TIM SMITH/BRANDON SUN
Brandon’s Connor Gutenburg (8) and Yellowhead’s Adam Robidoux battle for the puck Wednesday at Kinsmen Arena.
No matter what the standings say at the end of the season, the coaches for Westman’s new entries in the Winnipeg AAA Bantam Hockey League believe the final result will be better players.
Division 1 of the province’s elite bantam league has grown by four teams this season via the addition of rural programs that were part of a Hockey Manitoba pilot project last winter. A year ago, the rural AAA teams built their schedule around showcase tournaments and rounded them out with exhibition games.
Now, a number of those teams have joined the Winnipeg league, expanding it to 11 and paving the way for a set schedule against most of the top players in Manitoba and Thunder Bay, Ont.
"This year, obviously we’ve got some structure," said Yellowhead Bantam AAA Chiefs coach Craig Geekie, who was also on the team’s staff last season for the pilot project. "We’ve got a 30-game schedule and the competition, I would say, with the city clubs is going to be great."
The local teams opened their regular seasons Wednesday night, with the Chiefs visiting the Brandon Wheat Kings, while the Southwest Cougars entertained the Central Plains Capitals at Wawanesa.
While many of the rural teams are in the Winnipeg league now, the showcase tournaments will continue, including one in Winnipeg this weekend and one in Brandon from Feb. 15-18, with the possibility of another to be added in December.
The rural Bantam AAA provincials will be staged once again this season, with the winner facing off against the Winnipeg league’s champion for the right to represent Manitoba at the Western Canadian championship.
The big question surrounding the new teams is how they will fare competitively against their big city opponents. Although the Wheat Kings had a strong season last year, they have often struggled in the Bantam AAA league despite being traditionally successful at the Midget AAA level.
Geekie said the Chiefs are simply aiming to be a .500 team, while Cougars head coach Mike Robertson knows his team may take some lumps from time to time, but believes it’s worth it for the players to continue to develop and get the best hockey opportunities possible.
"(The players) want to play against all the top players and again, it’s about exposure," said Robertson, who was an assistant coach with the Westman Wildcats Midget AAA female team the past two seasons.
"To me, it’s not all about wins and losses, it’s playing tough competition and if you do get a lopsided game, you learn from it and get better. … I think it’s a great opportunity for the boys."
Geekie, Robertson and Wheat Kings head coach Dennis McNish all agree that the rural teams should be very competitive with one another and McNish is welcoming the new arrivals into the league with open arms.
"We’ve been playing in the Winnipeg league for quite a while and now the rural regions, with the exception of a few, have teams in the league," he said. "I think it’s going to make a really good season for everybody where you’re going to get to play a lot of different teams, as opposed to just going into Winnipeg every weekend, and it’s going to be better for everybody involved."
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 4, 2012