.

The Fresno Monsters, established in 2009, has a reputation for being a strong contender in the WSHL. Fresno alone stands as a city with a long hockey tradition dating all the way back to 1940 with the Fresno Falcons – one Taylor Cup and eleven years as champions in two different leagues – the Fresno Monsters, after the Falcons folded in 2009, picked up the torch without a blink and have been charging ahead ever since. Only the 2016-17 season last year stands out as a slight hitch in their stride. However, it was also that same year the team underwent some major changes.

After a six-season run coaching the WSHL Monsters, then head coach and general manager, Bryce Dale stepped down from his position in March 2016. Three months following, in June 2016, owner, David White sold the team to the Central Valley Community Sports Foundation, led by Jeff Blair.

Massive changes to shoulder for a team ramping up to a new season.

Coming in to replace Bryce Dale as head coach and general manager is former NHL enforcer, Kevin “Killer” Kaminski. With an 11-year professional career, the past Washington Capitals Center is known for his hard-nosed style of play, and he’s bringing it to the ice here in Fresno.

“I pride myself and the team on work ethic, tenacity, playing physical and [having the team] demand that out of each other,” says Kaminski of his coaching style, “Talent is great, but when you combine that talent with a work ethic you [have] a special kind of player.”

And a special kind of team, no doubt.

Retired in 2001, Kaminksi left the NHL due to concussions and a debilitating injury when he caught a hockey puck to the right side of his face that resulted in “2 plates, 12 screws, and 140 stitches.” All telltale signs of his signature fearless and aggressive style of play which is evident in how the Monsters tackle each game. However, his experience also brings a honed awareness of the toll the sport of hockey takes on an athlete.

“It’s a long season. [As a] players coach I know when to push them and when to give them a day off or 2,” says Kaminski.

Building a cohesive team, according to the head coach, requires not only demanding strong performances but also reminding everyone to have fun. Because that’s what it’s all about, “to go have fun and score some goals.”

The success of the Monsters is significantly reliant on the eye and precision of the head coach’s ability, the steadfast leadership of the team captain, as well as the skill, unity, and determination of each player. And the devotion of the fans.

“This is a mad-house, [other teams] don’t like coming to Fresno,” shares Domagala, “You wouldn’t expect Fresno to be a hockey town, but it definitely is.”

“You can say that we have the rowdiest fans in the league,” adds Goodwin.

Between the signs, the various props, cheering and heckling towards the opposing teams, the Fresno Monsters are immensely grateful for the support of the fans who show up to every home game.

“It intimidates a lot of other teams when they come to our barn because we get so many fans in here – it puts us a step ahead. I appreciate our fans and hope they keep coming out,” continues Key.

Both Key and Goodwin “age out” this year as the WSHL league eligibility caps at age 20. Each player hopes to leave a legacy of hard work, strong leadership and to set the standards for new players coming through the ranks of what it means to wear the Monsters jersey.

“Be strong and level-headed, keep your composure, and go hard. Do your best and leave it all on the ice,” shares Goodwin.

The team has their sights set on driving deep into the playoffs and punishing the opposition for a chance at the Thorne Cup. If the Monsters continue to perform in the manner with which they’ve been handling the last few games, and judging by the scope of talent, focus, and determination of the players led by Kevin “Killer” Kaminski, the odds are that fans will see them in the finals by mid-April 2018.

Storming the ice, the Monsters bring speed and aggression to the game. It’s a sight every spectator should experience first-hand, as the arena only allows for the smallest separation of plexiglass between fan and athlete. No high rise or expansive rows to shy away to, fans are face-to-face with the action, which often means being less than 2 feet away from a flying puck or a 180-200lb player slamming the opposition. Fans don’t just watch; they’re part of the battleground.

The Fresno Monsters full schedule of games is available on their website www.FresnoMonsters.com along with stats, news, and tickets to the games at the Gateway Ice Center.

Follow them on Facebook @FresnoMonsters, Twitter and Instagram @WSHLMonsters.

The Great Escape

by Lisa Talley | lisa@fresnoflyer.com

“There is a live zombie in the room on a chain… “ Andrew Vallejo tries but fails to hide a mischievous smirk as he rattles off this little fact with a very cool nonchalance.

Of course, it’s not a real zombie – otherwise, we’d all be staring at a very dark and dreary future akin to the likes of Fear the Walking Dead – but an actor who has a romping good time playing the part.

And it’s all just another day for The Great Escape, a locally owned and operated business in Clovis offering a collection of rooms for patrons to attempt an escape.

A year in the making, The Great Escape is the brainchild of owner, Jana Wilkerson – a teacher within the Fresno Unified School District for the past 20 years. The inspiration came soon after a trip to bring her son back to college where she tackled her first escape room. Jana found an immediate passion for solving intricate puzzles in very tense environments.

“After that weekend she spent a month thinking about what she would have done differently and how she would develop a room [herself],” shares Andrew Vallejo, manager of The Great Escape. “After a month of it keeping her awake at night, she decided just to do it.”

All the rooms – themes, puzzles, and game in all – are entirely original and unique to The Great Escape. Wilkerson initiates the construction of the rooms concerning themes, ideas, and puzzles, and when they’re ready for a test run, she’ll unleash them on her staff.

“We try it, give our ideas and then help to re-develop or perfect the puzzle. It becomes a group effort,” says Vallejo of the experience.

The process of developing a completely original game can take some time as the crew has to not only work out the kinks but also to find puzzles that can work within a constrained space. However, rather than seeing it as a deterrent away from theme ideas, they view any limitation as an inspiration to take the games in a unique direction.

