Tuesday, 21 February 2017

More Than Just First-Place

It's rare in the sports world today for any team to lead its league all season without faltering. Teams go through ups and downs just like everything else, and other teams can get hot at the right time and overtake them. Sometimes, injuries play a part in slowing a team's progress. The fact that this is something rare makes accomplishing the feat that much more meaningful for the members of that team, and it speaks volumes to the work done off the ice with regards to team building, game preparation, fitness, and recovery. After 43 games, let's throw some credit at the Aalborg Pirates as they have officially clinched first-place in Denmark's Metal Ligaen after leading all season long!

There are still two games to play and the Odense Bulldogs could conceivably tie the Pirates with 88 points, but Aalborg holds the tie-breaker between the two teams after today's 6-2 win over the Herlev Eagles, giving last year's eighth-place team a new accolade as they will finish as the top team in the league this year! Aalborg currently sits at a 26-11-4-2 record, and will hold home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs unless they fall. For a team used to traveling for playoff games, this will mark a major change for the organization!

Who they will play is still up for grabs, but you can't think anyone wants to roll into Aalborg after this season. As of writing, the Rungsted Seier Capital are five points back of seventh-place SønderjyskE, and Aalborg sports a 4-0-1-0 record against Rungsted this season as they have outscored them 15-7 in their five contests with the one shootout goal taken out. It hasn't been easy despite a recent 6-2 victory over Rungsted, and the pressure only ramps up in the playoffs so the Pirates will need to be ready for a team that has played them close all season long.

The key in the Metal Ligaen playoff scenario, though, is that Aalborg will be able to choose which team of the bottom-four playoff teams they'd like to play! This unique playoff scenario means that the seemingly-tough Rungsted team may not be the team that Aalborg chooses if they've found more success against the other teams, and there are five teams in contention for the bottom-four spots right now. Clearly, the team will have some decisions to make before kicking off the most anticipated playoff season in some time!

Among the individuals who are leading the way for the Pirates, one of the early recruits that Brandon Reid brought into Aalborg was 27 year-old defenceman Bryce Reddick. The Winnipeg-born player is the son of former Winnipeg Jet Eldon "Pokey" Reddick, and he had a special set of skills that Reid liked in recruiting. Reid told Mike McIntyre of the Winnipeg Free Press in June, "We needed a guy with good speed who could really control the power play. A right-handed shot. We looked at all the options we got from the agents. One main thing is you got to be a good person if we're going to take you. He was the perfect fit for us."

Reddick has kept his end of the bargain as it appears he'll finish fourth on the team in scoring this season and as the team's leading scorer from the blue line by a large margin. Reddick has been a key cog in Aalborg's defensive turnaround as well as he has the abilities to either skate the puck out using speed or make a good outlet pass, and his speed is vital in chasing down opponents while being extremely mobile in his own zone. He's the kind of player that Reid leans on to settle the team defensively thanks to his capabilities, and it's quite clear that Reddick is thriving in the opportunity.

I'd be remiss in not speaking about Peter Quenneville once more. Quenneville was a goal back of league-leading Harrison Reed of SønderjyskE just a week ago, but today's scoring race sees Quenneville atop the league's goal-scoring standings with 29 markers to date! He's also fourth in overall scoring with 48 points, just one point back of two players. I doubt he's going to score 12-15 points over the next two games to catch Odense's Dale Mitchell for the overall scoring league, but anything can happen. I'm almost certain, however, that head coach Brandon Reid isn't going to run one of his best players ragged for a scoring title.

Another player who deserves a lot of kudos is Julian Jakobsen. Relatively unknown to most hockey fans on this side of the ocean, the former Swedish Elite League and German League centerman has found some incredible chemistry alongside his national team partners in the Hojberg twins on the top line, and the result is that the 29 year-old Dane sits second in assists with 34 this season, just two back of league-leader Dale Mitchell. He's a very fluid skater with good vision on the ice, and he loves to generate offence. While his goal total of eight will largely be overshadowed by Quenneville's total, make no mistake that Jakobsen can score if given the opportunity. His play-making ability is what has him on Aalborg's top line, though, and that's come through in spades this season.

And let's not forget about the man between the pipes who has had a direct contribution on Aalborg's minuscule goals-against total this season. Ronan Quemener is another one of those unknown players to most North American fans, but let's run down the stats this 29 year-old French netminder has put up this season: seventh in save percentage (.918), seventh in goals-against average but fourth among goalies who have played 2000+ minutes this season (2.06). That's nearly a goal-and-a-half better for GAA and some 30 points better in save percentage compared to last season's starting netminder. To say that netminding hasn't been a key contributing factor in the Pirates' turnaround would be underselling how important Quemener's contributions have been this season!

