Photo: Ryan Sawatzky
The Winkler Flyers have come out of the starting gate like a house on fire, going an impressive 6-0 while scoring 26 goals and allowing just 9.
While a strong start is nice, it’s far from where the team wants to end up.
Head Coach Justin Falk says in the early stages of the MJHL season, the players who returned from last year have all taken steps forward. “We have a decent chunk of our core from last year returning. A lot of guys who were in the 18 and 19-year-old range from last year really gained a lot of good experience and development in their game through the course of the season and especially in that playoff series against Steinbach. It gave a lot of guys hunger for the off-season to train and be ready to come back and help this club take another step.”
From lopsided games to nail-biters, the orange and black have been finding different ways to be successful, something the long-time bench boss feels is a sign of players fully investing in the program. “Our goal as a staff was to ensure we had some depth to support our top 6. We’ve had a lot of great success stories early on with players accepting and embracing their roles and then thriving in them. We’ve tried to create an environment here where players can grow and thrive, and guys can have opportunities to take advantage of if they’re willing to buy in. It’s been exciting as a staff to see the depth filter through out lineup but they’re staying humble, they know the work is only going to get harder from here.”
Like many teams around the MJHL, there was a decent amount of turnover for the Flyers and as the General Manager, Falk says it’s been quite something to see the evolution from the end of last year to now. “You go from names on a paper in training camp, then it gets to jersey numbers with guys on a roster then it’s remembering the new guy’s numbers. As everything settles in, it becomes a part of your process year in and year out. There are so many learning curves and opportunities for growth for these young men and adversity in the moment that are happening to each of them and their response to it, it’s our job as coaches to help them navigate through it and help them grow. A lot of good stories early on but what’s most exciting is how humble the room is staying and how hungry they are for the work ahead.”
As a league overall, Falk believes it’s the surge of young talent that keeps things exciting and the MJHL growing. “The league continues to get younger, and the league needs to get younger, in my opinion. We need to find ways for these younger guys to be able to step into roles and opportunities. It won’t be much longer until we get Marek Miller back who will help impact the club. Guys like Xyon Kiemeney and Kobey Edwards are young guys who are hungry and chomping at the bit, they want to grow and learn each day. They’re hungry about the process and they’ll get results because of it.”
As a former defenseman, Falk knows there’s nothing quite like having belief in the goaltender in your crease that when things start to go sideways, they can calm it all down. Both goalies have been stellar, and the coach believes it’s been something growing in Winkler for years now. “We’ve had a great tandem every year I’ve been here. I remember Dylan Meilun and Malachi Klassen, they pushed each other, and we’ve seen the success of Dylan going on to a NCAA Div-1 program and how Malachi has earned his success through the work and the effort he’s put in plus the supporting cast he’s had along the way. These goalies have been a nice, stable, last piece to the backend. As we continue to grow from the back end out and pride ourselves on how hard we defend, both Malachi and Liam (Ernst) have been exceptional, so far.”
Starting out 6-0 will get attention from not just teams around Manitoba but from programs far and wide, something Falk is relishing as more players get scholarships to continue in hockey and get a top-notch education. “It’s the goal for every general manager and coach, building a program where they see they can grow and thrive not only as hockey players but young men. The experiences they go through and how it will translate into their lives of being a husband or father or business owner. If they’re able to attend post-secondary education through hockey in (NCAA) Division 1 or Division 3 or CIS scholarships, that’s exciting for them but we’re grooming young men and their character, so they’ll be integral parts of their communities when they get older.”
Every team in the league is going to want to deal Winkler that first loss and Falk says his team is ready for all challengers but also plan to bring the fight to teams as well. “I think early on here we’ve established as a group that wants to work hard and be consistent. We understand that every night in this league that two teams go head-to-head, and no match will be easy. As this group goes about their business, we know every game is going to be tough with everyone leaving it all out there. Some teams will have us circled but we sure have a few games circled, so there’s still lots to prove for this organization.”
As for the reignition in National rankings and such, Falk has his team focused on the task at hand and not what others may think, one way or the other. “It’s all just noise from the outside. We’re three and half weeks in and played six games. We have lots to work on and lots to prove. Down the road in four months, when we’re going down the stretch, we want to make sure we’re playing our game so we can have a strong push and a strong post-season, that’s when it matters the most.”