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Mustangs, Avalanche gear up for hockey season

Now that the skates have been sharpened and the sticks have been taped, all that's left for Whitehorse's elite minor hockey players to do is to check for their names on the rep team rosters.

Now that the skates have been sharpened and the sticks have been taped, all that’s left for Whitehorse’s elite minor hockey players to do is to check for their names on the rep team rosters.

With a couple exceptions, selection processes for the Whitehorse rep teams are complete and the season schedules and goals are being laid out.

With five players moving up from last year’s B team, joining six returning players and five coming up from the bantam team, the midget Mustangs have a good mix of veterans and newcomers.

“Some of the midget B team players moved up and that’s an important part of the program,” said midget Mustangs head coach Jim Stephens. “Especially with the first year players, it gives them some where to play before they can make it up to the A team.”

Although still in the planning stage, so far the midgets hope to compete at the Abbotsford Memorial Tournament over the Remembrance Day weekend where they reached the semifinals last season. They are also hoping to welcome back BC’s Oceanside Generals for another weekend series in town, having split a two-game series with the team last year.

With this year’s Canada Winter Games boys hockey format allowing only first year midgets and second year bantams, players from both midget teams and the bantam Mustangs are expected to make the Games team, meaning those rep squads will see less travel this year.

“Potentially we’ll have players from the A and B teams on the Winter Games team,” said Stephens. “For those kids it’ll be a big year; they’ll get lots of hockey and the big opportunity to go play at the Canada Winter Games.”

The two midget teams will be seeing a lot more of each other this season as, for the first time, both will be playing in the Whitehorse rec league, starting the season this weekend.

Last year the midget Mustangs finished second at the Rendezvous tournament, losing to an Alaskan team in the finals. Under the banner of Team Yukon at the Arctic Winter Games in Grande Prairie, Alberta, in March, the team reached the semifinals where they lost to Nunavut.

“We were up against some pretty stiff competition, but we made it to the top four,” said Stephens. “We would have liked to do a little bit better.”

The Yukon’s only girls’ rep team, the Avalanche, will be wearing two hats this season. They will be the Avalanche as they play in the bantam house league and hope to travel to such BC tournaments as the Burnaby’s Hayley Wickenhauser International Tournament at the end of November and Langley’s Angels on Ice tourney over the Christmas break.

However, the Avalanche, which at the moment has a development squad in place, will also don Team Yukon jerseys for the Canada Winter Games, taking place in Halifax next February.

“We’re lucky that we have returning players from the last Canada Games,” said head coach Louis Bouchard.

Losing such players as captain Chantelle Rivest and highscorerer Angela Burke, the young team will have to work hard to top last year’s season, in which the team won silver at the Arctic Winter Games. They also finished fourth in a tournament in Richmond, BC, and medalled at the Whitehorse minor peewee championships.

Eight players who took part in the silver medal run at the Arctic Games are on the developmental squad.

With some players inevitably making their way onto the Canada Games team, like the midgets, the bantam Mustangs are also looking at a light season of travel.

“They’re probably not going to do as many as last year because many of the kids are on the Canada Games team, and that team will separately go to a couple of tournaments,” said Canada Games team coach Jay Glass.

Although unconfirmed, the bantams are looking at returning to the Wetaskiwin 86ers Bantam AA Invitational in Wetaskiwin, Alberta, where they took third last November. They are also considering a return to the Kamloops Bantam Tier 2 Tournament where they lost in the final last February.

“I know there’s a good core of players coming back and they have some good young players coming up from peewee and some real good players that were playing in the bantam house league last year,” said Glass, who coached the bantams last year. “They’re going to have a real good team, and they have a good coaching staff there with Kirk heading it up.”

A big year for the bantams last season, the team also won gold at the Knights of Columbus Bantam Tier 2 Hockey Tournament in Fort St. John in February and took bronze at the BC Hockey Provincial Championships.

The bantam Mustangs have about four returning players and will be steered by new head coach Kirk Gale, who played for the Whitehorse Huskies AAA men’s hockey team last season.

The Bantam Mustangs B team, playing at the Tier 4 level, have not completed their selection process.

“The Tier 4 becomes a bit of a feeder for the Tier 3 (bantam Mustangs) team, so they can shuffle players back and forth if they have to,” said B team head coach John Grant. “They still go to provincials, but we haven’t determined exactly where else they are going to go.

“I have to wait until we pick the team and see what the parents have to do.”

Last season the B team went undefeated at a tournament in Fairbanks and also won gold at Fort Saint John Tier 3 Tournament in BC.

The peewee Mustangs want this season to end with a bang, not a whimper. Already looking at the provincials, new coach Danny Johnson wants his team’s final game of the season to be a meaningful one, like in a semifinal or final at the BC campionships.

“It’s not out of reach for this group of kids,” said Johnson. “It’s not always the best teams that make it to the final four, it’s the most prepared teams.

“The plan is to have them firing on all cylinders when they step out on the ice for the first game at provincials.”

To help accomplish this goal, the peewees are drafting a busy schedule, tentatively starting with a AA tournament in Camrose, Alberta, at the end of next month, which may include an added bonus.

“It looks like we might get to watch (Whitehorse’s) Dave Stephens on the Oil Kings,” said Johnson. “We like to take the kids out and say, ‘This is a guy who has been through our program and he’s come out on the other end very successful. This is where you can end up if you apply yourself.’”

Half of the team’s roster include player who made the trip to last year’s provincials where the peewee’s went one-and-three to finish mid-pack.

“Most of the second years were on the team last year’s team,” said Johnson. “There were a few guys who came out from nowhere and put up a good couple weeks at training camp and made the team.

“So it looks like a good mix of veterans and rookies.”

While the atom Mustangs are still planning out their season, in terms of Outside tournaments, they may just see some tough competition long before they hit the road - maybe in their season opener on Friday.

“I think the peewee house league is going to be a lot harder this year - it’s going to shock our kids,” said atom Mustangs coach Mike L’Henaff. “Last year they walked into the peewee house division and had a pretty easy time of it. This year, I think the league will be a lot stronger and it’ll make our kids work a lot harder, which is good.”

Although still in the air, the atoms are hoping to attend two or three Outside tourneys and expand their season by hosting some Alaskan teams, if possible.

“Hopefully we can get Juneau and Fairbanks to come over for a weekend,” said L’Henaff. “Hopefully if we go to Fairbanks they’ll reciprocate and come here.”

Last year the atom team, which has five returning players, finished third at the Revelstoke Atom Development Tournament at the start of the season and went on the win the peewee division of the Whitehorse Minor Hockey Association’s Year End Tournament.

As they head into their first season of league play, the midget Mustangs B team is still without a coach, but Mustang executives are optimistic about finding someone to mind the bench.

“We’re working on that and I think we’re pretty close to getting that organized,” said Stephens. “We’ve talked to a couple parents and some other people who have expressed interest, so we should have it sorted out by the weekend.”

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