July 15, 2012

From NEHJ: Southern comfort

By Mike Zhe

Defenseman Bret Tyler (Maynard, Mass.) has seen a lot in four years playing pro hockey, but even he was taken aback — pleasantly — when old buddy Kevin Kessler (Marshfield, Mass.) strode into the Columbus (Ga.) Cottonmouths locker room at the start of last season. 

Kevin Kessler (Marshfield, Mass.) gave the Cottonmouths a much-needed physical presence. (Photo: Columbus Cottonmouths)

A few months later, the former Minuteman Flames teammates hadn’t just renewed an old acquaintance; they’d also helped the Cottonmouths surge to a championship in the Southern Professional Hockey League, the first for the franchise since 2005.

As spring gives way to summer, and the gap between old hockey seasons and new ones reaches its peak, it’s time for New England Hockey Journal to look back and salute the region’s pros who got to hoist a trophy, whether it was the Stanley Cup in the case of Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick (Hamden, Conn.; see Cover Story, Page 8) or the President’s Cup that goes to the champion of the SPHL, which is comprised of nine teams in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and North Carolina.

“It was pretty exciting,” said the 26-year-old Kessler, a stay-at-home defenseman and second-year pro. “I won one in juniors but never as a pro. It’s good to get it out of the way early in my career.”

Cast off by another SPHL team, the Huntsville Havoc, after a 2010-11 campaign that saw him fall out of favor with the coach, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound former UMass player brought a much-needed physical presence. He finished with a pair of goals and 11 points to go along with 74 penalty minutes.

“Don’t really know what happened,” Kessler said. “At the end of the year, I talked to (Huntsville coach) Randy (Murphy), and they said they were going to go in a different direction.”

“Their coach just didn’t like him, for whatever reason,” Cottonmouths coach/GM Jerome Bechard said. “He was left unprotected by Huntsville. Their coach said he was too soft, didn’t work as hard as he needed to. I threw that at him, and it either motivated him or ticked him off.”

Bechard said the presence of former Division 1 college players Tyler, who starred at Maine, and Kessler on the blue line shows the kind of strides the league is making in terms of its talent level. Both guys said they’d like to be back with the team next season if they don’t stick at a higher level.

Bret Tyler (Maynard, Mass.) is one of the best defenseman in South League. (Columbus Cottonmouths) 

“Five years ago, I couldn’t even talk to a Division 1 guy,” Bechard said. “The money’s not the same as it is in the East Coast league, but our league is surviving.”

A typical SPHL player makes between $300 and $325 a week — teams face a salary cap of $5,600 a week, Bechard said — but apartment rent is covered by the teams, as are most meals.

After honing their games in hockey-mad eastern Massachusetts, acclimating to an outpost on the Georgia-Alabama border, not far from Auburn University, was an adjustment, from the rich food to the way fans watch the games.

“It’s a little different,” said Tyler, whose pro career has also included stops in Las Vegas (ECHL) and Missouri (CHL). “They don’t know as much about the game, but they like to see the fights and the goals and all that.”

Tyler and Kessler played two years together with the Minuteman Flames, then against each other when Tyler was at Maine and Kessler skated for UMass.

“I’ve known him my whole life, pretty much,” Tyler said. “He’s a great skater and probably hits harder than anyone in the league. It was great to see him when he got here.”

Tyler finished second on the team with 46 points, and his 40 assists led the team. It was his most productive pro season, topping the 32 points he put up with the Cottonmouths a year ago, fourth-best among league defensemen.

“Bret Tyler is probably one of the best, if not the best, defensemen in the league,” Bechard said. “He’s a risk-taker, but he settled down at the end of the season and didn’t take as many risks, which helped us win the championship.”

In the locker room, his sense of humor — coupled with his accent — made him stand out.

“I could sit there and listen to him talk and tell jokes all day with that accent,” Bechard said.

In the end, the Cottonmouths’ winning formula was mixed the same way it would be at the higher levels: strong goaltending — Ian Vigier was named playoff MVP — and a team peaking at the right time. They closed the regular season with wins in six of their final seven games to finish in second place, and then swept all three of their best-of-three playoff series, culminating with wins against the Pensacola Ice Flyers in the finals.

“I think we flew under the radar most of the year,” Bechard said. “I thought we had the team and the talent to do it. It wasn’t a fluke going down the stretch. We were very good from mid-January or so on.”

A winning recipe at any level.

“We had a great group of guys,” Tyler said. “We all got along well and we had great goaltending.”

“It’s a good feeling,” Kessler said. “It’s obviously not the same (as the Stanley Cup), but it was a great feeling to finally hold up a cup like that.”

NEW ENGLAND’S CHAMPIONS

New Englanders on professional championship teams in 2011-12:

NORTH AMERICA

NHL — Los Angeles Kings

Jonathan Quick, G (Hamden, Conn.)

ECHL — Florida Everblades

John Muse, G (East Falmouth, Mass.)

SPHL — Columbus Cottonmouths

Kevin Kessler, D (Marshfield, Mass.)

Bret Tyler, D (Maynard, Mass.)

FHL — New Jersey Outlaws

John Mori, RW (Westport, Conn.)

CWHL — Montreal Stars

Julie Chu, F (Fairfield, Conn.)

AUSTRIA

Erste Banke Eishockey Liga — EHC Black Wings Linz

Pat Leahy, F (Duxbury, Mass.)

GERMANY

Deutsche Eishockey Liga — Eisbaren Berlin

Jimmy Sharrow, D (Framingham, Mass.)

GREAT BRITAIN

Elite Ice Hockey League — Belfast Giants

Thomas Dignard, D (Reading, Mass.)

Mike Hoffman, F (Scituate, Mass.)

Jeff Mason, D (Easthampton, Mass.)

This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Email: mzhe@hockeyjournal.com