By Derek Holtom
MJHL Web Correspondent
Nestled near the shores of Lake Wahtopanah, approximately 40 kilometres northwest of Brandon, lies Rivers, Man., a small community of just more than 1,100 people. Named after Sir Charles Rivers Wilson, who was the Chairman of the Grand Truck Pacific Railway back in 1908, Rivers is known to its outstanding fishing, school sports programs, and like any good prairie town, its hockey players.
Of late, the community has excelled at churning out netminders. Former Dauphin Kings ‘ goaltender Brent Willows and current Red Deer Rebels’ puck stopper Riley Lamb both call Rivers home.
As does Ashton Anderson, one of the breakout talents in the MJHL and a big reason for the strong start by the Neepawa Natives this season.
Of course, when Anderson joined the Natives in 2014-15, they were just that – the last-place team in the 11 team loop. In his rookie year Anderson managed only two goals and five assists in 51 games, while his team struggled to a 15-win season and were the only team to miss out on the post season. The following year was actually worse – four goals and four assists in only 36 games, while the team dropped to 13 wins and again missed out on the post-season party.
But perseverance paid off, and last season Anderson saw his offensive production jump to 18 goals and a whopping 46 assists for 64 points in 59 games. He also helped the Natives clinch their first playoff berth in a number of years, pushing the Pistons to six games in the opening round.
Anderson has picked up where he left off last year and has been hot out of the game. By mid-October, he was tied for sixth in league scoring with 12 points, and was tied for second in goals scored with eight.
“I have a lot more confidence this year,” said Anderson. “I’m shooting the puck a lot more, and I have good line mates.”
This early success is particularly rewarding for a player such as Anderson, who stuck with a team that had struggled for so many years and has only now become a team to be reckoned with.
“I’ve learned to appreciate this (early success) after going through two really tough years,” said Anderson. “Now we have a good squad, it’s enjoyable, actually.”
His bench boss says while it’s been a long time, coming, Ashton’s success is well deserved.
“Ashton is a four-year guy in his 20-year-old year,” said Neepawa head coach Dustin Howden. “Sometimes it takes some time for kids to learn junior hockey, and Ashton was given an opportunity last year. He took advantage of that and has never looked back.”
Howden credits Anderson for a strong worth ethic and his ice smarts as reasons for his remarkable increase in production.
“His skill set is improving all the time,” said Howden.
The Natives jumped from 13 to 21 wins last season to secure the eighth seed, but given early result this year, it would be safe to say they have higher expectations. Neepawa has won five of their first eight games, is sitting at a tidy plus 14 in goal differential, and entered the middle of the month just two points out of first place.
“I feel like we have a team that can be a top contender, and be near the top of the standings and make a real playoff push this year,” said Anderson.
The talented forward also hopes to parlay a strong 20-year-old season into a post-secondary opportunity south of the border.