‘Sometimes it’s good to get back to basics,” said coach Mike Young as he watched his Canada Winter Games men’s hockey team push themselves through an endless power skating drill on Monday night at the Canada Games Centre’s Olympic ice.
Back and forth, starting and stopping, they carried on until most players were doubled over, winded.
Despite the overwhelming odds the team will face at the Games, conditioning is one aspect of the sport in which the territory can match, or even surpass, the competition.
Yukon players have been training hard since May. Meanwhile, provincial players tend to get worn down by a grueling travel and game schedule, where training often gets pushed aside, Young added.
Teamwork is the other area that Yukon, largely composed of Whitehorse Midget Mustangs players, has an edge over most provincial teams.
“Some of these guys have been playing together since novice,” said Young, who also coaches the Mustangs.
“Team chemistry is going to be huge for us,” said captain Alex McDougall after Monday’s practice.
“I don’t know if it will be a miracle on ice in the Yukon, but we’ve played together all year — you know where to put the puck — it may give us an edge.”
Only four Yukon players don’t wear a Mustangs jersey: starting goalie Ian Perrier and forward Evan Campbell will return from the Fort St. John Flyers; forward Drew Pettitt returns from Prince George, where he plays with the Cariboo Cougars of the BC Major Midget League, and defenceman Lawrence Brennan returns from school in Ontario, where he skates with a Peterborough rep team.
“We’re hoping they can come back and pick up where they left off,” said Young.
Despite those advantages, the depth of talent in the bigger provinces means Yukon will most likely be playing for their honour, and little else.
“We have the chemistry, but we don’t have the calibre or game experience that the other teams do,” said forward Lowell Johnston.
The bigger provinces will send a de-facto all-star team of junior A or major midget players, from leagues like the OHL, WHL or QMJHL.
“Even the alternates on team Ontario are OHL players, that’s how crazy that is,” said Young.
“The chance that any of those guys have played together is slim, but a coach can show them what they need to do — and almost like robots, they’ll do it.”
It might seem like Team Yukon faces an unstoppable force with it’s first opponent — Quebec — but Young is still thinking strategically.
“We’re obviously going to play very defensively against that team — help our goalie out as much as possible, and try to compete, no matter what the score is,” said Young.
“If we can score a couple goals against Quebec that would be great … capitalize on the chances we get,” said McDougall.
Yukon has had some success punching above its weight.
After a disappointing finish at the BC AA provincials last year, the Mustangs decided to play only in AAA tournaments leading up to the Games.
“We’ve jumped to AAA, because of the Canada Games, the high-tempo hockey,” said McDougall.
“The quickness, the speed of play — you don’t have as much time to make passes, and they’ve got to be crisp, on the tape.”
Playing in AAA was rocky in the beginning, but the team found its rhythm at a tournament in Richmond during the Christmas break.
The Mustangs won the silver-division title, finishing third overall with a record of 4-1-2, not bad for a team that’s still technically in the AA division.
Team Yukon is looking at the Canada Games as a learning experience, and chance to compete with some great players, many likely to be future NHLers.
“We’ve said from day one that winning isn’t the main objective,” said Young. “Work hard the entire time. Compete to the very end. Stick to our systems, and work within them.”
Young got some sage advice from Ted Nolan, when the former Buffalo Sabres coach put on a clinic in Whitehorse last year.
“He said, ‘When it comes to one hockey game, you just never know what will happen, you have to be completely prepared to play your best — and go with that.’”
– men’s hockey