Michael LeNoury clutched his throat, fell to the ice and gasped for breath.
As the Nelson Leafs defenceman was being attended, officials sent off Summerland Steam forward Ethan Grover for spearing. It wasn’t the first dangerous penalty of the night, nor would it be the last.
But the play, which the Leafs plan to submit to the KIJHL for review, was just one of several moments during Friday’s game that stood as an indictment of the decision by BC Hockey to make face cages mandatory for all three Junior B leagues in the province.
Just two head contact penalties were called by officials during Nelson’s 6-2 win over Summerland. But sticks and fists targeting the head were the norm throughout regulation for both teams.
When the announcement was made last December, BC Hockey chief executive officer Barry Petrachenko said the initiative would cut down on facial and dental injuries, as well as the resulting insurance costs.
But adding the cages, according to Leafs head coach Mario DiBella, has given players a false sense of invincibility.
“I honestly believe that the lack of accountability with a half visor on and having the answer the bell when you do something stupid is appalling apparent …,” said DiBella. “Suddenly guys who would not play in that manner are seven-feet tall and hiding behind that cage.”
The increased head contact hasn’t been lost on the players either.
Nelson forward Ryan Piva said he thought both players and referees have yet to adjust to the change in equipment.
“People get a lot more chippy, because now they have cages,” said Piva. “You’re not going to get called on a major high stick or anything like that, so I definitely think the cages are getting a lot more head contact than last year.”
Nelson might have lost Saturday’s game because of one such call. After Logan Wullum was ejected for a head contact penalty in the second period, the Steam scored two goals on the ensuing five-minute major to tie the game.
Luckily the Leafs have the league’s hottest player in green and white.
Piva scored his second hat trick of the season, including two goals in the third period, to extend Nelson’s perfect start to the season through five games. Trail Thompson, Jack Karran and Emery Neilson also scored, while Caiden Kreitz made 19 saves.
The third-year Leaf had never scored a hat trick in Junior B prior to this season. Now he has two in four appearances, and leads the KIJHL in goals scored with nine.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Piva. “I’m having a lot of fun with the guys. 5-0 helps, definitely.”
Everett Scherger and Cory Loring replied for the Steam (2-3-0), with Jared Breitkreuz stopped 26 shots.
Piva needed less than five minutes to score his first goal of the night. He picked up the puck in his own zone, skated the all the way back on his own and sniped a shot over Breitkreuz’s left shoulder for the early 1-0 lead.
Summerland’s Linden Gove had a chance to tie the game moments after the puck dropped. He was a few steps ahead of the Leafs defence for a head to head with Kreitz, but the Leafs netminder calmly stood tall and turned aside the shot.
Kreitz played backup for Nelson last season and has taken over the No. 1 spot so far with little fanfare, but he’s been a strength between the pipes for the Leafs.
“I know there’s an expectation that I have to be the guy every night, so I go in there, make my game revolve around that,” he said. “Just be steady, be the foundation, the backbone of the team so they know that they are set up at the back and they can do their thing up front.”
Nelson went ahead by two on a nice 2-on-1 by Piva and Thompson. Piva carried the puck deep and passed to Thompson at the last second for the tap-in goal.
Summerland was completing a power play when the Leafs broke out on yet another 2-on-1. This time Piva scored once again but the goal was immediately waved off because the net had been pushed off its moorings as Breitkreuz went to the ice to make the save.
Deep into the second period, a pileup in front of the Steam’s net led to Breitkreuz falling backward. That set off a brawl and ended with Wullum taking a shot at Breitkreuz.
The result was a long referee review, two coincidental penalties, and a game misconduct plus a five-minute major for head contact for Wullum.
It took Summerland just 16 seconds on the power play to score as Scherger took a pass and snapped a quick shot for the goal.
But there was still what felt like an eternity of time for Nelson to kill, and the Steam didn’t need that long to score again. Loring tied the game at two, and there still remained 3:02 left in the Leafs’ penalty.
That ended abruptly, however, after LeNoury’s injury resulted in a four-minute penalty to Summerland.
Once the clock turned in Nelson’s favour, the team’s power-play unit wasted no time regaining the lead. The Leafs rushed into the zone with Piva taking a shot that Breitkreuz stopped but couldn’t control. Karran was there to bang in a loose puck for a 3-2 advantage that seemed like a game-saver for Nelson.
“I thought Jack’s goal was huge,” said DiBella. “Let’s not forget the wrecking ball Ryan Piva who came down the wing and took the shot, and the rebound was there. Jack’s awfully good at putting those rebounds in.”
Less than a minute into the third period the Leafs were once again forced to send out their PK unit. Nelson forward Taylor Paulovich was handed a 10-minute misconduct after a hit left Steam defenceman Bevis Chou on the ice holding his face. He held a towel to his face while being helped off.
Yet another stick found a player’s face. Sanchez was called for goaltender interference when he made contact with Breitkreuz’s helmet. The Steam goalie also needed a trainer towel but stayed in the game.
The revolving door continued at the penalty box. Just after Sanchez served his time, Summerland’s Brett Wilson was given a double-minor for spearing.
That set up Piva to score his second of the night. He was on the point when he picked off the post and celebrated as his shot ricocheted into the net.
Only seconds later, with the Leafs still on the man advantage, Piva completed the hat trick on a quick play that put the result beyond doubt.
Nelson added one final twist of the screw to the Steam after LeNoury sprawled out at centre ice to spark a turnover. The puck came to Neilson and he deked a shot through Breitkreuz’s pads for his first goal of the season.
Leaflets: F Jackson Zimmermann has left the Leafs for personal reasons. … F Keenan Crossman (upper body) and F Shawn Campbell (lower body) remained out of the lineup. … Next up for Nelson is a visit to Grand Forks on Saturday. The Leafs are back home Sept. 28 against the Castlegar Rebels.