On the heels of an underachieving 2013-14 season, the Florida Everblades are bringing fresh talent to the ice. It’s a younger, hungrier team – a mix of players Coach Greg Poss believes are eager to prove themselves and won’t settle for less than their best.
No one on the 2014-15 roster was around when the Everblades captured the Kelly Cup in 2012. Only Head Coach Poss and General Manager Craig Brush tasted that victory. Members of the Kelly Cup Championship team have either moved on or were let go after last season. “What I saw last year, mid-December after having a really good start, the intrinsic motivation of the players wasn’t the level we needed,” Poss says. “Instead of 100 percent, we were maybe 98 percent. The little edge was missing. The heart of the team wasn’t quite beating as we would like.” At the end of the season, the Blades had tallied more points than previous years but still missed the playoffs.
“We probably hung onto some players one year too long,” Poss says, analyzing the outcome. “Like in dog racing, once that dog catches the rabbit, they’re done.” After the Kelly Cup victory, many players were called up to the American Hockey League (AHL) and the National Hockey League (NHL) by Everblades’ affiliates, the Carolina Hurricanes, and Tampa Bay Lightning. When some were later sent back to the minor league, they got bitter about their luck, Poss notes.
“We said, ‘We’re going to change everything and build it back again,’” Poss says of the new philosophy, which has kept him, Brush and Assistant Coach Tad O’Had busy scouting and recruiting. “We were looking for hungry players who have a great passion to play hockey and it’s a priority in their lives – and obviously, talent with that.”
Some of the players, like forwards Evan Bloodoff and Adam Brace, played for the Blades previously, while other recruits are coming from all over the United States and Canada, as well as international locations. The Blades are looking for more players with the heart of Latvian goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis, who started with the Everblades last season and wound up in the NHL playoffs with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
He played in the ECHL, AHL, NHL and for Latvia in the Olympics and the Ice Hockey World Championships, all as a 20-year-old rookie. “He just came down here and worked hard,” Poss says. “He was young, didn’t worry about where he was playing and had a good attitude. He was happy and grateful for what he had.” Statistically, about 15 percent of Everblades’ players will play in the NHL and possibly become millionaires, Poss adds. That should be worth giving 100 percent on the ice.
“The players are playing here to get to the next level,” explains the coach. “They really need to give gas when they’re here.” Forward Mitch Wahl, 24, joins the Blades following successful seasons in the ECHL with the Idaho Steelheads and the Utah Grizzlies, where he was a leading scorer.
He also played for Abbotsford, Hamilton, and Adirondack in the AHL. “He’s a very dynamic player and was drafted very high in the NHL and maybe hasn’t quite achieved his potential,” Poss says of Wahl’s talent. “He has a lot to offer and is still young.” Wahl says he is excited about the talent on the Blades’ roster this season: “Coach Poss seems like a very competitive guy. He wants to win, and that was a big part of me making my decision to come to Florida.”
Chris Kushneriuk, 27, another new forward, is rising back onto the professional ice hockey scene after having been forced to take his battle off the ice to crush cancer. The Ottawa, Ontario native was nearing the end of his first professional season in the ECHL when he learned his nagging pains were more than just the wear-and-tear of hockey. By the time the then-25-year-old was diagnosed with Stage Four testicular cancer, it had spread to his lymph nodes, abdomen, and liver. He underwent radical treatments with chemotherapy and several surgeries, including a bone marrow transplant, under the care of Indiana University’s Dr. Lawrence Einhorn, who also treated Lance Armstrong. Kushneriuk says he was sustained by his faith and buoyed by the support of the professional hockey community, as well as his former team at Robert Morris University. “I call it a bad dream I had to wake up from,” says Kushneriuk, who now works with the Canadian Cancer Society to bring hope to others.
“It’s cool being on the other end of it and being able to turn something so devastating into something good. Now that it’s all in the rearview mirror, you can use it as motivation.” Now cancer-free, Kushneriuk takes that determination back to the ice. He started in the ECHL with the Wheeling Nailers in 2011, took a year and a half off for cancer treatments and then played last season with the Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL. He appreciates how fortunate he is to play professional hockey and even enjoys the drills he once thought drudgery.
“I am really happy to be back on the ice,” Kushneriuk says. “I knew I had to make a comeback last season. I feel better than I’ve ever felt. Every day I wake up, I’m so energized to work toward being better and being an impact player.” That attitude will help Kushneriuk be a leader on and off the ice, Poss says. “He almost died of cancer and now is 100 percent fit and is excited to be playing again. He has a different outlook on life, and I think he’ll be a good leader by example.”
Another forward eager to play for the Everblades is Matt Mangene, a former University of Maine standout who has played in the ECHL and AHL. Like the rest of the young team, he’s hungry for playoff success. “Playoff hockey is so important when you’re a professional player,” Mangene says. “I’m looking forward to seeing new faces and getting some camaraderie going.”
Forward Adam Brace, 26, returns to the Everblades this season after starting his professional career with the Blades in spring 2013. He led the team in scoring in the 2013 Kelly Cup Playoffs and has played in the AHL. Forward Evan Bloodoff also returns to the Everblades, having joined the Blades in March 2014. “He’s probably the fastest skater in the league,” Poss says of Bloodoff’s talent. The coach also sees great potential in defenseman Jordan Henry, who played 34 games with the Everblades last season and was called up to the AHL to play with the Syracuse Crunch.
“Last year, when he was with us, I think he was the best defenseman in the league,” Poss says. When asked about the plausibility of a Kelly Cup championship rising from this rebuilding year, Poss says confidently: “We have the potential.” “We need a synergetic effort from everybody, and players have to make each other better,” he continues. “That’s what makes a championship team – and a little luck. You always need that.”