Don’t count the LaRonge Ice Wolves out just yet.
The first half of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League season certainly wasn’t what the club expected, but head coach and general manager Bob Beatty has drawn up a blueprint not only for the rest of this year, but for the future as well.
“We are obviously going in a somewhat different direction,” noted Beatty of the recent trade that saw 20-year-olds Nathan Boyer and Brennan Ritchie shipped to the Melville Millionaires for the Kehoe brothers, Rhett and Kade, along with future considerations. “Half our team is now 18 and younger so we feel we have set the table for next year.”
“Our goal remains the same,” adds Beatty, who is in his ninth season with the club and is just two years removed from back-to-back league titles. “We have a real strong group going forward. The guys leading the way are experienced quality leaders and they will set a standard for the future.”
The Ice Wolves knew it would be a rebuilding year as the club lost five of its top scorers from last year to graduation. Moving on to the college ranks were: Skylar Hladun to the University of Saskatchewan Huskies, Aaron Enns to Manhattenville, Marc Andre Carre to the Louisiana Ice Gators and Patrick Tran and Matthew Weisenel to SAIT. Ben Bula and Brennan Wright also headed off to school as both are now at Thompson Rivers University the club’s No. 1 goaltender from a year ago, Alex Rajotte, also graduated. The Blaneville, Que., native had played in 38 games for the Ice Wolves last year in addition to all seven playoff games when LaRonge swept Flin Flon in the opening round before seeing their run as provincial champion come to an end in a four-game sweep to the Humboldt Broncos.
Those were some pretty big holes to fill and when the season started it looked like some of the lost offense might have been covered as Rhyse Dieno returned to the club after spending last year with the Western Hockey League’s Medicine Hat Tigers.
Dieno, who played in LaRonge two years ago, scored 12 goals in his first 15 games and earned a spot on Team West, the club that finished second at the World Junior A Hockey Challenge in Nova Scotia in November.
The 19-year-old, who also had spent some time with the Kamloops Blazers as a 16-year-old, caught the attention of Brent Sutter in Red Deer and Dieno has been on fire since joining the Rebels after the world junior tournament.
“We are very pleased with the success he is having in the WHL,” says Beatty. “We take pride in being a small part in revitalizing his career. That’s what we are here for.”
With Dieno gone, Boyer became the offensive leader on the team collecting 28 points in 27 games. Beatty says the Prince Albert product was highly sought after and a decision had to be made.
“It’s an opportunity for our younger guys to step up,” says Beatty. “We have a good group of kids and any time you add a new face you usually get a burst of energy.”
Rhett Kehoe isn’t the only new face that the Ice Wolves have added to their line-up. There is 18-year-old Brandon Halbgewachs acquired from the Estevan Bruins, 18-year-old Caley Bjork from the Yorkton Terriers, 19-year-old Eric Macoretta from the Weyburn Red Wings, 18-year-old Jessey Touchette from Lloydminster, 18-year-old Dason Sydora from Spruce Grove and 20-year-old Tim Rollins from Dauphin.
“Tim Rollins is a solid addition to our team,” says Beatty of the former Battlefords North Star. “We made a deal with Dauphin early in the year and he declined, but has since come to us. He’s a quality kid and another good example for our young kids.”
Rollins joins a core group of 20-year-olds that includes Brett McNevin, Myles Hovdebo, Graham Smerek, Spencer Brennan (also acquired in a deal with OCN of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League) and Pavlo Zerebecky.
Beatty says he will be leaning on those veterans to help with the development of the younger players such as 16-year-old Braden Olexsyn and 17-year-old Owen LaClare. Not surprisingly, with Olexsyn near the top in team scoring at such a young age, the Saskatoon product has already been signed by the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen for next year so fans should make sure they see this talented winger while he is still with the club.
“There is certainly a learning curve, but our young guys have responded well,” says Beatty. “We have to be a four-line team and we have to get the most out of every player. I like the depth of our team to be quite frank.”
The building blocks have been put in place and the Ice Wolves have responded as they won their final three games to close out the first half of the season. Beatty says the stretch of games leading up to the Christmas break is crucial for the club as they try to move out of the North Division basement and into a playoff spot.
“Our challenge is just to go forward and prove some people wrong,” says Beatty.