For the past two seasons, there have been two constants in the Northern Pacific Hockey League — the Bellingham Blazers and the West Sound Warriors.
The two Tier III USA Junior Hockey teams have been jockeying for the top position in the league for these two years and have met in the league’s tournament finals, the Cascade Cup, each of the past two seasons.
This season they meet again for the third time in the Cascade Cup. Bellingham owns an advantage with series wins in the last two Cups, but West Sound finished with the top record in the NPHL this season and had an easier first round opponent than the Blazers did in their grueling, five-game series win over the Wenatchee Wolves.
For the Blazers, the steady dominance can best be characterized by two individuals — coach Mark Collins and captain Mason Wade.
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It all starts with recruiting for Collins, as he finds the players he thinks best fit his team and brings them in.
“You bring in certain types of players who want to learn and improve,” Collins said in a phone interview. “In-season its about coaching and getting players in the system you teach. There is a lot of skill development.”
This season, the focus has been on controlling and possessing the puck, two things Collins prefers his teams to excell in doing.
“That hurt us earlier, we weren’t as crisp,” he said. “It’s almost hockey knowledge about getting open and receiving passes, so we worked a lot at that to sharpen our team chemistry a bit and now that that’s better we see the results.”
That “certain type of player” Collins is looking for is the mold of Wade. The second-year captain’s quiet, lead-by-example style is perfect for the Blazers.
“If you’re younger and looking up to a 20- or 19-year-old for experience and see them working hard to block shots or make a play, it’s easy to follow that,” Collins said.
Around Wade, there is a core group of four other players who have been with the Blazers each of the three times they will have been to the Cascade Cup. Kristjan Toivola, Mark MacDonald, Kevin Duncan and Broderick Parker are more for the team than just leaders though.
“This coming season is the first I’m going to lose them and they move onto colleges,” Collins said. “They’re the heart and soul of the team, so next year those are guys we need to replace. It’s going to be weird.”
And Collins had nothing but praise for each of them.
“Mason is a great leader, I’ve coached him for a long time and he’s come so far as a player,” the coach said. “Toivola is a local kid, he’s really crafty. He had the game-winner in game five versus Wenatchee. Parker is a goalie we’ve had and he’s taken a bigger role this year. ... McDonald has been a solid defenseman for three years and I took him as an underager at 15 the first year we won. He and Parker were the youngest.”
Toivola isn’t the only “local kid” of that group. Wade and Parker also hail from Bellingham, and MacDonald is from Ferndale.
“I know what they’re willing to do and what I am to win,” Wade said of his teammates. “Definitely all the guys that live in Bellingham grew up playing together since we were little. We know each other’s habits.”
The rest of the team is almost as familiar with each other at this point. Collins has had the team doing team-building activities, and Wade said they mostly hang out together anyway.
“We’re always doing Crossfit and stuff that’s pretty rigorous,” Wade said, “and playing soccer and going on runs.”
A group so tight-knit taking on a familiar rival can be either friendly or contentious, so which is the Blazer-Warrior rivalry?
“I think we just don’t like each other at all,” Wade said. “It’s like, I’d rather have them not win than how bad I want to win.”
Coach and captain had different ideas as to what needed to be done to top their rival.
Said Wade: “We need to step up our physical game. We did at the end against Wenatchee, but that will be big.”
Said Collins: “They have four solid lines that can score, so we have to be tough and defend each line. They’re balanced and have a ton of team speed.”
But when the series begins at 7:35 p.m. Friday, March 6, at the Bremerton Ice Arena, the team will be of one mind, united against a familiar enemy.
“I’d rather not go down there, but they’re a good opponent and eventually all roads to the national championship go through them,” Collins said.
The Cascade Cup kicks off on Friday, with the second game in the best-of-five series in Bremerton as well. Games three and four are the following Friday, March 13, and Saturday, March 14, in Bellingham, while game five would return to Bremerton Sunday, March 15, if necessary.