Sunday, February 28, 2010

Coaching change key to Oilers’ turnaround

Sometimes a change is a whole lot better than the status quo.

The Okotoks Junior A Oilers were being left for dead when Garry VanHereweghe took over behind the bench from Dan MacDonald in early October as coach and general manager.

In fact when VanHereweghe lost his first game as head coach on Oct. 5 to the Calgary Canucks, the Oilers fell to last place. Nearly five months later, the Oilers clinched their first South Division regular season title when they beat the Canmore Eagles 5-0 Thursday.

The Oilers finished the regular season by winning their last five games, including Sunday’s 7-1 victory over the Drumheller Dragons at the Centennial Arena. Okotoks finished the season 38-18-1-3 and their 80 points was five more than the second-place Camrose Kodiaks. When VanHereweghe took over Okotoks was 3-6, but the turnaround has been remarkable. Since VanHereweghe took over as the Oilers’ bench boss the team’s record has been 35-12-1-3.

Garry has done a heck of a job,” Oilers president Wayne Lauinger said after the Oilers’ victory in Canmore. “For us to finish in first place when at one time I think we were down by 18 points to Camrose in the standings, is remarkable.”

Lauinger said MacDonald was an important part of the Oilers the past two years, in which the team finished second in the regular season. However, they were upset in the second round of the AJHL playoffs each year.

When the Oilers started the 2009-10 season slower than a sloth on Valium, the team’s board of directors felt it was time for a change.

Dan did a lot of good things for this team,” Lauinger said. “Sometimes after a while the team stops listening to the coach’s message.”

Oilers forward John McInnis agreed.

Garry gave us a fresh-start,” said McInnis, who set a team record with 42 goals this year. “At the start of the season, we had high expectations and we weren’t reaching them. The way things were going it was really a tough time.

Dan was a great coach, I learned a lot from him,” McInnis said. “Unfortunately, we weren’t getting the results we wanted.”

When VanHereweghe took over last fall, he said the team had a lot of things to work on. He credits the young men in the Oilers’ dressing room for getting that work done.

VanHereweghe’s focus upon returning to the bench was to work on the Oilers’ defensive zone play which was criticized for being too soft and passive early in the season.

“Not only did they work hard, but after that first game against Calgary (Oct. 5) it was evident we were making a lot of mistakes in our defensive zone,” VanHereweghe said. “We broke it down, not quite from scratch, but the players accepted it and worked at it.”

He added the players are a close-knit group who have shown resiliency.

VanHereweghe said the team has persevered throughout the year, despite obstacles such as losing Corban Knight to the University of North Dakota just before training camp, the loss of a coach and injuries that kept Oilers trainer Kirsten Kidd busy all year.

“We didn’t have a healthy scratch until our 50th game of he season,” VanHereweghe said. “This team has overcome quite a few obstacles.”

Oiler captain Chris Duszynski said having to grind their way from the bottom to the top will help the Oilers when they start the playoffs on March 7 against a yet-to-be determined opponent. The Oilers earned a first-round bye.

“In the past two years, we sailed through the regular season,” Duszynski said. “When the playoffs rolled along we didn’t have the ability to battle back, or change our play.

“This year we had a bit of adversity at the start and throughout the season. We have learned how to battle and take our losses and turn it around.”

Oilers clinch first place.

The Okotoks Oilers are saying hello to their first championship in their history and saying bye-bye to the opening round of the Alberta Junior Hockey League playoffs.

The Oilers clinched the AJHL’s South Division when they blanked the Canmore Eagles 5-0 in Canmore Thursday.

The Okotoks’ victory gave the Oilers a 36-18-1-3 record (76 points).

Okotoks had the chance to clinch the title last night when the Bonnyville Pontiacs beat the Camrose Kodiaks 5-4 in Bonnyville Wednesday night.

The Kodiaks have 74 points with only one game left on their schedule. However, the Oilers have the tiebreaker because they have more wins than Camrose.

The Oilers came out against the Eagles with the full knowledge that they could clinch the South Division with a win.

It showed.

They came out with the pedal to the medal exploding with four goals in the opening eight minutes for the 4-0 lead.

The Oilers Cody Dion, Nolan Huysmans, Jeff Barrett and John McInnis scored first period goals for the Oilers.

It was McInnis’ 37th of the year as he strives for his personal goal of 40 in a season.

The Oilers all-time leading scorer, Chris Duszynski, closed out the scoring with a goal in the opening minute of the third period.

Meanwhile Oilers goalie Sean Cahill could have watched the Canada-Swiss hockey game he saw so little action.

The Oilers’ stingy defence held the Eagles to just 18 shots, all of which Cahill handled.

Duszynski called the win an important one in the team’s history, but one they have to put immediately behind them.

“We have been second best both years I have been here (prior to 2009-10),” Duszynski said. “But after tonight, we put this to rest because we have got bigger fish to fry.”

The Oilers on Feb. 19 against the Calgary Canucks at the Centennial Arena. Their final regular season game is Sunday at the Centennial Arena at 1:30 p.m. when they take on the Drumheller Dragons.

#21 John McInnis

An Okotoks Junior A Oiler set a goal back in September of scoring 40 goals this season. It was a quite a lofty mark considering the Oilers’ team record was 34 goals in a season.

Turns out, Oiler John McInnis was selling himself short. The Oiler forward scored six goals in the Oilers’ final three games of the Alberta Junior Hockey League season to finish the year with 42 goals.

“I set my goal for 40,” McInnis said after scoring his 37th in the Oilers’ 5-0 victory over the Canmore Eagles on Thursday in Canmore. “I like to put pressure on myself and hopefully it all works out.”

The native of Plymouth, Mass. got to 40 goals with a hat trick in the Oilers’ 8-5 victory over the Calgary Canucks Friday night at the Centennial Arena. (Number 40 was into an empty net).

He notched two more in the Oilers’ last game of the season, a 7-1 win over the Drumheller Dragons, to finish the year at 42.

At the start of the season, McInnis was on pace to score a less-than-whopping six goals in the 2009-10 campaign.

“In the first 10 games I only had one goal,” McInnis said. “I was really struggling, the whole team was. Then I got a couple and started to relax.”

McInnis finished the season with 42 goals and 31 assists. He credits much of his success to linemates Brandon Hoogenboom and Cody Dion. All three members of the line finished in the top five in team scoring.

“I think we all bring something different to the table,” McInnis said. “We also share some of the same things. Whenever one of us gets the puck, we go to the net.”

Both Dion and McInnis take shots on goals like they were using a Gatlin gun rather than a stick — the more shots on net, the more likely one will get by a goalie.

“I might not score a lot of pretty goals, but when the situation presents itself, I do what I have to do,” McInnis said.

The previous record of 34 was set last season by Corban Knight, who is playing for the North Dakota Fighting Sioux, one of the top NCAA teams in the United States.

There is no comparing the two players, according to the new record holder.

There is no comparison,” McInnis said. “Knighter is in a league of his own. He was so smart with the puck and saw the ice so well.

“I am more of a guy who has to work for everything he can get.”

Hoogenboom said neither he nor Dion did anything different to get McInnis his record.

“We were too focused on getting first place, we were playing the same way,” Hoogenboom said.

“He is just a guy who gets in the right spot at the right time.

“It also doesn’t hurt that he has one of the hardest shots in the league — either a slapshot or a wristshot.”

McInnis is close to committing to Union College in New York.