By Dave Leaderhouse
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of features on the 12 head coaches in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League that will run every Friday throughout the summer. The intent is to familiarize the fans with those who are in charge of the various clubs as there has been a significant turnover in the last couple of seasons. Often ready to take a backseat to the players, as those are the ones who deserve to be in the spotlight, the coaches and general managers shoulder the responsibility for putting the product on the ice and rightfully deserve credit for making the SJHL one of the premiere Junior “A” leagues in the country.
It was a bounce-back season for the Yorkton Terriers and having stability behind the bench for the first time in several years was a big reason for the turnaround.
Matt Hehr took a team that had just 13 wins in 2017-18 and had them challenging for a divisional title for most of the 2018-19 campaign. The Terriers then enjoyed an even stronger post-season where they outlasted the Notre Dame Hounds in the Wild Card Series before knocking off the regular-season champion Nipawin Hawks in a gruelling seven-game quarter-final match-up. The road ended with a four-game sweep at the hands of the eventual league champion Battlefords North Stars, but Hehr says his first full season in charge of the Terriers was gratifying.
“It was definitely a step in the right direction,” says Hehr. “It was a big learning curve, but a fun challenge.”
“I think the biggest thing was there was a complete culture change,” added Hehr. “The vets took ownership and took a lot of the leadership and put it on themselves.”
The 30-year-old Hehr became the head coach and general manager of the Terriers in early November, 2017, when Casey O’Brien was relieved of his duties. Hehr had been an assistant to O’Brien for a year and a half after starting his coaching career in a similar role with the La Ronge Ice Wolves in 2015-16.
The results from last year don’t look like they were a one-off either as the Terriers can return as many as 14 players from last season’s squad. Having that continuity falls right into Hehr’s philosophy for developing a successful program.
“You have to play for each other,” says Hehr, who as a player spent three seasons with his home-town Sherwood Park Crusaders of the Alberta Junior Hockey League before going on to a four-year run at the NCAA Division III level. “We have to be a team. The guys that come together like a family – that is how champions are built.”
“With the return of (maybe) 14 players, I will be leaning on those guys for experience,” adds Hehr.
Now that the ship has been righted somewhat Hehr realizes that there is much more work that needs to be done. He plans to spend a bunch of time leading up to camp coming up with ways to further the process for improvement beginning with finding a way to widen the goal differential his team produced, which was just eight more goals scored than allowed.
“We need to be more structured and more focused,” says Hehr. “I’ll be watching a lot of video and see what we can do.”