By Alex George
Few sports combine speed, strength, and skill the way ice hockey does. While the Canadian national game has always been only marginally popular in America outside of New England and the northern Midwest, the Bellingham Blazers are starting to boost the games profile right here in Whatcom county.
Lance Calloway has been the Blazers general manager since the club was founded in 2012. When Sportsplex, the ice arena that the Blazers play in, was approached about forming the team Calloway was on board right from the beginning.
“I was excited to bring another level of hockey to the community.” said Calloway.
Although Bellingham is close to the border, hockey hasn’t reached the level of popularity in the United States as it has in Canada, but Calloway said that hockey is slowly staring to make inroads with Bellingham youth since kids are getting a chance to see a higher level of the sport.
Coach Mark Collins believes that slowly but surely the Blazers are growing the game of hockey in Whatcom County.
“The Blazers give kids something to work for.” said Collins, “I hear little kids saying ‘I want to be a Blazer when I get older.’”
A native of Manitoba, Canada, Collins has been playing hockey since he was 2 years old, playing for Notre Dame College in Saskatchewan and for several semi-pro teams.
The Blazers play in the North Pacific Hockey League, a Junior Level Tier III league, one of the first steps of many on the road to playing collegiate or professional hockey. Make no mistake however, the Blazers are no rec league team.
“These boys are very serious,” said Calloway, “they’re on the ice four days a week and playing one or two games a week. Typically they only get Sundays off.”
Coach Collins also travels the U.S. and Canada every off season scouting for new talent to bring to the club.
“[Collins] travels all over the country, watching college showcases and goes up to Canada to watch a few games.” Said Calloway, “he’s on the phone quite a bit.”
The majority of players on the team are attempting to get a NCAA scholarship, usually in the Division III league. Two players from last year’s Blazers squad have secured scholarships from Division III schools, 22 year old forward Cody Rich is now playing at Westfield State University in Massachusetts, and 21 year old forward Mason Wade has committed to play at Westfield.
Another player from last season, Boris Knyazev, a 21 year old forward out of Barnaul, Russia is now playing for Kazzinc-Torpedo, a professional team in Oskemen, Kazakhstan.
A few players from the NPHL have made it all the way to ice hockey’s highest stage, the National Hockey League. Tyler Johnson, a center for the Tampa Bay Lightning, 2015 NHL all-star, and member of the Lightning’s 2015 Stanley Cup Championship runner-up team, got his start in the NPHL, playing for the now defunct Coeur d’Alene Lakers.
After winning the Cascade Cup, the NPHL’s championship trophy, back-to-back in the first two years of the Blazers existence, being named coach of the year in 2012, and progressing several young players into higher levels of hockey, Collins is hoping the Blazers attract more talent.
“With the reputation we’ve had of moving kids on [to higher levels of hockey], I’m hoping that the Blazers become more of a desired destination for players.” said Collins, “The more of these success stories we have, the better.”
The Blazers roster is filled with players from all around North America, from local Bellingham boys to players from as far as Houston, Texas and Cartwright, Manitoba.
Austin Sabin, 20, a defenseman from Anchorage, Alaska said, “Hockey’s just the big thing in Anchorage. It’s like how football is in Texas. You either play hockey or baseball and I chose hockey.”
“There was definitely a culture shock from where I’m from,” said Karson DeRego, 18, a forward out of Huntington Beach, Calif., “But I like it. It’s a close community.”
The players move in with host families who are paid $300 a month and receive season tickets to the Blazers home games in exchange for housing the player.
“It’s a pretty good deal,” says Collins, “especially if there are younger kids in the house who are interested in hockey. Then they get kind of a big brother who plays hockey.”
The Blazers play home games at the Sportsplex center at 1225 Civic Field Way. To see the schedule and other information go to bellinghamblazers.com.