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BIRD'S-EYE VIEW: Oh Captain, New Captain

Friday, September 25th
BIRD'S-EYE VIEW: Oh Captain, New Captain

BIRD’S-EYE VIEW:  Oh Captain, New Captain

Blog #26 – September 25, 2020

by John Peterson

The date was January 18, 2017.

The Kalamazoo Wings traded Tyler Shattock to the Alaska Aces in exchange for Justin Breton.

Shortly thereafter, Equipment Manager Brent Overkamp unstitched the “C” from Shattock’s Number-16 jersey and sewed it onto fourth-year K-Wings defenseman Ben Wilson’s Number-14 sweater.

Head Coach Nick Bootland hasn’t had to select a new captain since. Until now.

After seven seasons anchoring the Kalamazoo blue line and four of them in the captain’s role, Wilson signed a contract in Romania this summer to continue his career overseas. With that, it marked the end of an era.

Assuming the 2020-21 season is played, its start delayed currently to December at the earliest, the coaching staff will have to replace a leader who poured his heart and soul into the K-Wings for the better part of a decade.

Diehard statisticians and armchair coaches might not understand the value of a captain like Wilson. He isn’t flashy, doesn’t put up big offensive numbers, is arguably undersized for his position and doesn’t possess the most eye-popping skillsets characterized by star players.

People think captains should be your best player. They see Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid or Jonathan Toews and come to the conclusion that every team’s stud goal-scorer or playmaker should be wearing the “C”.

Here’s where those doubters are wrong. Think of Boston’s Zdeno Chara, Montreal’s Shea Weber or Minnesota’s Mikko Koivu. All are longtime captains of their respective teams and none are known as big-time point producers. All of them are excellent leaders and well-respected in their locker rooms and in hockey circles.

Ben Wilson, by ECHL comparison, is no different. He is one of the best leaders I’ve ever been around.

And he’ll be tough to replace.

‘HE BLEEDS BLUE AND RED’

When I first got to Kalamazoo last summer, I asked Bootland about Wilson. I wanted to know what made him a great leader and likely captain for a fourth straight season. Here’s what Bootland had to say:

“Ben bleeds blue and red and our staff and players cannot say enough good things about him. What he provides as a leader of this team goes far beyond what shows up on the stat sheet.”

That is high praise from a former K-Wings captain and 12-year bench boss.

Statistically, Wilson was on pace for the best single-season numbers of his career in 2019-20. Through 60 games, he had four goals (tying a career high) and 11 assists (two away from his best mark). The team’s final 11 games were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here is some food for thought. The 29-year-old had 75 penalty minutes last year. He led the ECHL with nine fighting majors. That accounted for 45 of those 75 minutes in the box. He didn’t have a single ten-minute misconduct and only received 15 minor penalties.

I wasn’t a math major in college, but that amounts to one minor penalty for every four K-Wings games he played in in 2019-20. That shows discipline for a guy who plays a gritty, hard-nosed style of hockey.

He also mentored a young, inexperienced defensive corps that included four rookies: Cory Dunn, Ian Edmondson, Aaron Thow and Matt VanVoorhis. Throughout the season, he was most often paired up with two in particular, VanVoorhis early in the year and Edmondson late. Coincidentally Edmondson won the team’s Rookie of the Year Award and VanVoorhis was a finalist for the team’s Most Improved Player. Wilson won the K-Wings Defenseman of the Year honor.

But his leadership extended beyond Wings Event Center during his seven seasons in Kalamazoo. He took the time to sign autographs and take pictures with fans, and routinely volunteered for community appearances at schools, hospitals and area non-profits.

One of my favorite memories from last season was visiting Bronson Children’s Hospital during the holidays, as a handful of the K-Wings players and staff dropped off hundreds of Teddy Bears accumulated at the team’s annual Teddy Bear Toss game.

The tradition was started by Bootland years ago. The team’s leadership group delivered the bears to the young hospital patients to help spread holiday cheer during a difficult time for them and their families. So there was Wilson, along with teammates Eric Kattelus, Boston Leier, Tanner Sorenson and Justin Taylor, going room-by-room, interacting the kids and their families and giving them the Teddy Bears.

Isn’t that the type of person you want representing your organization? Kalamazoo makes it a point of emphasis during the recruiting process to pursue players who are well-rounded on and off the ice, high-character individuals who value the importance of giving back to the community.

Wilson turns 30 in March. He spent the majority of his pro career in southwest Michigan. Many players choose to go overseas to see the world and make as much money as they can before retiring. Some decide to return to North America in the twilight of their career for one last hurrah. When I asked Wilson about whether he’d consider a return to Kalamazoo someday, here’s what he shared:

“I’m not going to close any doors. It would be nice to come back at some point eventually and wear that winged “K” again, but I’m very thankful for the years I did get with my teammates and the organization. I was treated very well and want to thank all those people who made my stay in Kalamazoo my second home. It was always an honor to wear that jersey.”

PUBLIC ENEMY

The court of public opinion can be a cruel monster sometimes. In the age of social media, one slip up can follow you around for years.

Take April 15, 2017, for example. The K-Wings faced off against the Toledo Walleye in Game 2 of their first round playoff series at the Huntington Center. Wilson received a game misconduct and subsequent 20-game suspension for cross-checking Simon Denis seven times at the side of the Kalamazoo net.

I was watching from my couch in Tulsa after the Oilers missed the playoffs that season. I had no allegiance to either team at the time and didn’t even know any of the players involved personally. Since the incident, I’ve probably seen the video 100 times.

