Those involved with the inaugural season of the Valley Maple Leafs say if it wasn't for the sponsors, volunteers, players and fans, they wouldn't have had the success that they did.
The Leafs, who signed on to be a new team within the Nova Scotia Jr. Hockey League in late July 2012, were the underdogs. Starting out, they had no uniforms, no gear, no players, no place to play and no liquid assets. They bartered with existing teams, even trading homemade goodies to obtain the rights for some dispersed Windsor Royal hockey players.
In spite of the challenges, they managed to defy the odds and ice a competitive team.
An awards banquet was held at the Royal Canadian Legion branch No. 9 in Windsor March 20 to celebrate their accomplishments. The majority of players were in attendance.
“We came a long way in a short time,” said Harry Ullock, the general manager of the team, at the event. “I couldn't be prouder and happier to be associated with you guys.”
It's a sentiment that was echoed throughout the evening.
Team captain Nathan Little told the crowd that many of the former Windsor Royals players wouldn't have been able to play hockey this year if the Leafs didn't exist. For Little, who was dispersed to Cumberland County after the Royals went on hiatus, it would have meant not playing his last eligible Jr. B hockey year.
“I'm just very grateful to all of the executive, all the coaches, and to everybody else who made this possible. I would just like to personally thank you and I know all of the other players are very thankful as well to have a team this year,” said Little.
In a phone interview following the banquet, head coach Josh Dill said the team exceeded all expectations.
“For putting the team together at the last minute, the players came together and proved to everyone that we were a competitive team,” he said.
The Leafs ended the regular season in fourth place with 39 points in the highly competitive Fred Fox Division. They were just three points back from the first place Sackville Blazers, who they faced in the first round of playoff action. They lost the best of seven series 4-1.
“We have to reiterate, without the sponsors and volunteer help, it would not have happened,” said Dill. “We really appreciate what they did and without them, we wouldn't have had a team and the kids wouldn't have had anywhere to play.”
Fundraisers are being planned for the summer months to help offset the costs of running a Jr. B team. The coaching staff and executive said financing the team remains a challenge, but they're committed to keeping hockey on ice.
Assistant coach Rob Lindsay, who was out of town and couldn't attend the banquet, was equally pleased with how well the team came together and performed. He said he was honoured to be part of the organization for their inaugural season.
“All individuals involved, both players and supporting staff, showed a lot of character this year. All of our efforts really paid off; young hockey players local to the area had a place to play this year, who otherwise wouldn't have. The fact that we iced a competitive team was just icing on the cake,” said Lindsay in an email interview.
Andy Woolaver, the team's governor, also commended everyone on their efforts and said plans are well underway for the 2013-14 season.
He said they are considering playing some games in Windsor next year, but stressed they will remain a Valley team.
“We're going to remain the Valley Maple Leafs. We're not going to be the Windsor Maple Leafs,” said Woolaver at the awards ceremony. He said they hope to “play a portion” of their home games in Windsor, and some in the Valley, likely in Kentville or Berwick.
The Leafs are currently in the process of ironing out an ice schedule.
Lindsay said his one regret was that the team could not force game six in the best of seven playoff series with Sackville. If they could have mustered a win in game five, the next playoff game would have been held at the Hants Exhibition Arena.
“We could have finally brought Jr. B hockey back to this great community for a Thursday night showdown,” said Lindsay.
“I would have loved to see the fan base and excitement for that Thursday night game back in the old barn. Not to mention the spinoff support it would have created for local businesses on a cold Thursday winter night.”
And the award goes to...
The Valley Maple Leafs feted their top players and wished the four over age players well during their first awards banquet.
Receiving awards were team captain Nathan Little (Player's Choice), alternate captain Jory Uhlman (Top Scorer and Most Valuable Player), Jake Galbraith (Sport Award), Craig Anderson (Rookie of the Year), and Olafr Schmidt (Most Improved).
“All in all, without every player that we had, we wouldn't have had the success that we had,” said Dill.
The over age players that are no longer eligible to play Jr. B hockey are Galbraith, Little, Uhlman, and Austin Himmelman. The men received their home jersey as well as some mementos of their time with the team.
“Team-wise, we lost four real good players,” said Dill, noting that they were “ heart and soul players.”
“The over age players who are leaving will surely be missed, as will others who won't be playing next season. I know these young men had a positive impact on my life. I hope we, as coaching staff, also offered the same,” said Lindsay. “Hockey is much more than a game. It's a lifestyle that forms lasting life experiences and friendships. These kids really were in the trenches every night and went to battle.”
Erik Jackaman, who served as an assistant coach with the team this year, will not be returning to coaching duties as he is moving out West to further his education. The team's trainer, Stephanie Carrigan, will also not be returning.
Dill said he's confident that the returning players will help lead the team to success.
“I had people calling me already for next year and hopefully we can keep going in the right direction,” said Dill, adding most players are eager to try out for a spot on next year's team.
“We have five or six guys fighting for the over age position, which there's only four allowed players. It'll be tough. We'll lose a couple of guys from that but the rest of the players are very excited to come back and have a good year.”