The Notre Dame Hounds knew they would be better.
In fact, they expected to be better than last year’s fifth-place finish in the Sherwood Division standings.
“We had high expectations for sure,” said Notre Dame head coach Kevin White as the club headed into the Christmas break with a 21-10-0-3 record and trailed the first-place Yorkton Terriers by just four points.
“We had seven 20-year-olds and added another so we figured we would contend,” added White. “We had a strong core nucleus and the rookies have really been contributing.”
The Hounds began the season rather slowly as they won just six of their first 14 games, but since then the club has been on fire winning 15 of 20 and at one point were undefeated in 11 straight.
The slow start could be attributed to the absence of four of the club’s top seven scorers from last year and the insertion of rookies who needed time to adjust to the level of play in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
Gone from last year were Todd Christian, Greg Ferguson, Ben Morgan and Dayton Shaw along with goaltender Matthew Smidt. Christian is attending Clarkson University this year on a scholarship while Morgan is at Norwich, Smidt is at Keyano College and Shaw is with the Pensacola Ice Flyers. Ferguson graduated from junior after completing his eligibility.
To fill the cupboard, the Hounds went to the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League where they landed Sam Aulie and Jared Martin from the Regina Pat Canadians along with Ian Williams from the Midget AAA Notre Dame Hounds.
Aulie, an 18-year-old centre from Lumsden, has been the biggest surprise says White as he is second in team scoring with 15 goals and 11 assists after amassing just slightly better totals (16-17-33) in a full season last year with the Pat Canadians.
Williams, who played 11 games with the SJHL Hounds last year and got his feet wet with four goals and three helpers, had a strong final Midget AAA campaign scoring 21 times and setting up 27 others. That set the table for this year where the 17-year-old from Wilcox has nine goals and seven assists in 30 games.
Martin, who just turned 18 on Boxing Day, has benefitted from playing on a line with Aulie as he has six goals and eight assists in 28 games. Last year with the Pat Canadians he recorded 12-12-24 totals in 44 games.
While the newcomers have contributed nicely to the Hounds’ success, it is the play of the veterans that have also helped turn things around.
Brandon Millin, who last year was second in team scoring behind just Christian, is leading the club this year as the 20-year-old from Port Moody, B.C., has 18 goals and 20 assists in 34 games.
The Hounds are also getting huge contributions from the back end as a pair of 20-year-old defensemen - Mitch Boucher and Carson Grolla – are among the team leaders in points while helping Notre Dame take care of business in their own zone. Boucher, who is in his second year with the Hounds, has six goals and 20 assists to tie Aulie for second place in team scoring while third-year veteran and team captain Grolla is one point back with 7-18-25 totals. Grolla, who hails from Trail, B.C., is a product of the Notre Dame program having played his midget hockey in Wilcox before moving up to the SJHL club.
The Hounds have two other 20-year-olds on the blueline in Troy Murray and Paul Brisebois, who have been solid in their own right, but they will have to do without 19-yer-old Brandon Kuse for the remainder of the year as he suffered a season-ending injury after collecting one goal and five assists in 19 games.
In goal, the Hounds have Ty Reichenbach for a second season and they have added 20-year-old Michael Salmon to replace Smidt. Reichenbach is a 19-year-old product from Billings, Montana, and has a 2.59 goals-against average in 20 starts with a pair of shutouts included in those totals. Salmon, who hails from Red Deer, Alta., has Western Hockey League experience with the Seattle Thunderbirds and Prince George Cougars. In 15 games with the Hounds this year, Salmon has a 2.87 GAA with one shutout.
“Overall, we had a lot of good players coming back and that translates into success,” says White. “We’re at the point where we’re battling for first place. We have to be focused on getting better every night and get ready for the playoffs. Hopefully we don’t lose any of that focus over the holidays.”
The Hounds, who were eliminated by the Estevan Bruins in three straight games in the opening round of the playoffs last spring, get back to work next weekend when they take to the road for games in Kindersley and Melfort.
With one more win they will match their output for all of last season, but they are shooting for much more. After all, it was expected to shake out this way.