The beginning of Mike Eaves story as head coach of the Cleveland Monsters doesn’t begin with the 2019-20 season. It begins in the summer of 2016. Eaves had just been relieved of his duty as head coach for the University of Wisconsin’s Men’s hockey team when, at the time, Assistant General Manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Bill Zito, reached out to him about coaching the Monsters. Zito was a slight step behind as Eaves had already accepted a position with St. Olaf College. “Our son Ben was going to work at the school (St. Olaf) as their Strength and Conditioning Coach and it was an opportunity to work with him there and get right back into coaching,” explained Coach Eaves.
Three years later, on a Friday afternoon, the phone in Coach Eaves’ office rang. On the other end of the line was the voice of a man whom he had coached for in the late 1990s, Jarmo Kekalainen, calling to offer Coach Eaves the same position for the Monsters. This time the response was different. “My stomach started doing backflips,” said Coach Eaves,”Which meant I was excited about the opportunity.” Everything Coach Eaves had come to St. Olaf to work on was accomplished. The college had built a new ice rink in January 2019 and his son, Ben, had just accepted a position with the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets (T1EHL). So, it was basically a no-brainer as to what his answer would be. However, there was a rather important person Eaves needed to talk things over with before he made the final decision, his wife. “I went back home and chatted with my bride and she was on board,” Coach Eaves gleefully explained, “So, I called back and said ‘yes, we’re very much interested’. That’s how the ball got started.”
Once the ball got rolling, it did not slow down for Coach Eaves. The Monsters’ energy became dramatically different at the start of the 2019-20 season than it was at the end of the 2018-19 season. A new head coach helped the team start the season with a pep in their step and a renewed sense of purpose. By the time the end of October hit, the Monsters were on a scoring tear. From October 25th to November 6th, the Monsters outscored their opponents 24-6. Coach Eaves chalked a lot of this up to both a high level of play from his players and the immense amount of leadership in the locker room. Coach Eaves made note to say that coaches are typically only in the locker room “10-15% of the time.” A lot of their coaching is dependent upon if the leaders understand the message and are willing to share the message with other players. “You’ve got to have those kind of leaders in the room that are on the same page with the coaches and carrying the message. They know what needs to get done,” Coach Eaves said of the Monsters leadership crew.
Then the injury bug hit both the Jackets and the Monsters forcing many of the captains and high caliber players to be either called up to the big leagues or placed on injured reserve. Despite all of this, Coach Eaves was still able to depend on many players to fill the role left behind by call ups and injuries. “It was a very easy decision to slap the C on Simpson because he is right there with those guys,” Coach Eaves said of the leadership which filled in during the injury bug, “Then you have the older guys, Clendening and Scotty. We were able to put that A on a lot of guys.”
Coach Eaves grew more and more impressed and was filled with a sense of pride with each player that was called up to the Blue Jackets. “They represented themselves and the Cleveland Monsters pretty well,” Coach Eaves fondly reflected, “They did not look out of place. They were able to hold their own. A lot of them had their first experience in the National Hockey League and didn’t look out of place.”
However, not everyone was called up. There were a few Monsters on two-way contracts who were left in the AHL to continue working on their skills.
In the summer of 2018, the Columbus Blue Jackets drafted Trey Fix-Wolansky in the seventh round of the NHL entry draft. After a phenomenal 2018-19 season with the Edmonton Oil Kings, the Blue Jackets assigned Fix-Wolansky to the Cleveland Monsters to help in the 2019 Calder Cup Playoffs.
After playing in three playoff games, Fix-Wolansky knew he was ready to make the leap to the AHL from the WHL. So, Fix-Wolansky started to train at a higher level for the upcoming 2019-20 season.
During Blue Jackets’ training camp in 2019, Fix-Wolansky was in the first group of players sent down to the AHL. Fix-Wolansky was “100% fine” with being sent down to the Monsters. “Obviously, I wanted to be in the NHL,” Fix-Wolansky explained, “But I knew I still had to reach some goals of my own in order to do that and improve my game.”
