Speaking with acting captain Connor Rose ahead of Saturday's season opener, the same theme came up again and again. "We just need to get the lines together and find some chemistry," he said. "Once we get a little ways into this season, we'll click pretty good. This is a team that's not as close off the ice. ... We're still working out the kinks."
In short: we aren't a team yet.
He was talking about the team's pre-season losses at the time, but he could have just as easily been talking about Saturday's stunning loss at the Memorial Arena, where a group of individuals wearing the same coloured jersey were demolished 8-3 by the Fort St. John Huskies in their home opener.
The Junior Canucks wasted no time letting the game get away from them, as Huskies' speedster Brighton Campbell opened the scoring a little over a minute into the first period. It was 4-1 by the time the opening frame came to a close, starting goalie Tyler Doucet chased from the net in favour of back-up Steven Ridley. It was hard to watch.
Because this isn't a team yet. They started to look like one in the early stages of the second period, coming on strong in a desperate attempt to claw back in the game. Kyler Krantz was buzzing around the net, bobbling a handful of glorious scoring chances to start the period before finally deflecting a Wyatt Kuenzl point-shot into the net. Rose, wearing the C for a third straight game, gave the effort you would hope for from a man wearing the letter. Newcomer Tyler Akeroyd showed tantalizing flashes of ability with the size necessary to impose his will on the game, and put that size to work in front of the net, scoring off a nice feed from Trevor Whynot. Marc Readman, who got the Canucks on the board in the late stages of the first by pounding home a Brendan Lazinchuk rebound, seemingly had the puck on a string. As the second period drew to a close, the tide seemed to be turning in Dawson Creek's favour. The group was coming together, until it was all undone by the game's defining act of selfishness.
In the moments after the second period buzzer, Mitch Palfi grabbed a hold of Fort St. John's Owen Barker in what appeared to be your typical rough stuff after the play. The linesmen came in to break it up, and it looked as though the period would end as normal. But whether it was over something Barker said in the moment, or the product of lingering bitterness carried over from last season, Palfi would not let him go, finally dropping the gloves and landing as many punches as he could before the officials tore them apart.
As the penalties shook down to start the third, Palfi was ejected from the game, given a 10 minute game misconduct, 5 for fighting, a 2 minute minor for instigating, and 2 for being the aggressor, for a total of 19 penalty minutes. For his part, Barker was assessed 2 minutes for roughing. The result was a full seven minute powerplay for the Huskies, a call that Head Coach Eric Fulton said his player fully deserved.
The lengthy Fort St. John powerplay to start the period sucked the wind out of Dawson Creek's sails, crushing the comeback effort before it could really begin. A lack of discipline undid the Junior Canucks a number of times throughout last season, and after the game, General Manager Ashley Rude promised that last year's problems would not continue. "You know how many guys we've got on the roster right now," said Rude, alluding to nearly a dozen players who sat and watched Saturday's action. "Guys that aren't going to play disciplined hockey aren't going to play hockey games, it's pretty simple."
For Fulton, the issues go beyond discipline. "We didn't come out to play. We didn't meet their intensity, we didn't meet their work ethic... It was actually a fairly dismal effort on our part," said the Canuck coach. "There were a handful of guys that I thought worked hard, but not many more than that."
It's an effort that won't be taken lightly, as players were bag-skated hard in Monday night's practice -- a punishment for Saturday's misgivings. "I don't call that punishment, I just call that reinforcement," said Fulton. "If they're not going to work hard when I can't control them, they will work hard when I can control them."
As disturbing as the game was, however, it's easy to read way too much into so early in the season. This is a team still very much in search of its identity, and as tough as Saturday's loss was, it needs to be held in perspective. "Emotions run high, and you don't want to let one game dictate anything throughout the year unless it's the final one," the coach admitted. "But still, there's a problem that needs to be addressed and we'll address it."
Asked if he still believed in his team's ability to contend this year, Fulton brought some much needed levity to the situation. "No, I 180'ed on them after just one game, they're terrible," the coach quipped with a laugh, his comments dripping with sarcasm. "It has to do with their determination," he added, more seriously. "The pieces are there, they've just got to start working together and fitting properly."
"We've got so many new players, it's just trying to get everybody into the right line combinations, so they gel and start playing as a team," said Rude, who still sees the same promise in the team he's assembled. "It's just getting used to playing the new systems and getting used to the new speed of the game. A lot of these guys are just up out of midget, and as much as some guys would like to tell you differently, it's a much faster game at any level of Junior B than it is in midget."
The same youthful lack of experience that's causing problems now is exactly what Rude believes will be key to the team's eventual success. "I'd be a lot more concerned if we were loaded full of veterans at this point."
A few more of those young guns could be drawing into the line-up, and soon. Fulton promised a new-look group after Saturday's roster failed to deliver, hinting at sweeping changes to come. "You can't keep that same line-up that didn't work. And there might be some bigger changes than guys think, it won't be just the young fellas sitting out this time."
One obvious positive from Game One? The big crowd. Saturday's season opener saw a sizeable turnout from the Dawson Creek faithful, as upwards of 650 fans packed the Memorial Arena for the first game of the year. It's a bigger number than the team was able to draw at any point last season, and while they weren't treated to a terribly entertaining game on Saturday, it's a level of support the coaching staff hopes to reward.
"Dawson's been supporting us more and more every year," said Fulton, entering his third season as coach. "Now we've just got to start bringing them a product that they want to come watch. And we will endeavour to do that, for sure."