The Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s Jan. 10 trade deadline passed quietly for the Hounds, leaving Notre Dame’s Junior ‘A’ club confidently mumbling the mantra ‘we are all we have, and we are all we need’ under their collective breaths.
As January turns to February, the Hounds sit precariously in fifth place in the league, one point ahead of the Humboldt Broncos, and four adrift of the No. 7 Weyburn Red Wings with 16 games remaining to be played.
It has been a season with more than a fair share of highs, but there is a very real sense around the youthful club that there is plenty of ability in the locker room to be more than they have been.
“We want to not just be a good team, but a great team this year,” said head coach Clint Mylymok.
“Our goals don’t change (because we didn’t make any moves at the trade deadline), we want our guys to not look at their birth years, we want them to focus on the fact that they are talented players. There are definitely areas of the game that have been a learning curve for a lot of our guys, it’s something you can’t teach sometimes, sometimes you need the experience. We are trying to expedite the experience process, bypass some of those mistakes and get them focussed on doing things the right way now, and see where we end up results wise.”
The talent possessed by Mylymok’s charges was no more on display than in the first ever SJHL/MJHL All-Star Showcase event, pitting the Saskatchewan and Manitoba leagues’ best against each other in six games between Jan. 15 and 16 in Regina.
No fewer than 10 Hounds were showcased, more than any club involved at the event, and they thrived, with five ND players in the Top 15 in scoring.
“The Showcase certainly was a confidence booster,” said Hounds Captain Chance Longjohn, who dazzled, and finished third in points in the provincial capital.
“To show all of us how we match up against the best players in the league, it was huge, so I’m looking forward to seeing how far we can go as a group. We have a team that I really believe can go all the way, and I know that with our skill and our chemistry, it’s just up to us to show it on a regular basis.
Despite all that this talented group of Hounds promises, they know they will not go far if they cannot find a way to get a few more results away from Wilcox.
Every team in the league has a worse record on the road than at home, but there is no team where it is more dramatically so than ND, as of late January. To be more specific, the Hounds have won 16 of 19 games at the Duncan McNeill Arena, but only seven of 21 contests on the road – and not one against a team with a record over .500.
Certainly, the Olympic size of the rink on campus in Wilcox is a factor going both ways, but assistant coach Chris Robertson believes they cannot be finding excuses, only solutions.
“There is no doubt playing on the smaller rinks has been a learning curve,” he said.
“It can never be an excuse, it is what it is. That is our schedule, that is our practice, and we have a little bit of a different approach on the road. As a player, you have to able to change the way you play when you’re not at the Dunc if you want to be a Hound. On the road, in these smaller rinks, you have to be competing for smaller portions of ice and winning, and I think our guys have not done a great job in that transition; figuring out how to coach our guys to do that is part of our challenge as coaches. It is a challenge, but I’m confident that our guys are starting to understand and buy-in to the different mentality needed when we go on the road.”
In a season with its dominating highs, and its disappointing lows, the Hounds have found a way to maintain tremendous positivity and work ethic, partly due to the impressively accelerated development of as large a cadre of talented youngsters as there is in the SJHL, and partly to a group of veteran leaders, who have kept the squad accountable and on an even keel.
“Age doesn’t matter to us,” said Longjohn.
“If you can play and help the team, that’s all that matters. The older guys definitely have expectations, but the younger guys have pushed us all year to be better, so that can’t help but help us as a club.”
“We like to give our young guys a chance,” added Coach Robertson.
“I think we tend to give our younger guys more ice time than other teams do, having a belief that there is a direct benefit to that in the second half of the season, and we’re seeing that it’s true. We want guys to fight for ice, we don’t want to just hand it to vets, we want everyone on the team to be challenged, and that if they are going to get ice time it better be earned. It was our plan with the young guys to give everyone a fair shake, and in the second half, every minute of ice time will be earned.”
Seven of Notre Dame’s final 16 games will be against Weyburn and Humboldt, and only one overall against a team under .500 at time of this writing.
Whether it’s at the comfortable confines of the Duncan McNeill Arena, or the hostile arenas around the province, it is most certainly crunch time for the Hounds of the Notre Dame.