Things started a bit shaky for Fix-Wolansky in Cleveland. Despite scoring a goal in the first game of the season, he couldn’t quite find his footing and struggled to make a positive impact. Then, just four games into the season, Fix-Wolansky went down with a lengthy lower body injury which prevented him from returning to the lineup until December 16th, 2019. “It wasn’t exactly the start that I wanted in my first year pro,” said Fix-Wolansky of his less than stellar start to the 2019-20 season, “I had to stay positive because it’s something that happens.” While injured, Fix-Wolansky spent a lot of time soaking in the game and finding ways to become a better player. “Going to every practice, watching every practice, going to every game, and watching every game. You have to stay in it mentally and physically,” said Fix Wolansky.
Even after returning to the lineup, the struggles continued for Fix-Wolansky. The fire in his personality, the quickness in his reactions, and speed on the ice were not as dominant as they once were. It was clear he needed a break. Thankfully, seven games into his return, the Monsters had a seven day break around Christmas which allowed Fix-Wolansky to return home to Edmonton.
Sometimes players will get back into old habits or discover new bad habits when there is a long break in the middle of the season. For Fix-Wolansky, the chance to spend time with his family provided a much needed reset to clear his head and help realign his focus on the rest of the season. “Being away from home for the first time for the first full year and going through what I went through, it was tough,” explained Fix-Wolansky, “they helped me stay positive.”
Upon his return to Cleveland, Fix-Wolansky felt like a fresh player when he stepped on the ice. His fresh mindset showed on the stat sheet with six points (1g,5a) in five games and off the stat sheet away from the puck. Sitting in the arena you could feel that his zest for the game was back. He zipped around the ice stealing pucks, setting up plays, and smashing opponents into the boards with such energy people couldn’t help but keep their eyes glued on number 64.
Despite a strong showing, Fix-Wolansky continued to be overlooked each time the Blue Jackets called up a member of the Monsters to fill in holes left by the injury bug. Seeing teammate after teammate get called up fueled the fire of determination inside of Fix-Wolansky. “We’re all on the same team in the AHL but everyone is fighting for that spot in the NHL,” he said, “ It’s obviously great when you see teammates go up but that just means you have to work that much harder.”
Gasoline kept being thrown on the fire of determination and things began to fall into place.The strength of his away from the puck game grew with every shift. He started to embrace proper body positioning such as getting low to knock a guy off the puck or skating in a way that allowed him to change directions at any moment. Fix-Wolansky also started to show a great understanding of reading the ice and noting where the opposition left open spaces. This allowed him to notch six points over three games towards the end of February. Things were looking up for Fix-Wolansky. At the rate he was going, the Blue Jackets would have no excuses to call him up as a black ace at the end of the regular season. All he had to do was keep the momentum going and continue to produce.
Just as Fix-Wolansky was hitting the top of his game, the season came to a screeching halt.
On March 11th, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz of the NBA were gearing up to square off against one another. Right before tip off, Utah Jazz center, Rudy Gobert’s test results came back stating he was positive for COVID-19. The game ended before it even started sending the sports world in a tizzy of unknown thoughts.
While news outlets and sports fans across the world were speculating what would become of sports, the Monsters were in the middle of a battle with the Charlotte Checkers. It wasn’t until the game ended that the team was privy to the chaos and uncertainty which was unfolding around the country. The severity of the situation didn’t hit the team right away. They had just lost a hard fought game in overtime and were still soaking in their defeat. “They scored on their power play in overtime,” Coach Eaves explained, “So, we were sour about that”.
It wasn’t until the next day at the airport to come back home that everything started to hit the Monsters. “We stayed the night in Charlotte and then caught an early flight home,” said Coach Eaves, “And in the airport is when everyone started talking about it a bit.” While waiting for their flight back to Cleveland, the team started to see reports that the NBA had postponed the rest of the 2019-20 season. In that moment, they realized their season would likely be postponed next. “When one of the top sports leagues in the world is postponing their season, everyone else is going to follow suit,” said Fix-Wolansky.
