Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Sanford deserves NHL shot

Lack of size stigma only obstacle in path of Tigers captain

Tigers captain Cole Sanford gets set for a faceoff.
    MEDICINE HAT - Cole Sanford chuckled at the notion that it might take an old Medicine Hat Tigers link to get a break at the professional level.
    The Vernon, B.C., product and current Tigers captain knows the fact that he stands 5-foot-9 and weighs 165 pounds is the biggest obstacle he faces when it comes to trying to get an NHL entry-level contract offer. Playing in Medicine Hat, the thought does get booted around that maybe Vancouver Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins might take an interest in Sanford and create a chance for the skilled right-winger, who is small in stature.
    Desjardins was with the Tigers as head coach from 2002 to 2010 and also held the general manager’s role for the last five of those campaigns. He had a string of success utilizing smaller, skilled players, so naturally one would think there would be fit for Sanford.
    “Obviously, connections are nice,” said Sanford, who did attend Edmonton Oilers training camp in September. “If that happened, obviously, that would be exciting for me.
    “I am sure whatever came up or if there is any kind of opportunity, I’d be excited. It doesn’t matter where it is.”
    For his part, Sanford has already done more than enough to earn an NHL deal. After potting two goals and nine assists in 53 games as a 17-year-old rookie in 2012-13, Sanford had a break-out year as a sophomore netting 33 goals, 40 assists and a plus-47 rating in the plus-minus department.
    As an established star last season, he became one of the few players in recent WHL campaigns to crack the 50-goal barrier recording 50 goals, 45 assists and a plus-24 rating. Sanford missed some time this season with a shoulder injury, but he has still recorded 17 goals and 15 assists in 30 games on a Tigers team that has seen its lineup shuffle due to a number of key injuries.
    Those challenges have contributed to the fact the Tigers, who have made the playoffs for 13 straight seasons, sit an uncharacteristic 10th overall in the WHL’s Eastern Conference with a 12-20-3-1 mark.
    Sanford is hopeful a professional shot will come.
Tigers captain Cole Sanford gets set to wire a shot on goal.
    “It is my goal,” said Sanford. “Right now I have basically half a year to find something and find an opportunity up there.
    “Obviously, that is everyone’s goal is to move on. We will see what happens.”
    As far as Sanford’s time in Medicine Hat goes, Tigers head coach and general manager Shaun Clouston said the veteran forward’s value cannot be overstated.
    “He has had a great career here,” said Clouston, who is second on the Tigers career regular season coaching wins list. “He has been a player that other guys can look up to.
    “He has gotten better, because he has committed to improvement. He has found ways to elevate his game at important times. He has been a great Tiger.”
    Clouston added that the uphill battle for smaller players to make the NHL seems to never go away, but he said Sanford keeps consistently doing his best to turn heads.
    “I think it is always a challenge,” said Clouston. “I think any time that a player is not 6-feet tall there is a bit of a label.
    “They have to fight through that. They have to prove themselves more so than a lot of the other players. He is a guy that continues to prove himself year in and year out.”
    The veteran bench boss added that Sanford’s game is still getting better.
    “He is a guy that has really committed especially late in games to doing the right thing, whether it is protecting the lead, finishing checks and getting clears,” said Clouston, whose team won four of five games heading into the WHL Christmas break. “He has been a real go to guy during this stretch where we have had more success.”
Cole Sanford (#26) celebrates a Tigers goal with his teammates.
    Sanford has put together a standout WHL career playing with a few different linemates as well. When he broke out offensively in 2013-14, Sanford was the triggerman on a high octane unit that contained Curtis Valk at centre and Trevor Cox at left wing. That trio formed one of the most exciting lines the Tigers had ever seen.
    Last season, Steven Owre stepped in at centre between Sanford and Cox after Valk was lost to graduation. Due to injuries and trades this season, Sanford has played with a variety of linemates.
    “It is definitely a lot different than the last two years, but I think it is good for me,” said Sanford. “It is good for me to play with different guys and adjust to that.”
    Sanford said he is a player that has a tendency to shoot more than pass in the offensive zone. With that said, he had a couple of nice assists in his club’s 5-4 overtime home ice loss on Sunday to the Lethbridge Hurricanes. The best helper came on the Tigers third goal, when Sanford slipped a feed that had eyes across the face the Lethbridge goal to Mark Rassell, who capitalized on the chance.
Tigers captain Cole Sanford follows through on a shot on goal.
    Since joining the team, Sanford said he has been fortunate to play on lines that contained smart playmakers, who had great vision, which has resulted in him being the finisher around the goal. During his time in Medicine Hat, Sanford has made a number of good memories, which included helping the club advance to the WHL’s Eastern Conference championship series in 2014.
    He also had the chance to play in the Tigers first home rink, The Arena, and the team’s new home, the Canalta Centre, which opened this season. No matter what happens on the professional front, the Tigers will always have a place in Sanford’s heart.
    “I’ve come a long ways with this team starting off as a 17-year-old and not playing too much and kind of earning my ice there as an 18-year-old and then getting the opportunity to play,” said Sanford. “Obviously, last season was a career year for myself. Everyone here has helped me lots.
    “When I was 15 looking at this organization, I was real excited to see all the videos and the rich history here. To be a part of that now with the new rink and obviously the old rink it is pretty cool.”

