The Neepawa Titans continue to make their claim as legit threats in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.
Head Coach Ken Pearson says that his group has been a work in progress, but some additions have allowed guys to be put in positions to succeed. “We made a few moves about a month ago with our d-core and adding up front in a guy like Hayden Stocks certainly helps. He had success scoring for us last year and has built on that. It allows guys to slot down into a more natural spot and where they could thrive. The guys have really come together on and off the ice and I believe that’s been a big reason for the recent success.”
It was a one-step forward, one-step back first 15 games where they had a record of 6-8-1 and were closer to the bottom of the MGEU West standings than near the top. Through that, Pearson says the group kept a simple mindset, believing the team had what it takes to turn things up to another level. “We really dummied it down, we just went game by game. We didn’t set out any numbers, we just worried about the next game up. We made sure we were ready to compete, and our guys have done a really good job leaning into video work and taking time ahead or after practice to work on things. We just built from there. It started at practice and moved into games. Once that game was done, we would put it behind us and prepare for the next one.”
With several players returning from last year, Pearson had a feeling they could come together and take that next step as a unit, but it didn’t come without some hiccups. “Certainly, we had a really good group of forwards who were eligible to come back and at the start of the year when Stocks and Briley Wood didn’t come back, it was a shock to the system for our returning guys. They were huge leaders for us not only on the ice but in the dressing room. So, I think a few of the guys were kind of looking around to see who might step up and who’s going to fill those roles. I think it’s been great to see not just veteran guys, but the young guys take advantage of opportunities and it’s helped form a bond through the entire room.”
Scoring and defense have come along but from early on, the Titans could boast having elite-level goaltending. Pearson says watching the tandem flourish and get hard-earned wins has been quite something. “With Mason (Lobreau) last year, he was a first-year guy, and it was obvious he was going to be our number one guy and now with KC (Coukuyt), they’ve meshed so well. They’ve played together in Brandon and in U18, so they’ve had a really good relationship. When those two guys both came to camp, we felt some security in that position. We knew that either guy could step in and give us a chance to win every night and that’s exactly what both of them have done here.
With more wins comes more eyes watching the team and Pearson says it’s something his players are making the most of, especially with selections for the MJHL/SJHL Showcase looming. “For the most part, the guys are asked to do everything on and off the ice, it would be nice for some of them to get rewarded for their play on the ice. We’ve had some guys that deserve to have that opportunity both in the older game and the younger game. It’s the same thing we’ve been telling our guys for years, if they want to move on, teams want guys who’ve had success and know how to win. Winners breed winners and that’s what we’re trying to get through to these guys, that the more W’s we can pile up, the more opportunities that will come for them.”
The word ‘identity’ is thrown around a fair bit in hockey and in the mind of the longtime bench boss, it’s an evolving process with a key core value: work ethic. “Our team is what it is. We’re not a flashy group, we’re going to work hard and make other teams work even harder to beat us. We have a couple of areas where we want to sharpen up, specifically the penalty kill, which we consistently work on and want to get better at. For the most part, we’re just a blue-collar group of guys that go out and work hard. That’s something that our Captains all believe in, and all do. They are all hardworking guys and the other 20 guys have jumped on their backs and doing the same.”
Pearson does admit that having banked 29 points through 28 games this year and watching the guys come together on and off ice while finding success has made the journey to this point even more enjoyable. “It’s always easier coming to the rink when you’re winning. This group here is a tight group and a fun group to coach. They love coming to the rink early, having fun with each other, and always asking questions. As a staff, we want to be a soundboard. All of us coaches just love being at the rink, working here and while it’s been a great 28 games so far, we know there’s room to get better. We’ll put in the work here the next two weeks then take some time off, then really start to put it together after the Christmas break.”