By David Song, November 1 2016 —
Last year, the Dinos men’s hockey team made it to the second round of the Canada West playoffs before their elimination by the University of Saskatchewan Huskies — a fact that does not sit well with head coach Mark Howell.
When asked what goals he and his coaching staff have for this season, Howell’s answer was simple: “Win — we’re in the business to win.”
The Dinos men’s hockey team currently holds a 7–3–2 record, which includes four wins in the Canada West conference. The team finds their strength in responding to adversity — they’ve had yet to experience a losing streak of more than two games. It’s a respectable start, but far less than the success this highly competitive unit craves.
Despite serving Mount Royal University a 2–1 double overtime loss in last year’s Crowchild Classic, the team is struggling against their cross-town rivals this season. The Dinos suffered two consecutive losses to MRU on Oct. 21 and 22.
“That weekend, we took too many [penalties]. It cost us again,” Howell said. “That’s one thing we’re trying to address for sure. Then, it’s consistency from game to game, making sure we play a more complete week.”
Second-year forward and former Calgary Flames draft pick Coda Gordon agrees.
“Last year, I thought we were kind of expecting to win. Maybe we took things a little lightly,” he said. “[This year], if we just stay positive — and win or lose, it’ll be a good stepping stone.”
The veteran core from seasons past is gone, including defenceman Max Ross, forward Spencer Edwards and ex-captain Kevin King. But here to stay is a significant rookie class of 11 first-year players. Fourth-year forward and Calgary Hitmen alumnus Danny Gayle said his younger teammates bring talent to the roster.
“They’re all really eager to learn and succeed,” Gayle said. “They’re all very talented hockey players and good people off the ice. I’m really close to all of them already. It’s a close locker room and having those young guys in there helps a lot.”
Howell also sees the value that a core of new players brings to the season.
“We’ve had some key contributors right away,” Howell said. “Both our new goaltenders [Matt Greenfield and Coleman Vollrath], have been solid from day one. [Rookies] Luke Harrison and Logan Fisher have right away stood out in terms of high-end character. They play the game the right way. They think, they battle, they compete. It’s important for our young guys to fit in as quick as possible, so they’re doing a good job.”
The Dinos boast a strong and skilled core of veterans. In addition to Gayle and Gordon, the U of C is aided by forward Dylan Walchuk, who leads the team in scoring with five points. The unit’s balanced offence has seen five other players score four points each. New captain Dan Gibb patrols the blueline in his fourth year and the goalie platoon is led by fifth-year netminder Steven Stanford.
“The older guys have been really good, welcoming everyone,” first-year defenceman Jared Hauf said, who formerly played with the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds. “We [the rookies] come from different teams — eleven of us — and they’re doing a really good job bringing us together to form a new team.”
Despite an influx of rookies this year, Howell is focused on emphasizing leadership within the veteran core.
“The most important piece for those guys is to be genuine every day,” he said. “The veterans, I think some of them feel a little bit of pressure to perform. We’ve got to get some of those guys back to playing their game, not trying to worry about leading, but rather leading by example and doing their jobs.”
The Dinos’ commitment to success begins at practice, where no space on the rink goes unused. One group of players might be running an offensive zone power play drill while a second group works on their defensive coverage at the other end of the ice. Assistant coaches hustle to and fro, pulling individual players aside and drilling fundamentals. Howell demands excellence in every area and is never afraid to lay down the law when his team needs a wakeup call.
“We’re not going to do a drill just to do it,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a power play, or a shooting drill or a defending drill. Everything’s going to have a purpose to it. We have lots of players, so we’ve got to have lots of things going on to make sure guys are active, so when they get into a game, it’s that much easier.”
Looking ahead, the Dinos have another two-game home series against the University of Manitoba Bisons on Nov. 4 and 5. They will not have a road trip longer than three games for the rest of the season. But they do have a number of heated rivalries to look forward to, namely the Crowchild Classic series against MRU on Feb. 2 and 3.
“Everyone talks about how great [the Crowchild Classic] is,” Gordon said. “Last year, I went in expecting it to be good, but it definitely blew my expectations away. That’s one game that’s not hard to get motivated for. It’s circled on your calendar.”
As much as he acknowledges the prestige surrounding rivalry matchups, Howell has a clear perspective on what it takes to win an entire season — not just marquee games.
“We treat [every weekend] with the utmost sincerity. Our league is that much better now. There’s not two or three teams down in the standings. Everybody’s challenging,” he said.
Fortunately, Howell’s players are more than up to the challenge.
“We have lots of talent and speed and skill,” Gayle said. “Moving forward, we just have to work on our composure and sticking to our game plan. We’re ready for a positive season coming up ahead.”