Did it deserve a penalty? Absolutely. An ejection? Yes. A suspension? Sure, I don’t think anybody would argue that. 20 games? Okay, if that was what needed to be done to send a message.

But a life sentence? Come on.

The reason I even bring it up is because early last season, my first as K-Wings broadcaster, I overheard press box comments from media personnel in multiple ECHL markets that were alarming.

One individual said sarcastically, “Wilson is called for roughing. Huge shocker there.”

Another editorialized, “Kalamazoo’s Wilson is involved in the scrum, which is no surprise at all, given his history.”

Walleye fans still booed Wilson every time Kalamazoo played in Toledo. Comments on social media fan pages last season claimed he should’ve been kicked out of the sport for the Denis cross checks three years earlier. There’s a Reddit thread featuring 88 posts calling for a lifetime ban from hockey.

Denis missed 11 games during Toledo’s playoff run that spring, but returned for the conference finals. The skilled defenseman then put together a tremendous 2017-18 season in Toledo, which included a call-up and seven AHL games for the Hartford Wolf Pack. He’s since spent the last two seasons in South Korea and Japan.

I think it is time to let it go.

Knowing what I know now about the player and the person, that incident in April 2017 was uncharacteristic of Wilson and one he regrets. But one play, as bad as it looked on a viral 30 second YouTube video, does not define a career.

Those who know him and have played with him or coached him will echo this sentiment: he is a terrific leader on the ice and in the locker room, and an even better person off the ice. In fact, he never received another suspension again after that 20-gamer.

Well, until February last season. What happened this time?

Wilson and Fort Wayne’s Kyle Haas dropped the gloves after the final buzzer of a heated late-season rivalry game at Memorial Coliseum. What really went down that night? A few other players on both teams were involved in a scrum in the waning moments of the game and it boiled over as Wilson tried to get his team off the ice and into the locker room. His intentions were to deescalate the situation, as leaders do.

When matters got out of hand and Haas stepped over the line, Wilson answered the bell. By rule, it brought an automatic one-game suspension. Kalamazoo’s next game would be the only game the K-Wings captain missed all year.

You have to consider Wilson’s role on the ice. He brings energy, intensity, a passion for the game and a physical presence that is engrained in the game of hockey. Every team has a player or two in that role. He rolls with the punches, pun intended. Is he good at playing the agitator/enforcer role? Yes. Is he a dirty player? Absolutely not.

When I asked him about division rivalries on our recent episode of “Just Wingin’ It”, here’s what he had to say:

“I absolutely think rivalries make their way into the locker room. It doesn’t matter who you play, if you see a team 12 times, there is going to be conflicts. I love those games. Whether it’s on the road or at home, it brings such an energy that you can’t make it up. It’s real. It’s authentic.”

He has also consistently shown appreciation for the fans, both of the K-Wings and of rival teams, and understands their passion.

On the continued grief he got in Toledo specifically, behind a smile: “There are some funny chirps, obviously, that are great. I probably brought that upon myself, but it’s good to have fans invested in the game. I always appreciated the fans. Sometimes it’s in one ear, out the other. You have to consider the source. I don’t know them. They don’t know me. They’re judging me on my past and my hockey. It is what it is.”

He’s the type of player you love to have on your team and love to root against when he plays for your rival. Think Cody Sol (Fort Wayne to Toledo to Cincinnati) or AJ Jenks (Toledo to Fort Wayne). What makes those players great is they feed off the role they play and the identity they’re perceived to carry in the eyes of the fans (and sometimes the media). They embrace the hero/villain role perfectly on the ice. But it doesn’t define them as people.

Those players are valuable. They are often trusted in a leadership role. Coaches love having players like that in the room.

WHO IS NEXT?

This will be one of the main storylines entering Kalamazoo’s training camp, if and when the 2020-21 hockey season gets off the ground. It is one of topics the K-Wings coaching staff will face head on and analyze in the weeks leading up to the start of the season.

Throughout the summer, the conversations between Wilson and the K-Wings coaches were transparent. He expressed his desire to continue his career overseas if an opportunity presented itself, but he also had been open and honest about his love for Kalamazoo and his willingness to return.

When he made his decision to sign in Romania, it became time to officially turn the page. So let’s speculate at some of the possible names who might be in consideration for the role of captain.

For starters, I have to think veterans Justin Taylor and Eric Kattelus will be discussed, assuming they re-sign with the K-Wings. The 2020-21 campaign would be Taylor’s eleventh in Kalamazoo and Kattelus’ tenth. Both have been alternate captains for multiple seasons and would seem like likely frontrunners.

Tanner Sorenson, who officially marked his return by signing a contract this summer, could be in the running given his experience and maturation over the years. Kalamazoo also protected the ECHL rights to Boston Leier this summer. The 2019-20 alternate captain is a natural leader. Leier has only three seasons of pro experience, but could be a dark horse for the captaincy if he comes back.

How about newcomer Mathieu Roy? The 33-year-old decided to leave Europe to return to North America after five seasons overseas. Roy captained the Florida Everblades for three years, and led them to a Kelly Cup Championship in 2011-12. He also won back-to-back titles his first two years with the Sheffield Steelers in England.

The K-Wings will have options. Ultimately someone new will wear the “C” the next time Kalamazoo hits the ice.

Whoever that is will have big skates to fill.

--

Bird’s-Eye View is a Kalamazoo Wings blog, written by the team’s Director of Public Relations/Broadcaster John Peterson twice weekly. The thoughts, opinions and behind-the-scenes stories are that of the writer alone and not a reflection of the organization as a whole. Fans are welcome to submit questions and ideas for future blog posts to jpeterson@kwings.com. Enjoy!

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