SUNDRE — The U13 Huskies’ home tournament was a competitive, back-and-forth nail biter that could have gone any which way, an assistant coach said.
“We could have won all three games easily,” said Tim Kennedy. “We didn’t because it was so evenly matched. Every team played really well.”
With more than 40 years of coaching experience under his belt, Kennedy praised the team as being among the best he’s ever coached.
“I can’t say enough about the kids,” he said on Monday morning, expressing appreciation for having been able to proceed with the tournament Jan. 21 - 23.
Including the hosting Huskies, there were eight teams competing at the Sundre Arena — Sherwood Park Assassins, McKnight Mustangs, Delburne Outlaws, Cochrane Rockies, Innisfail Flyers, Bow Valley Flames, and Strathcona Warriors — amounting to approximately 150 players.
“Everything was successful,” said Kennedy, adding the whole event went smoothly without any hiccups courtesy of a great group of parents and volunteers who organized and ran everything.
The opening game on Friday evening against the Cochrane Rockies got off to a good start, with the Huskies leading 2-0 by the end of the first period.
“We were ahead, but the other team just sort of woke up,” said Kennedy, adding the Rockies came back to clinch the victory with a final score of 7-5.
Saturday’s second game against Innisfail was another close matchup that the Huskies lost by only a couple of goals, he said.
However, the Huskies came back hungry for a win on Sunday when they played against Strathcona, soaring ahead with an unstoppable lead to comfortable secure victory with a final score of 21-3.
“The score doesn’t mean much for me at that age,” said Kennedy. “It’s about learning and having fun.”
And despite the couple of losses, the Huskies skated off the ice with their heads held high, he said.
“The kids really came out of it with a lot of pride,” he said.
Throughout the regular 2021-22 season leading up to the tournament, the Huskies had gone undefeated in the Central Alberta Hockey League’s tier 4. They remained after nine games undefeated with seven wins and two ties.
Considering the stressful, uncertain start last September amid the fourth wave, the head coach seemed not only relieved that the Huskies would be able to play, but also pleased by the team’s exemplary performance so far.
“Like all Sundre minor hockey teams, we weren’t even sure if we were going to have a team this season,” Johnson said on Tuesday, Jan. 18 during an interview, adding the decision was made following a meeting to bring up three U11s to put together a 14-player squad.
Previously playing in tier 5, the Huskies demonstrated some grit and proved themselves in pre-season gameplay to get bumped up into tier 4.
“There was some concern with having younger-age players that we might not be competitive,” the coach said, adding, “But it turned out we were fairly competitive.”
Perhaps the coach was being modest, as the Huskies had prior to this past weekend’s tournament yet to suffer a single defeat. He attributed that success at least in part to an early start to the season with local access to extra ice time covered by coaches as well as donations.
“The town got the ice in early this year, which was fantastic. Usually, Sundre minor hockey has to go to Caroline and start playing in September,” he said. “They really took to that extra ice and they’ve really been performing well. They’re actually in first place by a substantial lead. We haven’t lost yet this year in league play.”
Unfortunately, the team lost a player back when tiering games were underway during a practice as a result of a broken leg. While that player is on the mend, he’s not likely to play in any more games for the rest of the year, the coach said.
“He’s doing well,” said Johnson. “He came out and skated a little bit the other day. Unfortunately, it was getting pretty tender. He went back to the doctor, and they don’t recommend he skate for the rest of the season.”
After getting through tiering rounds, the U13s got into their regular league play against nine other teams in their division — Olds, Indus, Lacombe, Strathmore, Cochrane, Sylvan Lake, Canmore, Rocky Mountain Athletic Association and Chestermere.
"Unselfish team play" gives squad an edge
Along the way, Johnson said he has observed the Huskies improve their team play and ability to work together to look for opportunities to pass the puck.
“Unselfish team play has been huge,” the coach said. “We have a few players that could probably go down the ice, walk through everybody and try and score every time. But they’re passing.”
That little bit of coordination during games has brought the team a long way to the top of the standings.
“You really notice it on the ice — you can see them working as a team. And I think that’s why they’re being successful over some of these other teams,” he said.
There is of course always some room for improvement, and during practices coaches have been prioritizing drills to clear the puck out of the team’s zone.
“We’re trying to get that breakout down,” he said. “The breakout has been probably our biggest focus in practice. It’s one thing that takes a long time to get down.”
There are primarily two different approaches to coaching, said Johnson.
“You can work on structure, or you can work on skills. I just think it’s important that each kid gets at least 50 passes and 50 shots a practice, so he learns how to handle that puck,” he said, adding repetition is key when it comes to ingraining muscle memory so movements become second nature.
Regardless of where the rest of the season goes from here, the coach was largely relieved his team at least had the opportunity to get back on the ice.
“It’s just so nice to see the kids playing again — that’s huge. You can see a change in all these kids’ mental health. They’re just excited,” he said, grateful the proverbial plug wasn’t pulled once again earlier this month. “We were getting pretty concerned that we were going to get shut down, and there was some pretty disappointed faces.”
Hosting provincials next
While hosting the home tournament after a nearly two-year pandemic-induced hiatus was a pretty big deal for the Huskies, the icing on the cake might well be the opportunity to host provincials, which take place March 31 to April 3.
Praising a great group of parents who have invested plenty of time in supporting the team, Johnson said the Huskies have earned their spot.
“You don’t want to host provincials and then just get there because you’re the host. I think the kids are going to be very competitive and do very well,” he said.
“We tell them that we feel they deserve to go to provincials — the fact that there’s actually going to be a provincial tournament, we’re hoping, unless something dramatic changes — it’s almost like they’re waiting for Christmas.”