From there, things entered a weird limbo stage for players and coaches. “We couldn’t practice. We really couldn’t do anything,” explained Coach Eaves, “The rink shut down and there was speculation that because of the business model of the American Hockey League, percentages weren’t in favor of starting up again.” To keep the communication going during this time Coach Eaves and General Manager Chris Clark tried to have daily conversations with the players. Then, Columbus Blue Jackets’ GM Jarmo Kekalainen and Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations Bill Zito started sending out memos to give the players updates on the situation surrounding the NHL.
With the AHL season still up in the air and looking like it might be cancelled, the Monsters gave the players the choice to go home to wait things out. “The message was given to the boys, if you do choose to go home, you can but also know that you are responsible for getting yourself back if things start up again,” said Coach Eaves of the options put forth for the players. Within a week, most of the players decided to go back to their homes. “It took me about three or four days to pack up the apartment,” said Fix-Wolansky. After loading up his vehicle, Fix-Wolansky hit the open road for Canada traveling through Minnesota and North Dakota before crossing the border into his home country.
The border closed not long after Fix-Wolansky crossed into Canada.
After the players went home, Coach Eaves noted there wasn’t much dialogue between him and the players. However, there were a few phone calls between him and the captains but in general there wasn’t a lot of talking going on. At one point, Clark and Eaves decided to give the guys some kind of closure despite the season not being officially cancelled.“Clarkie and I decided, along with the coaching staff that we would have some kind of closure by using zoom and getting on with each of the guys that were with us at the end of the year, explained Coach Eaves. The video meetings weren’t the same as in person meetings for Coach Eaves, “Sitting down with somebody in person you’re able to pick up so much more than a group of people on Zoom.”
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On May 11th, two months after the Monsters last played a game, the AHL announced the cancellation of both the regular season and postseason.
For players like Fix-Wolansky who are on a two-way contact, their hockey season isn’t completely over. There is still a chance of being called up as a black ace once, or if, the NHL resumes the season in late July, early August. After Fix-Wolansky returned to Edmonton he took around two weeks off but then got right back into the gym. “I knew that if the call came,I needed to be in good shape and ready to go,” explained Fix-Wolansky of his AHL offseason training process, “I’m not totally sure what’s gonna happen with that, but whether the call comes or it doesn’t, I’m in the gym. I’m working hard and I’m getting ready for whatever’s in front of me.”
Despite the season being officially over, Coach Eaves and GM Clark are still in a bit of a limbo. With 14 players on two-way deals set to become RFAs or UFAs this NHL offseason, it’s hard for the farm club to make moves without knowing what the future holds. “One brick has to fall on top of the other before you can get to the third one,” said Coach Eaves.
So, it appears, the offseason dance will continue on a bit longer for both Fix-Wolansky and Coach Eaves. At least until the NHL season officially ends.
Fix-Wolansky found his first full professional season to be both eye opening and fun. “I gained a lot of knowledge from the coaching staff and the players,” Fix-Wolansky fondly reflected, “Being pretty young and going into a locker room of a little bit older guys, it’s a little bit nerve wracking at the start. But everyone in that locker room was amazing to me and I’m grateful for that.” He also noted that his biggest accomplishment of the season was the fact he was able to finish strong despite having a rocky start to the season. This allowed him to show the team the kind of player he could be.
Coach Eaves first season coaching the Monsters was full of many victories, both big and small. However, there was one thing he wished he capitalized on more during the season, the team’s competitiveness. “This is their job. This is their number one priority. Anything you do in practice, they’re ready to go,” explained Coach Eaves, “It’s so competitive. And they love the more competitive you could make it for the boys at practice.”
Even Fix-Wolansky noted the level of competitiveness on the team, “In practice there’s a big compete level, a big battle level. The intensity is high. Everyone is working towards becoming better players.”
Despite not knowing how next season will look for the Monsters, it’s already clear that the players and coaches are ready to play at an even higher level than the 2019-20 season.