By Derek Holtom
MJHL Web Correspondent
A new MJHL season starts this Friday. Each team enters the season with hopes of celebrating a championship next April.
So what will the 99th season bring us? Will the Terriers go onto a four-peat? Will the MJHL champion beat the SJHL champion when the ANAVET Cup resumes next spring? How will the league trending younger play out?
A trio of MJHL coaches offered some of their opinions on the upcoming season.
Neepawa head coach Dustin Howden says his team will be looking to build on what they were able to accomplish last year.
“There is a bit of a buzz around town, especially around our guys and the support staff,” said Howden. “The way we ended things last year was definitely exciting, and an important part of the process for this program.
“This year we need to continue to learn to play the right way,” he added. “We had a good summer of recruiting, we have some prospects we are excited about, and it’s all about bringing them into the fold.”
Howden added he would like to see a bit more offense from his team this year, noting they fell just short on a number of their chances.
“And we have three guys up front, Justin Metcalf, the leading goal scorer last year, Ashton Anderson, a big part of Justin’s success, and Jordan Martin, who is another huge key for us – he’s looked great in the preseason so far.”
Fourth-year defenseman Griffin Chwailboga also looks to figure heavily into Neepawa’s success this year.
The Virden Oil Capitals, who lost a slobber-knocker of a series against the Winkler Flyers in the first round of the playoffs (three games went into overtime), will look to improve on their regular season, where they finished seventh. Of course, given the parity in the league last year, there are no easy opponents on any given night.
“We’ve been in the playoffs, and had some tough first-round series in the past,” said Virden head coach Troy Leslie. “We feel we have a group this year that will help us get through that first round and into the second, and go from there.”
Leslie does have some veterans returning he feels will make a real impact this year.
“Guys like Tyler Kirkup, Kirklan Lycar, Bennett Dalke and Dylan Thiessen are going to be big for us, and we were able to acquire Brayden Billaney (from Winkler) in the off season, and he’s a big addition to the team,” he said.
Leslie also said blueliners such as Morgan Magwood and Tristen Cross will play big minutes, as will netminder Riley McVeigh, who “stepped up big time for us in the playoffs.”
The aforementioned Winkler Flyers, who enter their 37th season this fall, have consistently made the playoffs in every year of their existence outside their inaugural season. But the team has not won a league championship since the 1997-98 season, and has not made the final since 2001-02 campaign.
Head coach Ken Pearson knows just how tough it is in this league to not only qualify for the playoffs, but to reach the pinnacle of success in it.
“In order to win, I know Portage has had the success that they’ve had over the last couple of years, you need a lot of things to go right,” said Pearson. “You need some guys to get hot for you, you need health on your side, and you need to be playing well come playoff time. You add those things up, and you really need to those things working for you to have success.”
Pearson also feels his team has plenty of potential heading into this season.
“Things are looking all right so far,” he said. “We have some big depth up front, our goaltending looks fine at this point, and defense looks fine. There are still some battles up front, but overall things have gone fairly well.”
Heading into this year, Pearson said he’ll look to veterans such as Will Blake, captain Nolan McGuire, Coltyn Bates and Matt Christian to lead the Flyers on the ice up front.
Eleven teams will begin this September, but only one will capture the league title. The march towards the Turnbull Cup is upon us – let’s enjoy the ride.