They do, indeed, Reign
Jim Alexander, Press Enterprise
ONTARIO — Hoist the banner. And then warm up the bus.
The Ontario Reign won its second Pacific Division championship in four seasons of existence Saturday night, wrapping up the 2012 division crown on the last night of the regular season with a fairly dominant 6-1 win over the Alaska Aces, who had already sewn up the ECHL’s overall points lead.
That's on top of their third league attendance title in four seasons, thanks to 9,592 tickets distributed for the season finale and an average of 6,309 for 36 home games.
The Reign's reward for their division title? A nice bus ride of, oh, 14 hours or so.
This being the minor leagues, also known as hockey on a budget, we are not talking chartered flights and meals with cloth napkins. No, the boys will get on the buses Sunday evening — actually sleepers, with bunks for something vaguely resembling a decent night's sleep — for the jaunt to Boise, where they will open a best-of-five first round series Tuesday and Wednesday nights against the Idaho Steelheads.
Then they’ll get back on the buses and make the return trip for games Friday, Saturday and (if necessary) Monday at Citizens Business Bank Arena.
You thought the NHL's two-month Stanley Cup playoffs were a test of endurance. The ECHL’s battle for the Kelly Cup is more arduous when living and traveling conditions are factored in.
(Oh, and by virtue of finishing first in the Western Conference by three points over the Reign, Alaska gets a first-round bye. Its marathon bus rides come later.)
It could be worse. Probably has been, actually, for anyone who ever played major junior hockey in the Western Hockey League and had to ride the bus through the Canadian prairie in the dead of winter.
"Every other year we'd make the trip out east, like 19 or 20 hours," center C.J. Stretch recalled. "But we'd only go out there for a couple of weeks and then come back."
Stretch is back to riding the buses after a few weeks of flying to road games in the AHL, sent back down to Ontario by the Houston Aeros Saturday. He made an immediate impact Saturday night with two assists, one on the first of Derek Couture's two goals.
Couture, who turns 28 in April, would seem to have breathed new life into his career in coach Jason Christie's system. He'd scored 39 goals in 293 AHL games over parts of six seasons, but his two goals and an assist Saturday night gave him 30 goals and 60 points this season, both figures career highs and the latter tying a team record.
"That's our identity, (guys like) Derek Couture, Kevin Estrada, Mike Gabinet," Christie said. "You've got to have good older guys to be successful ...
"Coots, he's the bare-chested warrior. He's a kid who loves coming to the rink every day. He's a professional. He's one of the kids I've really enjoyed over my years of coaching. If he's doing what you're preaching, that's the best thing a coach can have, and he's done it."
Couture, who playfully pretended to eavesdrop on his coach when his name was mentioned, was ready to put his, and the team's, regular season accomplishments on the shelf.
"Obviously, we're proud to be able to finish first in our division," he said. "But we'll just take what we did, enjoy it tonight, and then we're going to get ready for the playoffs. That's what really matters.
"Wherever the bus takes us, we're going to be playing our game."