Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The 2005-06 Fort Worth Brahmas celebrating a rare home ice victory

An unofficial history of the Texas Brahmas

Part One - Bottom Feeding

The following is the part one of a series I've put together on the history of the Texas Brahmas. I'll be running this through the remainder of the summer. The series begins with the final days of the Fort Worth Brahmas...

For fans of the Fort Worth Brahmas, the 2005-06 season couldn’t end soon enough. They witnessed eight of the team’s 17 wins that season on home ice, where “a win every now and then was very special and unusual,” one fan said. This was half the number of home victories they witnessed during the previous season.

The Brahmas were in last place in their division for the fourth year in a row and last place in the league for the third time in four seasons. Yet Brahmas fans were loyal to their team and despite their poor performance on the ice, the crowd at the Fort Worth Convention Center was consistently larger than at several other CHL venues.

The team had lost nine of ten games, including three shut-outs before defeating the Bossier-Shreveport Mudbugs 3-2 to end the previous season. So when the Brahmas started the year with an 8-13-3 record, including just five wins on home ice, management decided something had to give.

On December 19th, head coach Al Sims was fired. Sims was in his second full season with the Brahmas after being hired by the club on December 3, 2003, replacing Bill Inglis. His overall record with the club was 46-66-15 in 127 games coached.

Few mourned the loss of Sims. He was considered classy, hard working and was well liked by the players. But some said he was unable to succeed because of a lack of recruiting skills needed to work with in a model that provided little money for travel or phone bills. This was also his second firing by a CHL team in three seasons; he was dismissed by the Corpus Christi Rayz just prior to being hired by the Brahmas.

"It all comes down to wins and losses," Sims said. "This is definitely a firing over the record and no other reason. It's just part of the game."

Larry Sterling/Photo Credit: Chip Crail

It was the fourth time in a row that the Brahmas had made a mid-season coaching change. Sims joined the likes of Ken Karpuk (9-23-3 in 2000-01), Todd Lalonde (48-64-13 in 2000-01 through 2002-03) and Bill Inglis (11-40-3 in 2002-03 through 2003-04). None of the previous replacements were successful.

Some questioned the timing of the move and wondered why he wasn’t removed at the end of the 2004-05 season when the opportunity of finding a quality replacement was more realistic.

Sims was notified of the move in the morning, and players were told by general manager Mike Barack in a meeting before practice. They were about to meet their new coach, who would direct the practice.

The Brahmas had hired Guy Larose, a retired player who lived in nearby Burleson, Texas and had spent the previous two years working in the mortgage business. Larose spent the majority of his 15-year career in the AHL and the IHL, but played 74 games in the NHL with the Winnipeg Jets, Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins. He had no previous coaching experience except for a stint as a player/assistant with the Augusta Lynx in the East Coast Hockey League, but he was enthusiastic.

“I know the game inside and out. It’s what I’ve done my whole life,” Larose said at the time of his signing. “I played for a collection of outstanding coaches during my career and I plan on using what I have learned from them to guide my coaching strategies.”

Larose had played with Brahmas captain Wes Mason in Augusta during the 2001-02 season.

"It's still early enough in the season where we can compete for the postseason, which has been our goal from the start," Barack said.

Larose’s early impression of the players he had inherited was summed up in an article that appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram the following morning.

“They're young. They're not experienced athletes. You can't expect too much from them. You can't throw them too much information. We have to keep on doing the little things well and be disciplined.”

Left Wing David Silverstone/Photo Credit: Chip Crail

Larose was hindered from the start due to the fact that he inherited a team that was decimated by injuries. In fact, for the remainder of the season, the Brahmas did not play with a full 18-player roster. Larose would start 15 players 14 times and 14 players three times during his stint as head coach.

Outside of the injuries, part of the problem was also due in part to the team’s inability to find replacements.

“They had no one that knew the players available and that knew what it took to win in the CHL. Many nights we played short bench because they could not make the needed moves or even knew what those were,” said longtime fan Larry Westmoreland.

The team went through 34 players during the season and nearly all had negative +/- numbers. In fact, only defensemen Dion Hyman and Ryan Edwards had positive numbers, and they only played in 12 games between them. Hyman was placed on team suspension for insubordination on November 18th following a first period ejection during the Brahmas' 6-3 home loss to Oklahoma City on November 15th. He was traded to Corpus Christi on December 3rd. Edwards was signed on November 22nd and placed on waivers a week later.

The team lacked size and speed and struggled to find any consistency in playing disciplined hockey. They had the worst power play and the second worst penalty kill in the league. They were also bullied by every team they faced. Anyone who could score was constantly slashed, hooked and otherwise harassed with no one to protect them and keep things in check.

Defenseman Konrad Brand /Photo Credit: Fort Worth Brahmas

They did have some quality players. Bret DeCecco, Cory Stillman, Wes Mason, and Vladimir Hartinger were among the bright spots. Stillman was the most productive overall, finishing the season with 59 points (29 G, 30 A, -16) including 12 power play goals and 79 penalty minutes. Ben Gustavson, Sheldon Lee, Konrad Brand and Matt Reynolds also stood out, but overall the team wasn’t good enough to play as a unit in the CHL.

Six players scored 30 points or more with one defenseman, Hartinger, in the group. He was also a -33 for the season. There were only three players (Stillman, Hennes and Gustavson) who had a shot percentage higher than .100.

The team’s defense was a revolving door with eight blue-liners traded, placed on waivers or in the case of Justin Coutu, placed on season ending IR. Only rookie Sheldon Lee played in all 64 games. Konrad Brand played in 55 games.

Finally, Larose had taken on a team that seemed to have a curse. In four of their previous five seasons, the Brahmas had losing records in their final 25 games. The only exception was in 2001-2002, when they went 13-10-2. That effort led to Fort Worth's only overall record above .500 in the previous five seasons when the Brahmas finished 30-27-7.

In addition, Larose’s unfamiliarity with the Central Hockey League and the manner of play therein was evident.

By March 22nd, the Brahmas’ record under Larose’s direction was 9-23-5; hardly an improvement, and there were just three games left in the regular season.

Next up: Part 2 - Youngstown

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