How did that Volkswagen ad campaign put it? When nothing happens, safe happens.
And on the ice, it goes something like this: When nothing happens, shutdown happens.
At least that’s the view of Craig Gans and Clay Howe, a couple of rookie Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference (ACAC) defencemen who’ve become the premier shutdown pairing for the SAIT Trojans men’s hockey squad.
Because when shutdown happens, serenity happens.
“Blocking shots is painful, but it feels good at the same time,” says the six-foot-four Gans. “You know you’re helping your team out . . . and the pain goes away after a little bit.”
Adds the six-foot-one Howe: “When you pull off a good penalty kill, it just gives your team momentum. I get a lot of satisfaction out of that.”
The Trojans (21-3-4) enter ACAC playoffs this weekend as the conference’s hottest team. Since Nov. 17, when they were blanked 4-0 at NAIT, the Men of Troy have reeled off 16 games (14-0-2) without a loss — and they’ll carry that hot streak into a best-of-five ACAC semifinal series against the defending conference champion University of Alberta-Augustana Vikings (19-5-4), who defeated the MacEwan University Griffins in two straight games during a best-of-three quarterfinal last weekend.
The series begins with Game 1 on Friday, March 1 at SAIT Arena, at 7 p.m., and continues with Game 2 on Sunday, March 3 at Camrose’s Encana Arena, beginning at 2 p.m.
Gans (1st year, Olds, Alta., academic upgrading, AJHL Okotoks) and Howe (1st year, Lethbridge, Alta., petroleum engineering technology, AJHL Olds) haven’t garnered much attention this season, but have played an integral role in the Trojans’ second-half surge, says veteran head coach Ken Babey.
“Down the stretch, they’ve been logging a lot of minutes, and they’ve been a key part of our success,” says Babey. “Both players have made big improvements throughout the season . . . they go about their business quietly, a lot of unsung-hero stuff, but the work they do on the ice speaks volumes.”
Gans, notes Babey, leads the Trojans in blocked shots — 51 in 27 games, or just under two per outing — while Howe has picked up his physical play.
“They’re tough to play against, because they’ve got pretty good size, and they skate well,” says Babey. “To play a role like that, you’ve got to be hockey-smart, and put yourself in good positions, because you’re always out there against the other team’s top players.”
While Gans spent the 2011-12 season with the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s Okotoks Oilers, the pair played two campaigns together with Gans’ hometown Olds Grizzlys of the AJHL. While they didn’t hit the ice together in Olds, their blue-line partnership was formed early during this 2012-13 campaign, and No. 26 and No. 27 haven’t been separated since.
“I’d say we’re pretty well cut from the same cloth. Personally, this is the role I had when I started junior. I’ve got a long reach, which gives me an advantage on the penalty kill, and it’s the way I’ve always wanted to play. I know Clay feels the same way . . . we both have that style of game,” says Gans.
“We think the same way. We know where the other guy’s going to be, because we know where we would be. And it’s not a big priority for us to go jumping into the rush, and getting points, because we just like taking care of our end,” adds Howe.
Defensively, Joe Babey (3rd year, Calgary, business administration marketing, AJHL Drayton Valley) was the only returnee this season on the SAIT blue-line. But the Trojans’ large group of rookie defenceman has flourished — and coach Babey figures leadership is a primary reason. Gans was an assistant captain in Olds. Howe wore an ‘A,’ and then a ‘C,’ with the Grizzlys. Colton Semenok (1st year, Banff, Alta., pre-employment carpentry, AJHL Brooks) and David Watt (1st year, Duchess, Alta., pre-employment carpentry, AJHL Brooks) were both assistants with the AJHL champion Brooks Bandits, while Darrin Robak (1st year, Red Deer, Alta., academic upgrading, BCHL Cowichan Valley) captained the junior ‘A’ Cowichan Valley Capitals on Vancouver Island.
“They work hard. They’re very, very team-oriented, and that sort of unselfish play shows on the ice,” says Babey. “We screened them pretty closely, as candidates go. There’s a lot of leadership in these rookies, and that’s one of the things we looked for.
“Once they adjusted, we thought that natural leadership would come through . . . and it has.”