Souris native Tanner Butler is back for his 20-year-old season with the Dauphin Kings after being named the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s top defenceman in the 2012-13 campaign. (FILE PHOTO)
The Neepawa Natives are celebrating their 25th year in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, and they’re looking to commemorate the occasion by snapping their three-year skid of missing the playoffs.
There has been a lot of change in Neepawa this off-season to make that a reality, including bringing in new head coach Dwayne Kirkup, and the Souris native likes what he’s seen so far from his squad.
"I thought the pre-season went pretty well," said Kirkup, whose team opens the regular season by hosting the Portage Terriers tonight at 7:30 at the Yellowhead Centre. "I thought we competed in every game. We gave ourselves an opportunity to win. The pre-season record was 3-5 and I’m cautiously optimistic that as we move forward that we’re in the hunt. … We know how strong the parity is in this league and how fine a line there is between winning and losing."
Neepawa has a bit of experience up front this year, as Derrick Brooks, Drake Lindsay, Landon Thompson, Sam Briscoe and Brandonite Brayden Cuthbert — the team’s top five scorers from last season — are back to lead the charge.
Kirkup felt the blue-line needed to be shored up, so he went out and brought in former Brandon Midget AAA Wheat Kings defencemen Ty Webber and Jaxon Elmes, acquired Justin Coachman from the Kindersley Klippers and signed American blue-liners Buddy Summers and Nick Trefry. The Natives have eight defenceman on their roster and who becomes a regular in the lineup will be determined early in the year.
However, the most important thing Kirkup believes they need is a change of culture and confidence after finishing last in the league with a 13-40-7 record.
"I think personally the biggest thing that needs to change is belief in the room," Kirkup said. "I’m trying to send that message that we have to believe in the guy sitting beside you. I think we’ve done that. I think we need to compete hard every night and those are the intangibles that we need to bring every night to the game. It’s a strong passion to be a Neepawa Native and to work hard every night to give us a chance."
The Natives will host a tailgate party outside the rink today at 5 p.m. They hope that will create some energy that will spill into the arena and give them an extra boost when the puck drops.
Meanwhile, the Virden Oil Capitals also open their MJHL campaign at home tonight. The Oil Caps, who host the Swan Valley Stampeders at Tundra Oil and Gas Place at 7:30 p.m., are in their second season in Virden and are looking to make the playoffs for the first time in their new home. Last year, Virden posted an 18-34-8 record and finished in fifth place in the Sher-Wood Division, but showed some solid signs of progress in the pre-season.
The Waywayseecappo Wolverines open their season in The Pas as they visit the OCN Blizzard at 7 p.m. The Wolverines are coming off a year in which they compiled a 25-30-5 record and secured the final Sher-Wood Division playoff spot. They gave the Dauphin Kings a scare in the first round, winning two of the first three games, but ultimately fell in six games.
The Kings also open their season in The Pas when they take on the OCN Blizzard on Sunday. The Kings, who have MJHL defenceman of the year Tanner Butler of Souris back, had a fantastic finish to last season, winning their final 20 regular-season games to finish atop of the Sher-Wood Division with a 47-11-2 record. They advanced all the way to the league final before falling to the Steinbach Pistons in six games. Dauphin will be looking to get back to the final again and will host the Western Canada Cup — one of three qualifying events for the RBC Cup Canadian Junior A championship — in the spring.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 20, 2013