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.