The Newfoundland Growlers have just returned home from a lengthy road trip and if I had to sum it up in one word, the word would be chaotic.
Following the team’s last home game on Dec. 12, they were thrust into an early and extended holiday break due to COVID-19 outbreaks and potential exposures on teams they were due to face. On New Year’s Eve, they were finally able to return (an overtime loss) before promptly going into yet another extended break, following the rescheduling and cancellation of some home games.
Cut to Friday, January 21st, the team reassembles in Kansas City to begin a seven-game road trip through the Midwest and things get strange right from the beginning. The captain, James Melindy, is not joining the team for unspecified personal reasons. Starting goaltender Keith Petruzzelli and winger Jeremy McKenna are called up to the Marlies, but in their place come winger Gordie Green and defencemen Ben Finkelstein and Noel Hoefenmayer, as well as Maple Leafs/Marlies practice goalie Andrew D’Agostini, who is promptly signed to a contract, and USports goaltender Brett Epp is set to be his backup.
And the first game of the road trip is a 9-4 win, the most goals in a single game in Growlers’ history, featuring five power play goals, two shorthanded goals, and two players getting their first ECHL hat tricks in Orrin Centazzo and Issac Johnson. That game also features the first of many injuries on this truly cursed trip: the team’s leading scorer Zach O’Brien.
Ahead of the rematch the following night, forward Nick Pastorious, who played in the New Year’s Eve game before being released from his contract, was re-signed, and Maple Leafs goalie prospect Ian Scott was assigned on a conditioning stint. He played in one period and allowed a power play goal against on one of the six shots he faced before being taken out of the game (a move that was planned in advance) for D’Agostini, who suffered an injury but stayed in the game. Issac Johnson and defenceman Luke Bafia were also injured in that game, Johnson, being a player on loan from Manitoba in the AHL, was recalled from the club at that point, presumably so Manitoba’s medical staff could evaluate his injury.
In response to that, Petruzzelli and McKenna were once again re-assigned to the Growlers, but the team would go on to play the remainder of the road trip with only five defencemen dressed per night.
Here’s where things get crazy: forward Maurizio Collella is acquired in a trade for future considerations just a few days before a sudden avalanche of transactions occur due to unfortunate circumstances. Defencemen Brennan Kapcheck and Tristan Pomerleau are added to the injury list. At the same time, the Growlers’ are hit with the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in their locker room, with key players at all three positions being deemed unable to play: goaltender Petruzzelli, defenceman Ben Finkelstein, and forwards Orrin Centazzo, Marcus Power, Brendan Soucie amd Derian Plouffe.
At some point in all of this, Nick Pastorious just disappeared. He was not put on the COVID-list, nor was any injury announced, and he has not been released, he just simply has not been seen since being assessed a 10-minute misconduct at the end of the Jan. 26 game against Wichita. At this point in the trip, the number of absent players and the number of active players are almost even, so naturally, some players needed to be acquired on short notice.
So as you can tell from the graphic of players who are not active for the team, this list doesn’t include D’Agostini, who was released following his injury, or Johnson, who is still in Manitoba. The first player to return was Evan Cormier, who was part of the Growlers’ goaltending tandem for most of the season before being signed to a Manitoba Moose PTO. Following his arrival, the team made six additional player acquisitions: Evan Neugold, Taylor Egan, Brett Menton, Zane Schartz, Matthew Hobbs, and Scott Kirton. All’s good right?
Not quite. Of those six players, only Egan, Schartz and Menton were available to play in the first of three games versus the Allen Americans to close out the road trip, so the Growlers were forced to play a game with only eight forwards and five defenders. In the final two games against Allen, the team opted to utilize an 11 forwards, five defence configuration that I’ve not seen before (despite the fact that most of the newly acquired players were listed as defencemen). Following the final game of the trip, a 4-2 loss, Hobbs, Schartz and Menton were released from their contracts and the team now returns to Newfoundland for seven home games, at least three of those games will be played without fans.
During this stretch of games, the team went 2-5-1 and in terms of players who put on a great performance, Keith Petruzzelli posted his second Growlers shutout, Ben Finkelstein made a great impression to Growlers fans, scoring a trio of goals in his four games played. Orrin Centazzo, prior to being placed in the league’s health and safety protocols, was on a five game goal-scoring streak and really stepped up, playing top-line minutes and centering a line for the first time in his pro career.
Finally, the entire team does deserve a stick tap for fighting through the unique challenges of this trip. Some of those stories will be told in due time.