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.”