To miss well-over 130 man-games with injury, with a brand-new head coach, and with the youngest team in the playoffs, it is therefore incredibly impressive that the Notre Dame Hounds Junior ‘A’s were likely the better team in their year-ending Survivor Series loss to the Yorkton Terriers.
While first-year bench boss Phil Roy and his squad were not ones to make excuses, Game 2 of the post-season was the first time all year, including pre-season, that the Hounds were able to ice their full roster; and they had to do so against a Terriers team with almost 500 more combined games of junior hockey under their collective belts.
The flip side of that reality is that the youth movement is vibrant with Notre Dame’s entry into the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, and the roster projects to mature into a real force very soon.
“It is certainly exciting to think about [the future], and imagine the growth of some of these young guys,” says Roy.
“These young guys deserve the credit. I was hard on them sometimes, there is no doubt about it, and I think for some of them it was a new experience being kept accountable at the level necessary in junior; so, a lot of respect to them for sticking with the process when it was not easy this year. We’re happy with our growth this season, though I think as a group we feel we underachieved a bit.”
Notre Dame finished the regular season in ninth place with a record of 25-23-10. It was a year that included numerous bright spots, including an unbeaten run of 10 games between Dec. 5 and Jan. 25, and a league-high eight Hounds named to the 2019 SJHL/MJHL All-Star Showcase in Regina in mid-January. Roy’s squad also featured the league’s rookie defenceman point-scoring champion in Kyle Robinson and the SJHL’s rookie goal-scoring leader in Jarrett Penner.
Scoring leader Marshall Wilton had the league’s third-longest point scoring streak of 13 games between Jan. 26, and March 1, while all-star goaltender Riley Kohonick held the league’s rookie save percentage lead heading into the final weekend of the regular season.
Individually, and as a team, there was a lot to celebrate this year.
“We had a ton of guys with a lot of grit, that never wanted to give up,” says Wilton, “that’s what you need in this game. Once we had a full line-up (in the playoffs), we got a little taste of how good we could have been all year; but I think we did a good job given the fact that we could never truly get fully healthy and sharp all at the same time.”
Even if Roy was not coming brand new into the role, without massive roster turnover from the year before, and was not in the midst of moving his wife and three kids from New York State, it would have been an impressive coaching job this campaign by the Quebec-native.
That he did have all those factors, including the brutal injured list the Hounds had to deal with, hints clearly that Notre Dame’s Junior A program is in great hands.
“Phil did a great job,” says Wilton.
“He put in more hours than any coach I’ve ever seen, between video and working with us on and off the ice. Coming in this year, of course, we didn’t know what to expect with the new coach, but Phil fits the role perfectly for the Hounds, and I really feel that while he’s at the helm, this team is going to be heading in the right direction. I think (assistant coaches) Jerrid (Riegel) and Travis (Young) came in and did as much as they could, they brought a great positive vibe, but I think Phil did a tremendous job developing us as players second, and people first.”
The 2018-19 Hounds graduated four 20-year-olds, Wilton, forward Conor MacLean, defenceman Charles Martin, and goaltender Matt Lukacs will all be moving on. To a man, the over-agers were outstanding in exemplifying the character, leadership, and commitment expected of all who are affiliated with Notre Dame.
Wilton, who dominated all year while putting up 77 points in 57 regular and post-season contests, joined the long list of Hounds who have gone on from Wilcox to play university hockey. The Emerald Park, SK native has committed to Montreal’s University of Concordia in USports.
“I would say confidence played the biggest part in my year for sure,” Wilton says.
“I had a really good off-season last year training, and I fine-tuned some areas of my game as well, so once I got the confidence on the ice, I knew I had the skill to help the team out like I did this year.”
Looking forward to the 2019-2020 season is already a fun proposition, as the Hounds Juniors could conceivably return 16 skaters and one goaltender.
So, with a potentially loaded roster, and as capable and energetic a head coach as there is in the province, the sky is the limit for what can be achieved next year and beyond.
“Down the road, I think as a staff we are continuing to work hard on a foundation that is really strong,” says Roy.
“The development aspect and potential here is remarkable. I remember leaving Wilcox on one of the earlier days last year thinking: ‘why didn’t I come and play here in my time?’. All of us are fortunate to be here, and I think we’re heading in the right direction as a junior program. Our staff this year was also phenomenal, from our assistant coaches to the athletic therapists, and all the support staff. It was a challenging, fast-paced year, but it was also a lot of fun.”