For the week of December 16 thru December 22, 1998  

Suns open defense of national hockey title

First home games Dec. 18-19 against St. Paul sextet

For a while this fall, prospects for playing a full ice hockey season didn’t look good for the Sun Valley Suns.

Here they were, defending U.S. Senior National tournament champions, coming off one of their most successful seasons, and it looked very much like the Suns might not have enough players to begin their 24th ice campaign.

"We started off with 10 or 11 guys in practice. It was real discouraging. I started to wonder whether we could field a team," said Suns hockey coach Tim Jeneson, starting his second year behind the bench.

It didn’t help that three players from the national championship team packed up their hockey bags and defected to the Jackson Hole Moose team, making a few bulletin-board comments to a Wyoming newspaper along the way.

Jeneson said about the loss of Wade Clarke, Kevin Lynch and Mark Morningstar, "I was disappointed, with Wade especially. But the grass is always greener, and I just say more power to them. We won’t miss a beat, and we’ve more than replaced them."

Fortunately, the catlike Suns are working on their fourth or fifth of nine lives. It all came together at practice on Dec. 7—four forward lines, six defensemen, enough goalies to go around and the promise of players still making their way to Sun Valley.

"We should have a pretty good team this year and we’ll be going back to the national tournament in Fond du Lac," said Jeneson, whose team won the sportsmanship trophy as well as first-place honors there in April 1998. "We belong there. That’s going to be our annual goal."

The road to Wisconsin 1999 started bumpily last weekend with a two-game series against the Moose in Jackson Hole. Playing shorthanded, the Suns (0-2) gave one away Friday, losing 7-5 after leading 5-2, then lost 9-1 Saturday.

It continues this coming weekend when the Suns (390-139-25) entertain first-time Idaho visitor St. Paul Fury Motors from Minnesota in the home debut.

Opening faceoffs are 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Dec. 18-19 at Sun Valley Skating Center. All tickets are $5 per person, children free.

St. Paul also competed in the six-team U.S. Senior Nationals at Fond du Lac and indirectly paved the way for the Suns title charge. Fury Motors was ousted from the tourney for using an NCAA hockey player who had just finished college, which put Sun Valley up against the Green Bay (Wisc.) Deacons in the semi-finals instead of meeting Fury Motors.

The Suns built a 5-1 lead and defeated Green Bay 6-4 in the semi-final contest, then beat Portage Lake (Mich.) 5-2 in the championship game with goalie Tony Benson stopping 30 of 32 Michigan shots. Benson was named the national tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

A great team defensive effort helped the Suns (19-12-1 last winter) go 4-1 at nationals and outscore opponents 27-15. And strength on defense should be a Suns asset during the 23-game 1998-99 regular-season slate, Jeneson said.

He said, "As a whole, we have a good set of defensemen. You only have to give Tony just a little protection and you’ll be okay."

Ninth-year goalie Benson, 33, seems to improve every year. He has a 75-34-7 record in 115 Suns games, including a 7-6 mark and 3.49 goals-against average last winter. Back-ups include eighth-year David Stone (2-2, 27-12-4 career) and fourth-year netminder Buzz Buzzell (3-3, 7-3).

The blend of youth and experience on the blueline includes the pre-season pairings of Middlebury mates Harry Weekes and Dave McKenna; the rangy duo of Kris Webster and newcomer Ben Allen; along with Alaskans Jake Glotfelty and John Stevens.

Ninth-year blueliner Weekes (37 goals and 76 assists for 113 points) is a hard hitter who brings experience and size to the defense, Jeneson said. Weekes is assistant captain this year along with Phil Hebert and Chas Riopel. The captain is Chris Benson.

McKenna is probably the quickest skater on the team. The coach said, "Dave is in the best shape of anyone. He can play 40 minutes, just like he did in dominating the national championship game."

Jeneson didn’t expect the kind of scoring that Webster brought to the Suns last season, but he welcomed it. Webster (15-26 for 41) tied the Suns single-season scoring record for a defenseman set by Glenn Hunter in 1983—and he broke Tom Maroste’s goal-scoring record of 14.