So the Aalborg Pirates have some key players and have take some important steps in earning their best finish ever in the Metal Ligaen. The players above have been key contributors, and the team is playing exciting hockey. None of that matters, of course, if no one is watching the team. As head coach Brandon Reid told McIntyre in his article, "We're trying to do what the Winnipeg Jets are trying to do. We're trying to bring back that fever. Aalborg is a great hockey town. It can be something great if you get that winning culture into it. There's big opportunity over here. It can be a really great lifestyle. I played 10 years in Europe. I'm known over here, my wife and I feel comfortable."

Aalborg has a 5000-seat arena, one of the largest in the Metal Ligaen. In 2015-16, the IIHF reported that the Metal Ligaen averaged 1361 fans per game, meaning there may been a lot of empty seats in Aalborg's arena. That was down from 2014-15 where the league averaged 1481 fans. That's a worrying trend, but it seems Aalborg has followed that trend as shown by the numbers on The Internet Hockey Database as attendance has fallen year after year after that third-place finish in 2013-14.

Granted, the team was the second-most watched team in 2015-16, but the arena would look empty with more than 60% of the seats still unfilled. It sounds like Reid's efforts in making this team the best in the circuit could push Aalborg to being the most attended team in the league if photos of the rink are any indication of the city's excitement over their hockey club's performance. Unfortunately for us, the Metal Ligaen doesn't release attendance reports on their website.

"From what I've heard, he used the hall to be packed with people, it was not just sport, it was an event," Reid told MigogAalborg.dk, and stresses that his goal is to get that mentality back in town, and he is not in doubt if the team has the potential to bring Aalborg Gens are back to hockey hall.

"About three years if all according to plan, we have 5000 spectators for each game, not only because we continue to win, but because hockey culture is back in town."

Season tickets in Aalborg are only 1000 Krone or about $186 CDN. Aalborg simply wanted to see more tickets sold to the walk-up crowd so they can put more butts in seats. One of the most amazing things about the attendance figures for Aalborg this season that will eventually be released is that Aalborg did something completely unheard of in professional sports: walk-up tickets were free all season long... with an asterisk.

You might be shaking your heard in wondering how a professional hockey team with costs and expenses to pay can offer up free tickets. How they do it is completely unique. Instead of charging for every ticket, beer, and soda as fans walk through the door, the Pirates' only caveat in entering the arena is that before the entering of the arena, fans must buy a beer or soda for a maximum of 40 Krone! By doing this, fans get a ticket and a beverage when they show up to the rink!

Thomas Bjuring, director of the Aalborg Pirates, told MigogAalborg.dk - and loosely translated by me and Google,
"The concept has been received with great enthusiasm by both fans and partners. I have received countless inquiries from fans and sponsors and had visits from both North Jutland, P4, TV2 north and our own TV team yesterday. 10 minutes after the publication, internet traffic on the net was so large that the server crashed. We are all wildly enthusiastic about the massive reception this concept has gained. Now we cross our fingers for the city's suppoort with a great turnout in the new season," said Pirates boss.

"Gigantium is a great arena, and all our fans and sponsors love when there are many people in the hall. The new initiative is only possible thanks to good partners," says Bjuring.
Pirates management wanted a full arena, but they needed to do more than just offer a beverage and a ticket. There had to be a reason to come down to the rink if the Pirates wanted to see this promotional idea come to fruition. I can honestly say that the Pirates are a much better team with Brandon Reid in charge, and that culture both he and Bjurring spoke of is spreading wildfire through the Aalborg region.

Once players have enough money to live comfortably, they will seek out winning cultures in hockey because the window to win championships decreases daily for players. Not every player will say he has won a championship, so players will seek the best places they can win in order to fulfill that need to win. Both Detroit in the 1990s and Chicago in recent years have seen veteran players come to the team for less money in order to have a shot at a championship. Brandon Reid is building the same winning culture in Aalborg with his team, and that three-year plan he spoke of has been kick-started in a big way with this incredible first season.

In the end, if the Aalborg Pirates somehow are upended this season in the playoffs, there will be disappointment in them falling short. The goal of any hockey team is to win its respective league championship each and every year. Brandon Reid's work in recruiting impact players, getting more out of returning players, and giving fans a reason to flock to the arena is already paying dividends in his first year, but this is only Year One of what appears to be a three-year plan. Losing will hurt, but the culture being installed in Aalborg should guarantee repeated success in future years. Make no mistake that fans a love a winner and Aalborg will continue to see support as they move forward with the plan.

Finishing atop the standings in the Metal Ligaen is an incredible accomplishment for Brandon Reid and the Pirates. I don't know if anyone would have predicted this in his first season, but we stand here today with that fact in-hand. The playoffs stand before the Pirates, and they'll need to be better than they were in the regular season if they hope to capture the Metal Cup. I suspect Brandon will have the players ready to go once the calendar flips to March.

Seasons, however, will come and go. The big picture in long-term sustainability for this franchise is changing the culture surrounding this team, and that job has only started for the Pirates. But let's make sure we call a spade "a spade" when it comes to how they started this three-year plan: pretty damned great! And the Pirates can cap it off with twelve wins over the next month to hoist their first Metal Cup in club history and the first in the city's history since 1981!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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