By Dave Leaderhouse
Could this be the year for the Nipawin Hawks?
The Hawks advanced to the semi-finals in each of the last two Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League seasons only to be sidelined by the eventual Canalta Cup champion Melfort Mustangs. Two years ago the series was over in five games while last spring Nipawin pushed the Mustangs to the limit before bowing out with a 5-4 setback in the decisive contest.
“The goal every year is to get a championship,” says Nipawin head coach and general manager Doug Johnson. “We will have to take it day by day.”
The Hawks, who were 38-17-3-2 in the regular season last year, will have to try and improve on those numbers with a bunch of new faces as the club graduated a number of players to the college level.
Gone from last year’s line-up are Evan Mignault (Lakehead University), Jayden Piattelli (Simon Fraser), Blake Fournier (Minot State), Ian Wolkowicz (Milwaukee School of Engineering), Gordon Campbell (Selkirk College) and Eric Bolden and Patrick Schmelzinger, both to Elmira College. Also moving on is leading scorer Garrett Dunlop (31-49-80) who was undecided about his hockey future, but is unavailable this year due to age.
The Hawks also traded winger Zach McNeill to Grand Prairie in the off-season and assistant coach Devin Windle left the club to assume the head coaching and general manager duties with the Melville Millionaires.
That’s a pretty sizeable turnover, but Johnson is happy with what he has seen at camp and is confident the Hawks will be a threat once again.
“I thought we had a lot of options,” said Johnson in assessing the talent pool from camp. “There is a lot of work to do to get them on the same page and to get them ready to play Hawks’ hockey.”
“It is going to take all 20 players on the ice, and those in the stands, to be ready to play,” added Johnson, who will have TJ Millar assisting him this year in place of Windle.
The only area on the team that returns intact is in goal. Kristian Stead was a workhorse for the Hawks last year appearing in 45 games and posting a very respectable 2.51 goals-against average and .912 save percentage. Michael Barabash was a more than capable back-up seeing duty in 18 games and registering a 3.55 GAA.
“Between the pipes better not be an issue – I have to find a piece of wood to knock on,” lamented Johnson.
“The defence will be by committee and the offence will be by committee,” added Johnson. “It is going to be a total team effort this year and not relying on two or three guys like last year or in past seasons.”
Chase Thudium and Keegan Kjargaard are two veteran forwards expected to be back for a third season with the Hawks while Nicholas Reimer, last year’s winner of the Roger Neilson Memorial Award, will also return for a third year and should be the anchor on the blueline.
Johnson says Michael Grant, a 19-year-old forward acquired in the Zach McNeill trade with Grand Prairie, is also someone to watch this year in the Hawks’ line-up. Nipawin also picked up Tanner Thompson from the Kindersley Klippers in another off-season deal and Johnson is excited to have him in the fold.
It is a fresh start for everyone at this time of the year and if the Hawks can come together as a unit they should be able to challenge once again for a league title. Some mid-season inner turmoil set the Hawks back a bit last year, but Johnson will undoubtedly eliminate any possibility of that recurring again and Nipawin could quite possibly take that next step in their quest for their first championship in over a quarter century.