The first weekend of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League season is in the books, and there were a couple of surprises from the first three days of the season.
Four teams won both of their opening games – Portage, Swan Valley, Winnipeg, and … Neepawa? Yes indeed, after the first weekend, the Natives were tied for first place.
Portage and Winnipeg winning two straight isn’t that much of a shock, as both teams are expected to be competitive this year. Swan Valley had recently beat both OCN and Waywayseecappo in the preseason so earning wins against them to start the season was also not that much of a surprise.
But Neepawa winning two straight? That might have caught some observers off guard. After all, this is a franchise that only won 15 games all of last year.
Neepawa opened the season with a home-and-home against the Dauphin Kings, a team expected to make a move up the standings this year after a rebuilding effort last season. However, it was the Natives who won back-to-back 5-2 victories. In the season starter in Dauphin the Natives out-scored the Kings 3-0 in the third period despite being out-shot 17-5 to lock down the win. The next night in Neepawa, the Kings went up 2-0 very early in the second period, only for the Natives to score five unanswered goals for their second straight victory.
Natives head coach Jim Fuyarchuk said his team earned the four points with old fashioned hard work.
“To put it quite simply, our guys came to the rink focused on the job at hand, and I thought we worked extremely hard, and we played a simple game,” said Fuyarchuk. “In the second game, the guys had some nerves in our home opener and Dauphin came out strong, but I thought we came back hard, and played a really strong second and third period.”
The Natives were one of many MJHL teams who lost a talented veteran (or veterans) to American-based junior leagues (in Neepawa’s case, Drake Lindsey). But Fuyarchuk – who joined the Natives this summer – didn’t come into this season lamenting this loss. Instead, he focused on the players at hand, a strategy that paid off early dividends.
“I do know that we played pretty solid as a team,” he said. “With Drake’s overall talent, he probably would have helped us, but the fact is we played the game simple, played it hard, and as a team.
“And as it’s been said before, if you have the talent, and they are willing to work extremely hard, you’re going to have success,” he added. “You may not have the level of talent as your opposition, but if you work hard and play well as a team, you can beat talent.”
The Natives also won their opener in front of a large crowd in Neepawa – the announced attendance was 655. Fuyarchuk feels the win will hopefully be beneficial for the team, franchise and the community.
“I think this was a huge win,” he said. “The wins have added confidence to the players, and it’s great playing in front of a big, supportive home crowd.
“If we can continue to see those same sorts of crowds, or even to have them grow, it will be a huge plus for us.”