BERWICK, N.S. - The goal for the Valley Junior A Wildcats this season is simple: playoffs.
After two years of tearing down and rebuilding the roster, the Berwick-based club is focused on returning to the post season this year - and proving they belong there. And with a good mix of experience and youth, size and speed, the Wildcats appear to have all the tools they need to succeed this season.
“We’re happy with where we’re at,” says head coach Travis Young. “I think we’ve done a good job bringing character guys in who’ve bought into what we’re selling and they’re competing every night.”
The team opened their home schedule with a bang. On Sept. 22, the Wildcats shattered the glass at the Apple Dome just two minutes into the game, goaltender Liam MacDonald made over 50 saves, and more than 500 fans watched the home team win a wild 4–3 shootout over the Yarmouth Mariners. More than just a win in their home opener, the game proved to be a real milestone for the club, as it marked Valley’s first win over Yarmouth since Jan. 3, 2016.
Young acknowledges the last two seasons have been a growing process, which is helping to motivate the core of returning players.
“The guys that are back have obviously seen the struggles and the hard times, and they’re doing a good job leading the charge in terms of what we’re expecting and what we want to accomplish as a group. The new guys we’ve brought in… guys with some experience in the league, 20-year-olds who’ve played a couple of years of junior. They’ve come in and settled things down and given us that veteran experience, which is real important when you have a younger team.”
The club saw defencemen Cam Allaby of Masstown and Donavon Beatty of Regina, Saskatchewan return this season, and added 20-year-olds Jean-Mathieu Lavoie of Quebec City and Yarmouth native Quinten Johnson, plus Matt Duggan, Sounthan Thammacheck and Nick Deagle.
There are plenty of familiar faces at forward, including Bridgetown’s Tristan Bowlby, plus former major midget Wildcats Sam Henderson and Robbie Dowell, who each played more than 10 games in junior A last season. Other returnees include Riley Cunningham, Matt Warner, Riley MacInnis and Brock McLeod. Valley bolstered the attacking unit with the addition of 20-year-old Las Vegas native Landon Quinney and Winnipeg native Zach Falk, plus rookie Jackson Thomas.
The load of goaltending duties will fall on Liam MacDonald, backed up by Brent Walters. MacDonald, a 20-year-old from Sydney, spent the last two seasons with the Woodstock Slammers, prior to that franchise re-locating to Grand Falls, N.B. in the off-season.
Young says he’s pleased with his roster.
“There’s a good talent base. We’ve got some young kids who are still kind of feeling their way through the league, but they’re going to be guys who can produce offence and score goals at this level. As they get more confident and comfortable that’s going to result in good things on the scoreboard. We obviously want to be a playoff team this year; that’s the goal, that’s what we expect. It’s just bringing that consistency every night. That’s going to be the big thing.”
Tough season ahead
Young knows his team will be challenged each time they step onto the ice.
This spring, the Amherst Ramblers will host the Fred Page Cup, the Eastern Canadian junior A championship tournament, as the best from the Ottawa Valley, Quebec and the Maritimes battle for a spot at the Royal Bank Cup National Championship. With the MHL guaranteed two spots at the tournament via hosting, teams have loaded up, and the Wildcats’ coach says that means tough battles night in and night out.
“It is what it’s going to be all year. It’s going to be a dogfight every night regardless of who’s playing. The big thing is just give yourself a chance. Be prepared, come to the rink and execute what we want to do.”
Fans won’t get to see Annapolis Royal’s Cole MacLaren in goal for Valley this season. After starring for the Wildcats last year, MacLaren made the roster of the Halifax Mooseheads this year. And Valley’s leading scorer from last season, Brock McLeod, missed three of Valley’s first four games this season as he was called up to the Mooseheads as well. But Young knows players moving between levels is a reality of junior A hockey.
“At the end of the day, we’re a developmental league. We’re here to push guys and make them better players and give them those chances at the higher level. You’d love to have Brock (McLeod) in the lineup every night, but he’s getting those opportunities at that higher level, and it’s only going to help his game and help us when he comes back. It can be tough at times, but our guys have done a good job of blocking that out, worrying about what they need to worry about, what they can control, and coming to rink and playing their best.”