It must have been a good inaugural season for the Wolverines – especially for the players.
Last season, only two players from Whitehorse’s First Nation developmental atom hockey team made it onto the Mustangs rep team. This year, eight players from last year’s roster made the cut.
Players are developing their hockey skills with the team, said Wolverines head coach Randy Merkel.
“The Wolverines is primarily a development program, so I’m hoping we’ll develop these kids and they will become better players,” he said. “We had eight players make the Mustangs team this year, so obviously it’s contributed – something happened.
“We’re not 100 per cent sure they’re all going to be on the Wolverines (this season), but my guess is there’s a good possibility some will be with us.”
The early signs of player development within the team, which has yet to finalize this year’s roster, hints at the possibility of someday fulfilling the lofty goal of establishing a First Nation territorial team to compete nationally.
“It’s a cause that they believe in, they want to develop these little hockey players and hopefully some day the Yukon can have its own National Aboriginal Hockey Championship team,” said Merkel, referring to how Yukoners are selected to play on a BC team for the championships. “Every year we send five or six players down to try out for team BC and, if they make it, then they go.
“That’s one of the things we talked about from the very beginning.”
While the players developed last season, the team itself had its ups and downs.
Playing in the Presidents Day Tournament in Anchorage, Alaska, in February, the Wolverines went 5-0 in the B division, winning gold and defeating the Delta Junction Huskies 6-1 in the final.
However, at April’s Western Canadian Native Championships in Saskatoon, the team was outmatched on the ice and left winless.
“We were extremely outskilled; these teams were three or four notches above our skill level,” said Merkel. “When kids get pushed they either push back or lie down—none of them lay down. They realized how much fun it is to play against players that good. It was a good experience for them.”
This weekend, the team’s staff and parents will be setting the Wolverines’ season schedule and, so far, a return to Anchorage’s Presidents Day tournament looks likely.
“If I were to guess, I’d say we will go back to Anchorage this year,” said Merkel. “I’d like to see us jump up a notch, at least, and go after the next level up.
“Last year, without knowing ourselves, we entered a division that we were better than. So we now have a pretty good idea of where we’re at.
“I don’t know about the Western Canadians (Native Championship) because the calibre level was very, very high there.”
Wins and losses aside, Merkel can’t get over his team’s pride last season, which extends past the bench and into the stands.
“The big thing for me was the amount of pride they had in their team,” he said. “They were really proud to be a Wolverine and the parents were behind them.
“The parents did a wonderful job last year. Everyone got along great, right from the coaching staff to all the parents and the kids.”
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