More hockey players will be in Whitehorse red and black this season. They will be better equipped to take and deliver hits as well, thanks to changes within the Whitehorse Mustangs rep hockey program.
The Whitehorse Minor Hockey Association has introduced two significant adjustments to the Mustangs program for this season, which begins this week.
Mustangs ‘A’ teams will now carry 20 players on the roster, up from 15.
Mustangs teams will also begin participation in bimonthly “instructional scrimmages” to introduce contact play to skaters from atom up to midget.
“The expectation is that it will be intense,” said association president Carl Burgess. “We’re calling it an instructional scrimmage because in atom we’re introducing players to physical play with an emphasis on the learning aspect, rather than the physicality of it.”
The instructional scrimmages should improve the competitiveness of the midget and bantam teams when they travel to tournaments, but it’s also about safety. (At the end of last season, Hockey Canada banned bodychecking at the peewee level.)
“One thing you worry about these days, at all levels of hockey, is not just giving hits, but how to take a hit, how to avoid being hit, and the trouble areas where you have to protect yourself,” said Clint Mylymok, the new head coach for the Whitehorse Minor Hockey Association. “These offer coaches the opportunity to teach kids, if you’re going into the corner full-speed, don’t be afraid to slow down or take a peak to see where your check is coming from.”
Mustang teams that play contact hockey (including the Peewee A Mustangs last season) have long been plagued by poor performances in opening games at Outside tournaments. Without access to contact play in Whitehorse, and then travelling to face teams that play contact regularly, Mustangs often take a game or two to adjust.
“We’ve been looking for years for something to do to address that first-game issue that we seem to have every time we travel,” said Bantam A Mustangs head coach Martin Lawrie. “I think if we can expose the kids (to contact play) through the season, we can definitely address some of that.”
Though the Peewee A Mustangs will no longer participate in contact games when outside of the territory, it’s not too early to prepare the players for when they graduate to bantam, said head coach Kirk Gale.
“I think it’s good. At some point they’re going to be playing contact hockey,” said Gale. “With the new (Hockey Canada) ruling there will be no contact peewee hockey across the nation, so when kids get into bantam, they should be ready because it will be a rude awaking if they don’t (prepare).”
The expansion of A team rosters carries numerous benefits. In addition to the obvious fact that coaches will have more players to draw from and will less often be shorthanded when travelling, more players can gain high-level play experience.
“It does two things,” said Burgess. “It allows us to carry more players and develop more players. And 20 is not a big deal for a team to carry. It also allows for when the first-, second- or third-line guys can’t make it to tournaments, whether due to vacation, illness or whatever, we’ll have other guys ready to feather in and expose more players to competitive hockey.”
“Carrying an additional three forwards and two defencemen doesn’t add any stress to practice,” said Lawrie. “Quite often it makes your practice more competitive – you’re able to do a few more things.
“Obviously it gives a few more kids the Mustangs experience – rep hockey experience – which is a good thing.”
For Barry Blisner, head coach of the Midget A Mustangs, the expanded roster will be a tool he can use to keep his players motivated. Since the team won’t travel with a fourth line, Blisner wants his players to work to stay on the lines that are travelling to tournaments.
“The way I’m running it for our team is I told the guys I don’t really look at it as having alternate players, or guys that are extras … If one guy is the number 11 forward and we think he’s playing well, he can move up at any time,” said Blisner. “We’re running it more like a junior team or university level where there are four lines – you can’t dress four lines, generally speaking – one game we have these nine forwards, the next game we have three new ones in and three other ones out.”
The Mustangs organization and Whitehorse Minor Hockey Association have undergone other changes over the off-season.
All of the aforementioned coaches have advanced up through the age divisions with Gale going from atom to peewee, Lawrie from peewee to bantam and Blisner from bantam to midget, taking over for last year’s coach Kerrie Pettitt.
Mylymok is currently filling the position of head coach of the Atom Mustangs. His position as head coach of the Whitehorse association is a new one just introduced.
“It’s a head coach-co-ordinator position where my job is to come in and work with coaches and the players as well, to develop coaches, develop players, show how to run practices, how to evaluate players, things to look for throughout the year,” said Mylymok. “The key for me is to evaluate coaches from month to month, having a rapport with them, with travelling (teams) and the house league as well.”
At the helm of the Female Mustangs team, which is starting its third season with the rep organization, is Louis Bouchard.
“The team is looking good, looking fast,” said Bouchard. “In past years we’ve had to start at basics, with a couple players who weren’t strong skaters. This year we don’t have that, so we’re way ahead.
“What we are lacking are third-year midgets. We’ve always had that core group of older girls who have been with the program for so long.”
The Female Mustangs team, which consists of nine bantam-, six midget- and two peewee-aged players, is a midget-level team that will play in the bantam division of the rec house league in Whitehorse.
The Female Mustangs is not the only team from the club with a roster filled with young players.
The Midget A Mustangs have just two returning players from last season’s team, and a total of 10 players at the first-year midget age.
“We have a very young team. We have a lot of the bantams that were with us last year, which is good, but a lot of the older midgets are out playing in other places,” said Blisner. “On the other hand it gives the other kids a chance to see what they’ve got at this level.”
The Bantam A Mustangs, which placed fourth at the B.C. Hockey Championships in March for the best finish for Whitehorse, has four returning players from last season’s team.
“We’re very young, we’re very inexperienced – we have a lot of first-year hockey players, we have a handful of first-year Mustangs … I think we’re going to take our knocks early this year,” said Lawrie. “But this team has a lot of potential. I fully expect that we are going to be a very competitive club in the New Year.”
The Whitehorse association has made some other changes for this season. A new midget division has been added the rec league with three teams registered. (The Midget A Mustangs will continue to play in the adult rec league.)
“We’re probably going to invite juvenile guys in,” said Burgess. “Those are the guys who aren’t old enough for adult but are still overage to be on a midget team.”
The association is adding more games for Friday and Saturday evenings at Takhini Arena to offer additional opportunities for spectators to take in local hockey action.
Whitehorse Minor is also organizing a new tournament called the Whitehorse International Atom/Squirt Hockey Tournament scheduled for November 8-10. The association is currently in talks with Alaskan, B.C. and Albertan clubs.
“With Air North as our partner, they sort of sweetened the deal on tickets when they’re associated with Whitehorse Minor, so we might see teams coming in from the south,” said Burgess. “We’re trying to get the word out down south that if you’re within reach of one of the centres Air North flies to, Whitehorse is as cost effective, if not more cost effective, than driving eight hours to a hockey tournament, as some teams do.”
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