Inside The Great Escape, there are a series of rooms of all shapes and sizes. Flanking the right are two small rooms and a long, narrow room. Instead of attempting to create a game for each of the different spaces, figuring out how to cram eight people into each room, the talented staff created a game split a group right down the middle.

The Heist is a game – complete with a laser maze – that takes half the team and plops them in a room away from the rest of the group. They would then tackle the puzzles in their space while the other four attempted to solve the remaining mysteries in the room next to them, each needing the help of the other team to complete the escape.

“The Heist is all about communication and it’s funny to watch how different people communicate with each other,” says Vallejo about being on the other side of the games as a proctor. “However, the Zombie Lab is probably everyone’s favorite to watch.”

Ah, there it is. The zombie reference is coming full circle now.

The Zombie Lab is The Great Escape’s most intense experience, which is primarily due to the live zombie in the room who chases the participants around as they attempt to figure out their clues. Every 5 minutes, the chain holding the zombie in place gets longer, meaning that the zombie has more reach and flexibility in getting its hands on someone.

“About halfway through he can pretty much get you from anywhere [in the room]. If you’re tagged, you’re infected and have to stay in the infirmary until your team finds and chooses to use the antidote [which] can only be used once,” explains Vallejo.

A quick look at the Zombie Lab inside The Great Escape

It’s a strategic game that requires quick thinking and quick footwork. The tension in the Zombie Lab tends to run high, so the staff has incorporated a ‘lab assistant’ who helps to oversee the entire process.

“Fight or flight is very real, and people do the strangest things when they are in that fight or flight mentality. It’s so unpredictable and makes it fun to [watch],” continues Vallejo.

The staff assures that although many people are wary of the Zombie Lab, every team who chooses the room comes out through the other side having had a great time.

The Great Escape’s crew aim to create unique experiences for its patrons, and that means replacing the old with the new. Each theme is active for six months before putting a new game into place. Old themes have not made reappearances in the past, but depending on demand, they could see a repeat.

Currently, the only room facing an overhaul is the one hosting the Mafia Bomb Squad – set in 1920s prohibition – and will be replaced with a new game titled The Curse at the end of the month.

The Curse centers on a tropical vacation that has gone wrong. Someone in the group has stolen a precious artifact that set a curse upon the entire team. Your job? Figure out who took it and what ‘it’ is.

The Great Escape is currently offering specials for the Halloween season with promo code: HALLOWEEN2017. The Mafia Bomb Squad is 20% off while it’s still in session. Anyone using the promo code will also receive 10% off the Zombie Lab. Can you handle?

For more information follow The Great Escape online @thegreatescapeclovis on Instagram and @thegreatescapegames on Facebook.

Terror At Station Thirteen

by Anglia M Walpool | awalpool49@gmail.com

If you’re looking for a thrill on Halloween tune into Facebook as the Central Valley’s horror guru, Michael Rodriguez will be showcasing his new sci-fi thriller ‘Terror at Station Thirteen’. It will stream live for 24 hours on October 31.

Although ‘Terror at Station Thirteen’ is a short film, Michael promises exceptional special effects, realistic makeup, and a captivating storyline.

The Kerman native has been writing and directing independent horror films for five years. The love for the grisly genre traces back to when his father took him to see ‘Dawn of the Dead’ at the drive-in. Rodriguez is well known for ‘Lamb Feed,’ ‘Night of the Sea Monkey,’ and ‘Home Wrecked.’

Relentless and determined, Rodriguez often finishes one project and then immediately prepares for another. Joseph D. Greenwood – actor, director, and producer with Candles & Wine Productions – says of the local filmmaker, “The dedication and determination that Michael Rodriguez demonstrates in his craft is inspiring and a good example for independent filmmakers to follow.”

“Terror at Station Thirteen was written, produced, and directed by yours truly and is my ghoulish gift to horror fans for this Halloween season,” says Rodriguez about his new film. “If you look up Premiere of Terror at Thirteen Station’s event page, I’ll also have my feature film ‘Last American Horror’ available.”

The culmination of the filmmaking process is all about sharing it with fellow fans of the horror genre rather than seeing the completed film himself.

“Every moment of bringing a thought or an idea to life is fun and exciting to me. My least favorite part of my work is in post-production (editing). When I watch my work so many times to [cut it together] somehow, it just loses that luster… by the time the movie is finished I’m already sick of watching it,” Rodriguez laughs.

Even as a horror guru, fans would be surprised to know that Michael is not a Halloween fanatic. The director usually enjoys a quiet evening at home on most Halloween nights with a horror classic on the TV as he waits for trick-or-treaters to knock on the door.

Lonnie Pelley, a local comedian who has a walk-on role in the film, said the opportunity was a pleasant surprise, “I met Michael over the summer at the weekend blender held in August 2017, we both came in as a guest. He was promoting his movies, and I was promoting my comedy/ both live in Kerman. I told him if he ever needed an extra for any of his movies, I’d like to be one. Well, low and behold Michael got in touch with me and asked if I would like to be in his new movie? I did not hesitate and replied back with ‘yes, I’d love to!’ … This is the first time I’ve acted in a scary movie. I had a lot of fun filming with all the other actors, and I can’t wait for the movie to come out.”

So if you are a fan or just curious you can view Michael Rodriguez’s new masterpiece “Terror at Station Thirteen” for 24 hours on Facebook, October 31, absolutely free.