Canalta Centre looks sweet

A look over Tigers goalie Nick Schneider into the Canalta Centre.
    On first impressions, I think the Medicine Hat Tigers time in the Canalta Centre is going to be alright.
    When the moment came for the storied WHL franchise to play in a new home rink, there was a bit of a fear that something might be lost due to the fact the team was no longer playing in The Arena, which was the only home rink the franchise had known until the current campaign got underway.
    The nostalgia and the lively boards are two things The Arena will always have. The Tigers and their fans shared countless memorable experiences in that old rink including Brennan Bosch’s double overtime goal that won the seventh and deciding game of the 2007 WHL championship series. That building rocked in the post-season as sellout crowds of 4,006 packed the place in its final seating configuration.
    With those memories in mind, it was cool to see the Tigers playing in a modern home facility that seats 6,016 spectators in the Canalta Centre. There are no bad sightlines, and even though the building is bigger, you don’t feel far from the action.
    The view from the “Bob Ridley Broadcast Centre” press box and the box seating have to the envy of the league. You think the view from those areas would be far, but when you are in them you feel on top of the action.
    When the Tigers fell 5-4 in overtime to the visiting Lethbridge Hurricanes on Sunday, you could still sense a good atmosphere as 5,032 spectators filled most of the seats. The rival Hurricanes also brought a healthy contingent of a few hundred supporters, whose cheering helped engage the host side’s fans.
Tigers centre Chad Butcher gets set up in the offensive zone.
    The game was widely entertaining, and you could set the highlight video to the old Tom Cochrane song, “Big League.” Basically, that night was the Western Hockey League at its best.
    There was also a familiarity factor to the place, even though it is new. The majority of the game day staff from The Arena came over to the Canalta Centre, and all the Tigers ardent supporters came too. Anyone that was at the old facility would recognize most of the people at the new facility on a game night.
    There are still obvious signs that the move in isn’t complete. The Tigers are suiting up in what is supposed to be the visitors’ dressing room due to the fact the home one isn’t finished. The Tabbies still don’t have a merchandise store set up and none of the team’s banners are hanging in the rafters.
    All of those items will be looked after over time. There is only so much that can be done, when you undertake a major move, which also included issues with getting a framework down for a lease.
    There is also a bit of a sense that everyone is still getting used to the new building, but you do have a gut feeling the Canalta Centre will be the place to be during a long Tigers playoff run. The Tigers new home is sweet, and it will be interesting to see what a game experience will be like when the club has a full off-season to prepare for the Canalta Centre’s sophomore campaign without worrying about a move.
    Still, the Hat’s new rink even right now is a place you have to see.

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