Sara MoultonFree Press Staff
It is fair to say that the 2014/15 Kootenay International Junior Hockey League season has kicked off to a strong start for the Fernie Ghostriders.
Indeed, as the holidays mark the mid-way point of the season, the current squad has already achieved almost as many victories as they did in their entire ill-fated 2013/14 campaign.
“When I got hired in June, I spoke to the vets and they weren’t happy with what happened last season,” explained head coach and general manager Craig Mohr. “The bonus, as a coach coming in, is that I had veteran players who were real motivated for that to not happen again.”
The burning desire to restore the club’s winning reputation has certainly shown in their record this season, with 23 victories, four losses, one tie and two overtime losses in 30 games. Reflecting on the year so far, Mohr took the time to meet with The Free Press to discuss each aspect of the team and offer his thoughts for the future.
GoaltendingWhen asked about his goaltenders, Mohr didn’t mince words.
“Overall, I couldn’t be happier. I think we have the best goalie tandem in the league,” he said, without hesitation.
And considering the stats, Mohr is within his rights to hold such an opinion. Jeff Orser has been a shining star for the Ghostriders between the pipes, with 15 wins and a draw after 19 games played.
“Orser is a dominant goalie … I knew he was going to be good one, but I didn’t realize what a good leader he is in the dressing room, too,” explained Mohr.
The other half of the goalie team is Brandon Butler, boasting eight wins in the first 11 games of his rookie season.
“I think he’s just getting better and getting more comfortable. As a rookie in the league, I think he’s continuing to slowly prove himself.”
With credit to goalie consultant Gerry Pang for providing necessary guidance to his young net minders, Mohr has enjoyed seeing the development and improvement of both Orser and Butler throughout the season. And according to the coach, fans can expect to see a similar pattern in the starting lineup as they have to this point so far.
DefenceWhile Orser has been a significant reason for the Riders’ low goals-against statistics, Mohr noted that the team’s blue line have been performing increasingly well in their duties.
“We have a pretty young defence, and I think their improvement level from where they were makes you sometimes forget that they’re rookies.”
Mohr singled out assistant captain Travis Thomsen as a player who has stepped up significantly this season and, along with returning hard man Will Lightfoot, expects to see some new strength on the blue line.
“[Lightfoot] adds a physical element to our back end that we didn’t have, and you don’t get out of jail free when he’s on the ice.
“With Thomsen and Lightfoot, we’re starting to develop a shutdown defence that can play those minutes in tough times.”
Drawing special attention to the development of 16-year-old Elkford local Kyle Haugo, Mohr went on to offer some insight into the experience of learning defence by practicing against an exceptional offense.
“When you’re a defenceman on our team, you have to practice against our forwards. And you’re going to get better, because our forwards are as good as the best in the league. When you’ve got to play one-on-one against Cole Keebler or Sam Plaquin; Spencer Bender, Georgopolous, Burgess, Robertson … you’re just going to get better.
“I still think they have a ways to go, but the improvement has been big and they’ve worked at it.”
OffenseIf there’s one name that the KIJHL quickly learned in 2014, it’s Josh McCulloch. The 18-year-old rookie from Calgary blitzed through the first half of the season, racking up 25 goals and 11 assists in just 26 games. Not surprisingly, by early December, McCulloch had caught the eye of the junior ‘A’ Calgary Mustangs and returned to his hometown to take the next step in his hockey career. However, Mohr remains unperturbed regarding the squad’s prospects moving forward.
“You don’t just replace someone like that,” he said, with a shrug. “But the nice thing about our team is that the depth up front is amazing, so [losing McCulloch] wasn’t as damaging as it could’ve been.”
Much had already been said about the strength of the Riders’ offense this season, but Lady Luck was on the club’s side when the opportunity to acquire Doan Smith from the Columbia Valley Rockies presented itself less than a week before McCulloch’s departure.
“Smith is around the same speed as McCulloch, and I think he’s going to be pretty dynamic and pretty scary,” said Mohr. “We didn’t realize when we made the trade just how gritty he is, and I think it’s been a nice surprise.”
Mohr went on to point out the improvement in some of the younger forwards, including Cavin Tilsley and Tayler Sincennes, who have been slowly making their mark on the team during their first junior hockey season. With such a great level of talent on all four lines up front, there is no doubt of the team’s capacity to continue adding tallies to the game sheets.
“Just thinking about the production we get from all of them … there’s a lot of times when we’ve got six different goal scorers. That’s pretty scary and pretty cool,” Mohr quipped.
LeadershipWhile the team’s performance speaks for itself, Mohr is adamant that the players are as close-knit in their off-ice activities as any other group he has seen. He gives particular credit to the leadership of captain Dylan Robertson and assistant captains Aaron Neufeld and Joel Burgess, as well as other more senior players who help to mentor their teammates.
“A lot of people don’t see that side … the times on the road; the quiet conversations with someone who may be struggling. The leadership has been unbelievable,” said Mohr. “It’s their dressing room.”
Division rivals and beyondThe five teams in the Eddie Mountain division are always notoriously competitive, and the ongoing battle between Creston, Kimberley and Golden as they jostle for position has been an interesting one to observe. The Riders themselves were troubled by road losses early in the piece, which has been a theme throughout the division this season.
“I’m interested to see who starts winning on the road … all three are real good at home, but on the road they’ve had troubles,” said Mohr. “It’ll be interesting to see which of those three might take that next step and separate themselves. It’s a tight race.”
With the Ghostriders poised as a significant candidate to win the championship this season, Mohr is confident in the abilities of his squad and is optimistic about the months ahead. But with 22 games left on the schedule before playoffs, including 12 road games, he remained uncharacteristically reserved in his speculations.
“I think we can’t get arrogant … it’s one thing to be confident, but you’ve got to keep it in perspective. They don’t give out championships in December.”
The stats and figures listed are current as of Dec. 18, 2014. The Riders will play a home game on Dec. 19 before travelling to Kimberley on Dec. 20 for their final tilt ahead of the holiday break.