GRAVENHURST - It wasn’t the most glorious end to a playoff race and strong season that saw the South Muskoka Shield emerge third in their division, but head coach and general manager Dallyn Telford says the 2012-13 season was still a success to build on.
“By no means are we in the top of the league right now in raw talent, but we have such a strong and solid nucleus to build on for next season,” Telford said, adding after dropping three straight in the quarter-finals to the Bracebridge Phantoms and a rough sleep, he almost immediately began setting out his game plan for the 2013-14 season.
“We had a lot of new faces on the team this year and I think the tension as the playoffs went on may have been a bit overwhelming, but with how a lot of these new guys played in our system, learned the ropes and embraced the team, they exceeded our expectations.”
The South Muskoka Shield went into this Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League season hurting from a semifinal sweep in the previous season and in something of a rebuild year as former owner Gord Carey retired and sold the club. Telford was aggressive in the off-season, bringing in a number of import players, like Russian-born Andrey Novikov, who led the team with 70 points in his 33 games, and towering six-foot-five Australian defenceman Brendan Oakes, whose 250 pounds placed a solid force in front of the Shield net. The season started slowly, with a losing record through the first 12 or so games, but Telford said as the players melded, got comfortable in their roles and accustomed to the game plans, the record began to swing back into a playoff hunt.
Although it was a season that saw the Bradford Rattlers become only the second Canadian Junior A team to finish their regular season undefeated and with nary a tie nor overtime loss, Telford said the league as a whole became very evenly matched.
“I would say this season the league-wide parity was the best it’s ever been,” he said. “There are no games you can take for granted any more; it used to be there were arenas you just knew walking in you’d be coming out with a win, but now, if you let your guard down at all you’ll get beat and that just helps make the league stronger.”
Telford was also pleased to welcome in a new Muskoka rivalry, as Bracebridge introduced the Phantoms to the league, and said he thinks the growing north division, that also includes the first-year Rama Aces, will be even more competitive next year. The practically unheard of success by the Rattlers has also caught his attention.
“When you look around the league, teams like the Phantoms, the (Temiscaming) Titans, the Rattlers, they’re all really big, physical teams,” Telford said, adding coming into this off-season, his goal was to increase the size of his team and beef up his defence. “And that’s a strategy going into next season we have to keep up with.
“They’ve set a benchmark for us and the rest of the league to work toward and model our teams after,” Telford said. “You have to be able to play physically and strong in this league if you want to win. Bracebridge bounced us around for three games and we just couldn’t get back up after that first loss, so it is something we will continue to address and a good lesson for us.”
Telford will have about 15 players returning next year, he said, hopefully including current team captain Brandon Luksa, who has one year of eligibility left in Junior A but is now concentrating on his post-secondary education. One loss Telford already knows will be a hard pair of skates to fill is that of four-year Shield defenceman Matt Gardener, who earned runner-up in the 2013 GMHL awards for Most Sportsmanlike but has reached his age limit.
“You wish sometimes you could turn the clock back and get these players for another year,” said Telford, whose efforts this year earned him a co-runner-up spot for Coach of the Year.
One of the reasons behind getting that nomination from his league coaching peers was how Telford and the Shield reached out to the community this year.
“Of course you go into every season wanting to win it all, but one of our main goals this year was to be more recognizable and active in the community,” he said, adding Shield players were constantly out representing the team at school breakfast club programs, reading to youth, volunteering for local festivals, parades and events and helped support the Muskoka Child’s Voice Foundation all season with raffle ticket sales and fundraising. “I think we did very well with that and as much as it was great for us to be out helping in the community, it really helped that locker room come together as team.
“From a coaching standpoint, that feels good too,” he added. “As much as we’re here to play hockey and help these players move on to the next level, we’re here to teach them other things too, how to be part of a community and hopefully they leave here as better people and not just better players.”
The coach isn’t sitting back and taking any break. Telford said he’s already scouting and keeping his eye out for players to add to the roster for the next season.
“We’re already back at work and looking to next season,” he said. “The one positive (about the quarter-final sweep at the hands of the Phantoms) is we get a bit of a head start on the rest of the big teams in the league.”