As the season opener approaches and the Junior Canucks officially turn the page on last year's results, their final tune-up game of the exhibition schedule told a familiar story. Hitting the road for the first time this year, Dawson Creek headed to Grande Prairie, Alberta, and were dispatched by the hometown JDA Kings by a lopsided 8-1 score.
The Kings have been have been a perennial powerhouse in the NWJHL, and a win, even in pre-season, would have gone a long way in demonstrating how far this club has come over the summer. And while they may not be all the way there yet, the score hides a number of promising steps for Dawson Creek.
"We chance-for-chance'd them for the first two periods -- they buried and we didn't, but shots were close, for the most part," says Head Coach Eric Fulton, whose team just couldn't get a lucky bounce. "But you could tell from last year to this year, we could take the play to them. We'd have two or three good shifts in a row where we're in their end the whole time and we're putting it to them... I think at the end of the day they just have some more mature hockey players and our guys just have a little ways to develop to catch up to that."
Last year, it seemed the team had a mental block when it came to Grande Prairie. No matter how strong the execution was in practice, it would fly out the window in the face of the big bad JDA Kings. Connor Rose, who wore the captain's C in both pre-season matches, tells Boys On The Bus that while the team's mentality isn't where it needs to be just yet, it has nothing to do with fear of the opponent.
"We're still working out little kinks, and I think there's a lot of guys have a lot of nerves still right now, because they don't know if they're staying on the team yet," says Rose. "A lot of younger guys haven't played junior hockey yet, and it's an adjustment. The mentality is blocking some guys from performing the way they can, and if we can overcome that and come together as a team we should be ready to go [in the regular season]."
This is a team that believes it can compete against any club in the NWJHL, and despite the score, Rose, like his coach, still saw signs of that. "[The Kings have] pretty much had the same team for the last three years. When we play a team like that, we can't take any time off. It's a full sixty minutes, and last night isn't a game that showed the team that we are, but we're definitely able to compete against Grande Prairie from what I saw."
While last Saturday's 7-4 loss to the Sexsmith Vipers came with the built-in excuse that the team was resting a number of its regulars to get a better look at guys clawing for spots on the team, that wasn't the case on Thursday. "We had a lot of our guys in the line-up," says Fulton. "Still missing three or four keys guys, but other than that we had pretty close to a full roster."
But Rose believes the team can flip the switch when they open the regular season at home later tonight, and who they're playing has a lot to do with it. "It's gonna be totally different, especially with the first game of the year being against Fort St. John, that's always a great rivalry. We just need to get the lines together and find some chemistry. We don't really have any major problems, it's just the little things we have to work on in practice that will help us succeed this year."
The rivalry between these two teams is one of the best the NWJHL has to offer, year after year. It doesn't matter who's on the team, or if it's the first game of the year. Rose, who's played on both sides of the rivalry as a Husky and a Junior Canuck, says if it seems like these guys have been playing each other for years after just one period tonight, it's because they have. "You grow up playing against each other til bantams," explains the veteran winger. "Then these midget players get put on the same team and get to be good friends, until two years later where you're playing against each other again at the junior level for your hometowns."
Despite how heated it may seem, however, Rose says there's no hard feelings. "It comes down to bragging rights, almost. We are friends with a lot of the guys on the other team, and it's nice if you're gonna sit down and have a beer with these guys that you get to brag a little bit about winning the game."
Last season the team was able to play five games in exhibition before the start of the regular season. With a bigger line-up this year, and more depth at all positions, the team was only able to play two pre-season contests before tonight's opener. It wasn't for lack of trying -- a charity game in Chetwynd was cancelled earlier this week when the club couldn't find an opponent -- but Coach Fulton says it will have to do. "I'd have probably liked to get one or two more in, but we got what we got so that's what we're going to deal with," the Dawson Creek bench boss says. "I think it's given us a fair opportunity for the guys to showcase what they can bring to the team throughout the year. Some guys did a good job, other guys didn't do so well."
Last year saw a revolving door in net for the first few weeks of the season, as each guy got an audition to prove they could be the starter. With even more goalies in camp this year and a shorter pre-season schedule, you can expect to see the same in the weeks to come. As Fulton explains, "I think it's a position where you have to be very confident in them, and we have to see some guys play some more games before we get in that position with them."
Often times with exhibition games, the coaching staff is looking more at the process than the results. While the losses get thrown out the window to start the regular season tonight, Fulton says the process could still use work. "We need some more work, for sure. And that'll come. The good thing with these guys is they seem real eager to learn, all of them. Even on the bench [against Grande Prairie], it was a good sign that guys didn't quit, guys kept playing hard and I was pretty happy with it."
It's a work ethic and commitment that's been instilled into the core group of this club over the last three years, and just like Fulton, Rose likes his team's capacity for growth. "There's a group of six guys who've been with each other for three years now. The first year didn't go too well, and last year we didn't completely meet our expectations, but by the end of the year we saw what it takes to win in this league. Once we get a little ways into this season, we'll click pretty good. This is a team that is not as close off the ice (as years previous), but I think that's a good thing. It's different guys, guys from all walks of life, who aren't as close now, but are becoming closer. It allows for growth as a team, as players in the dressing room, outside of hockey. Last year we were all pretty close from the very beginning, and never saw much growth as a team."
The regular season begins tonight at 8PM at the Dawson Creek Memorial Arena, with the Junior Canucks taking on the Fort St. John Huskies. The game will be broadcast on Peace FM, 104.1 FM in Dawson Creek, and 94.5 FM in Chetwynd.
While the team expects a victory this evening, Coach Fulton wouldn't go so far as to promise one. "I'll never guarantee anything but taxes and death. But I like our chances."