Commonly known by Star Wars fans around the world and in the universe as the creature that takes Luke Skywalker hostage, for a future meal, in The Empire Strikes Back, the Wampa is a fierce predator inhabiting the planet Hoth that could only be defeated by a Jedi. During the fall season of D-League hockey at A-Game Sportplex, the Wampas were defeated in all games but one. Fast forward to the winter season and the Wampas won the division title and entered the playoffs as the number one seed.
“The feeling is unexplainable,” said Wampas forward Jason Limbacher. ” I think I can speak for everyone when I say we all love to play the sport of hockey, but there is a different excitement when you are on your way to the rink knowing you’re in first place and all the other teams are gunning for you.”
This could definitely be seen when the Wampas would match up with the one team always gunning for them, the Honey Badgers. In the last game of the regular season, the Wampas and the Honey Badgers were tied at two with less than four minutes remaining in the game. Goaltender Joe Dobrin called a timeout to re-focus the team. A tie would mean a second place finish in the division for the Wampas. They had to score. At the two-minute mark, Dan Ballinger put the Wampas ahead and on their way to first place.
“This has been an amazing turnaround,” said forward Dick Sesler on the team’s finish. “I think we have gotten more accustomed to playing together, knowing what each of our teammates are or are not going to do next. That is a big part of the reason we went from last to first.”
It’s been a season that certainly showed resilience for the Wampas. They had to deal with injuries and sickness, but depth on the roster meant other players were able to step up into key roles to push the team forward.
“We had some key injuries this season, losing Justin Bradford for that time period really hurt us in terms of losing our best faceoff man, but luckily we have a great farm system that can supplement us when we need them,” spoke defenseman Paul House. “Josh Frizzell and Amaris Avant really stepped up when they got the call.”
It wasn’t just the farm system stepping up to fill voids when needed. Chemistry began to form as the Wampas went on with their second season as a franchise.
“The emergence of the Limbacher-Durocher-Ballinger power play unit really upped our special teams game at the mid-point of the season,” House continued. “And, it goes without saying the emergence of Dicky Sessler as a scoring machine in our last three games has been huge. Michael Dobrin brings the grit every week and puts fear into the opposition. The addition of Justin Homer at wing playing with Jason Kruse has been really great along with Joey Czarneski sacrificing his body week in and week out to keep the puck in the zone and keep the play alive.”
Scoring plagued the Wampas in their first season together, but it was key plays from the blue line and in the crease that sealed multiple victories for them.
“You can’t say enough about how well the defense has played consistently through the season,” said House. “Michael Dubois, Scott Sabo and Frank Panico have been instrumental in keeping the opposition in check and not allowing them good opportunities. The true backbone of the team has been the tremendous play of Joe Dobrin. He has bailed us out of some pretty tough spots and we wouldn’t be where we are without him.”
Breakout player Michael Durocher spoke highly of the defensive unit for the Wampas.
“I think one of the biggest improvements is our positioning in the defensive zone,” said Durocher. “There is still room for improvement but I think it’s a big step up from last season.”
A pivotal part of the blue line is Captain Frank Panico. As captains usually do, he spoke highly of other players on the team, specifically goaltender Joe Dobrin.
“Losing all those games last year brought the team together,” spoke Panico. “An ‘in the same foxhole mentality.’ We got stellar goaltending from Joe Dobrin and each guy took ownership of his game and really focused on improving.”
The Wampas will need everything to come together when they play in the D-League championship game on Sunday, May 18. In a shocking turn of events, they will be facing the Knights and not the Honey Badgers. In their semi-final game, the Knights shocked the Honey Badgers in a 5-2 upset. For the Wampas, it will be important to go into the game with a focused mind.
“They’re both talented teams, but the Knights have a couple of game breakers that will need to be accounted for,’ said goaltender Joe Dobrin. “Knowing who’s on the ice at all times will be key for us come Sunday.”
It certainly will be. Dobrin sees the game better than anyone on the ice. Sometimes the game gets too close to him when the opposition generates opportunities, but he has been stellar in net all season.
Justin Homer has experience playing in the championship game and will be playing with a chip on his shoulder.
“For me, I was in this game last year and lost a tough battle so I definitely would love to lift the cup this year,” said Homer. “This is the second season so we have to be on our toes as anything can happen.”
A true story of worst to first could come true if the Wampas can put together a victory against the Knights. It’s not something that many expected going in to this season, especially with so many beginners only playing in their second full season of hockey.
“Myself and some others have improved from true beginner to novice,” said Jason Kruse. ” That probably lifted some weight off the rest of the guys.”
The question that remains is if these Wampas will overcome the fate their elder did to a Jedi Knight. Will a team sprinkled with players of different skill levels be able to join forces and take down the Knights? They have the opportunity to prove that the beast is back and ready to munch on Jedi flesh, but will they? We’ll find out soon enough.
If you want to watch the Wampas take on the Knights in the championship game, just head to A-Game Sportsplex on Sunday, May 18th. Puck drop is at 3:45pm.
*Note: The Wampas won their game in a 2-0 shutout to take home D-League Cup!*