There’s nothing like peaking at the right time in sports.
For the Juan de Fuca Grizzlies midget Tier 1 hockey team, a group of largely rookie players in this three-year age division (roughly 15 through 17), learning as they go along has been a good strategy.
“We struggled early on in tiering and exhibition, but they’ve picked it up. We’re getting better as the season goes on, where everybody else seems to have plateaued, I think,” says Grizzlies head coach Chris Kueber, whose team was due to wind up play today (Dec. 29) at the Richmond International Tournament.
“They’re young and a hard-working group of guys – one of the hardest working teams I’ve ever coached.”
The squad has scored enough goals (34) to be sitting atop the Vancouver Island Division 1 midget standings with an 8-1-0 record heading into the league’s Christmas break. But it’s their talent for keeping the puck out of the net that has really impressed Kueber.
“Our defence has really stepped up,” he said, noting that third-year goaltender Jordan Spandli and second-year midget Luke Sheldrake have combined to give the Grizzlies a superb last line of defence. “Our goalies are both awesome.”
Playing responsible hockey in their own end helped Juan de Fuca win a pair of key league games two weekends back, 4-1 over second-place Saanich and 2-1 over Campbell River, the only team to beat the Grizzlies this season. That was a 5-4 loss on the North Island, a game that saw the Grizzlies trail 3-0 early and battle penalty problems to make the game close.
Part of the team’s success so far has come from the fact third-year midgets, team captain Spencer Knight and assistant captain Jacob Finlay, have set a good example for the younger players to follow, Kueber said.
“Our third-years have really stepped up and been leaders,” he said.
“They’ve got the team to bond. They’ve got the first-year guys to buy in to what we’re doing.”
Kueber, a coach in the Juan de Fuca Minor Hockey Association for 12 years, has taken teams to the Richmond tournament in the past and knows the competition is always tough. He was hoping his players would come away with a better sense of what it takes to beat good teams.
“It really makes the kids learn that they have to play three full periods; they can’t get away with not playing a full game.”
The Grizzlies return to league action in Nanaimo on Jan. 9, then head to Pearkes Recreation the following day for a rematch against Saanich.