Catching up with: Graham Schlender
Graham Schlender arrived in Coventry a first-year pro, a "calculated gamble," said Blaze Head Coach at the time Paul Thompson of signing the 6'3" forward.
Three seasons previous at the University of Brunswick and a title winning year with Concordia University College, the Edmontonian who had also spent time at the NHL LA Kings' training camp proved a gamble well worth taking.
Forever remembered fondly for his willingness to stand up for teammates, Schlender contributed 45 points in the Blaze's inaugural Elite League season before returning to help the club win the 2004/05 Grand Slam.
1) The obvious first question for a catching up piece is tell us about Graham Schlender in 2016?
GS: "My wife, Sarah and I have three boys 9, 7 and 5, Easton, Campbell and Beckett. We are currently living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. We live busy lives raising the boys and being a part of many kids activities. I currently coach all three boys in minor hockey here in Halifax and have enjoyed the experience of being on the ice with young kids and being behind the bench for games encouraging the next generation. I own a custom new home construction company (homesbyhighgate.com) and on Facebook. We design and build unique executive homes in the Halifax area. I have been doing this for almost 10 years now. Sarah is a real estate agent and does very well representing clients selling or purchasing a new home."
2) You had a short hockey career with only two years pro. What was the reason for hanging up the skates at the relatively early age of 25?
GS: "I guess the short answer is I had to grow up some time. I will be forever grateful to the Blaze for my experience as a player and the opportunity to further my education. Sarah and I wanted to start a family and we felt it was a challenge having to juggle hockey, moving between countries and add another body to our family."
3) How important was the Business Administration (MBA) that you undertook in Coventry been to your career since?
GS: "I am glad you asked this question, I owe a lot of gratitude to the many people at Coventry University, especially Webby and Clements. The degree has opened many doors in my career and certainly has been a part of my success in life after hockey."
4) You won a title at Concordia University College and the Anavet Cup with Estevan Bruins before the three trophies with Coventry. What was the recipe for so much personal success?
GS: "As I tell the young kids I coach now, 'you've got to want it'. I always felt during those crucial times in important games, the player that wants it more wins. I was never the most skilled player on the ice but always could skate well and certainly when there was a battle for the puck I always wanted to come out on top. I was fortunate to play with some great players on some great teams that really seemed to have something special. We battled for each other each and every night and we had a blast doing it. Along with this, leaders set the tone for teams and we certainly had that in Coventry the year we won the three trophies."
5) Can you re-call how you ended up in Coventry?
GS: "I had finished playing in the USA and was back in Canada playing at a small college Concordia. To this day I am not sure how Thommo (Paul Thompson) got my phone number but I received a call from him about coming to England to play hockey. I was excited at the opportunity and my wife Sarah had recently returned from London on a teaching stint so it was a good fit for both of us. I had a few more conversations with the Coventry staff and things came together. I remember the look on Thommo's face when he saw me for the first time along with all the stuff we brought from Canada!"
6) The first season and the club's debut in the Elite League, with many of the British National League players moving with the team you posted 45 points. How was that season?
GS: "It was an eye opener to say the least! I remember the first exhibition game. They gave a flat of beer away to the Man of the Match and I was blown away! Furthermore, as soon as I got in the dressing room I hardly had my helmet off and (Michael) Tasker was elbow deep into the beer barrel in the middle of the room asking who wants one. We had a lot of fun that year. I think the fans appreciated the hard work and I believe we finished middle of the table with some great wins over the bigger teams!"
7) The second year, Paul Thompson signed a virtually brand new side and the rest is history. What made that team so successful?
GS: "The team had some great leaders and we all became really good friends. We played for each other and without a doubt were excited to play every game. I think despite the personalities in the room, we all respected each other and this carried out on to the ice. There were some big names in there; Neal Martin, Adam Calder, Wade Belak and the list goes on. It is so funny how each individual brought something to the room. We all could laugh at ourselves and take a joke. You can appreciate, the team spends a lot of time together over the course of a season and we all have to get along. Thommo played a part in there as well, he had a knack for being able to have a good laugh as well as be serious when the team was needed. It was a surprise to see him with another team in the league as he did so much for the Blaze. We had a lot of great Brits on board as well and certainly I know the best as I played with two (Russ Cowley and Ashley Tait). We worked hard every night and feel like we contributed!"
8) 228 penalty minutes over the two years in Coventry. You were well respected by teammates and adored by fan for your willingness to stick up for other members on the team. Was that something you consciously wanted to bring to the table or was it a natural instinct?
GS: "To be honest my fights were typically very reactive. I used to call it my wires being crossed and anger taking over! I know it was always a pleasure to get in the mix for my teammates when they were being pushed around in an incident. A fight or a big hit as payback was often on the mind in those situations."
9) Any fights that stand out? Who was the toughest you fought?
GS: "My first game against the Giants in their home opener, I stepped out for my first shift in front of a full Belfast arena. I finished the play and dumped the puck into the Giants end and headed off to the bench. As I look up, over the boards crawls Paxton Schulte and he skates directly to me. He gives me a heavy cross check and the fans roar. Over the noise he tells me we are fighting. I dropped my gloves quick and threw a random punch and caught him in the face. From that point on I don’t remember much other than holding on for dear life!! Paxton threw a lot of punches and I dodged a few but also took a lot. As we headed to the bench I finally looked at Paxton to see I cut him under the eye! I was feeling pretty proud even though I was holding on for dear life! The fight at home against Cardiff when the fences cleared and then went back into the benches was quite a memory, it was quite a circus."
10) Can you tell us about the impact that the late Wade Belak had on the Grand Slam team?
GS: "Wade was a special guy in that he was a big part of our team and despite where he came from he took everything about being with the Blaze so seriously. He made such a big impact on our team with the way he encouraged players and certainly lead our team on the ice in a big way. I still think Thommo thinks it was his coaching....!!"
11) The Challenge Cup final vs. Cardiff was the first you won that season. Taking a 6-1 lead to Wales, they managed to go 4-1 up before Blaze came back and won 5-4 on the night. What was it like playing in that game?
GS: "Momentum is such a big factor in games and certainly the excitement in British Ice hockey is the way the fans play a role in changing momentum. The way the team pulled together in that game was a characteristic of our team that year."
12) You followed up the Challenge Cup victory with the league Championship and ended the season with the playoff final going into overtime. How did you feel being one goal away from winning or losing a Grand Slam? When Tait scored, describe the emotion for us?
GS: "Not every hockey player for various reasons gets to play in the Stanley Cup final and so for many of us, games like that is our Stanley Cup. That game was the highlight of my career and so you could imagine the emotion. It's not just that game or us as players it's the many people that get you to that point, parents, coaches, other teammates all contribute to how far you go in hockey and that game showed how much character we had as a team and as individuals."
GS: "I have three boys now that I coach in minor hockey so I continue to be on the ice often. I don’t play a whole lot but certainly enjoy coaching kids and being a part of their advancement. It takes so many volunteers to make things successful and here in Canada we are so fortunate to have a fantastic minor hockey program across the country that supports our coaches managers and ultimately the players."
14) Do you still keep up with the Blaze scores/Elite League or are you still in touch with any former Blaze teammates?
GS: "Yes, I enjoy reading the webpage of the Blaze and the league. I certainly love to give my opinions to myself about different things I read! I must say that my experience around the Blaze fans and the league was so enjoyable it will be impossible to forget the time Sarah and I had there. Thanks again to the Blaze organisation and the fans for their continued support for the club and British Ice hockey."
We thank Graham Schlender for his time and for his magnificent contribution to the club's past successes.
Article: Craig Summerton (@block15blaze)