Webster is paired with 23-year-old Ben Allen, a 6-1, 185-pound right shot from Washington, D.C. who played hockey at Groton School in Massachusetts and juniors in the Boston area. Jeneson said, "Ben is a young kid with good hands, size and good hockey sense."

Glotfelty led the Suns in scoring two seasons ago with 35 points, then played only eight games last winter—but five of them were productive efforts at the national tournament. Stevens is a smart, utility player who has one of the best shots on the team, Jeneson said.

"Eventually we’ll probably go to four or five defensemen and move John up to forward," said Jeneson.

At forward, the Suns have a potentially high-scoring line in center Phil Hebert, right wing/left shot Chris Benson and left wing Vilnis Nikolaisons, 24, from Riga, Latvia.

Nikolaisons visited Sun Valley this fall while trying out for the Tacoma Sabrecats in their exhibition game with the Idaho Steelheads. Jeneson said, "Vilnis is a forward in the classic European style—he’s quick, shifty and smart. He’s a great addition, probably our best forward. He sees the whole ice."

Fifth-year center Hebert (15-19 for 34 points) had a fine season in 1997-98, trailing only Webster in scoring totals. Benson (11-19 for 30) had 4 goals and 7 points at nationals. With 104 goals and 100 assists for 204 points in his eight previous Suns campaigns, Fester is poised to move past Phil Hoene into the top seven all-time Suns scorers this winter.

Jeneson said, "Phil is the kind of player who has to give those two the puck and let them go with it. Fester has a great shot, and is in his best shape in two years."

The Suns have a grinding, mobile and physical forward line in left wing Riopel, center Brian Watts and right wing Dates Fryberger. Riopel (11-19 for 30 points) scored 2 goals in the national championship game and threw a hard check that set the tone early in the game. And Watts is just happy to be playing again.

"Brian was having a great year when he broke his jaw against Seattle last year. He’s hungry, because he missed out on an exciting end of the season," said Jeneson. Seventh-year forward Watts had 6 goals and 11 points in just seven games before his season-ending injury. He has 75 goals and 91 assists for 166 points.

About eighth-year wing Riopel (72-76 for 148 points), coach Jeneson said, "Chas physically dominated the championship game. He’s a great forechecker." Sun Valley product Fryberger did a dependable job in his first Suns season, scoring 19 points in 32 games.

The third line is centered by seventh-year Suns skater Mikael Reijo, who played sparingly last season but came up huge in the national tournament. He gave 100% at nationals, was the team MVP and "carried us through the tournament," Jeneson said. Flanking Reijo are left wing John Bea from Alaska and right wing Luke Smith from Dartmouth.

It looks like a dependable trio, the coach said. "They can score goals, play good defense and they are all pretty good size physically."

Jeneson added, "John came with Jake (Glotfelty) from Anchorage. He’s fast, has great moves and is a heads-up player with a good shot. Luke will continue to commute from Park City. He played seven games for us last year and had a couple of big goals in our win over Fond du Lac at nationals. He’s smart, is in the right place at the right time, does his job and is very coachable."

The coach will certainly find a place for sixth-year forward Billy Tryder, who had an excellent season last winter with 31 points in 25 games—including 3 goals and 3 assists at nationals. Other forwards include Jamie Ellison (26 points in 19 games) and Bryan Wiskow.

Jeneson will have to submit his 1998-99 roster to USA Hockey by Dec. 31, and it looks like the addition of "Latvian Lightning" Nikolaisons means the Suns will have to compete at the higher "Elite" level at nationals instead of the Senior division. "You have to be a U.S. citizen to compete in seniors," he said.

"We weren’t quite ready for Elite last year, but that’s our goal. It would be unique for a town of 4,000 people to compete in a division with St. Nicks from New York, the Bucks from Minneapolis, Detroit State Utility and the Chicago Chargers—all teams from big cities," said Jeneson.


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