It’s been a long summer for captain Tyler Stevenson and the rest of the Fort Frances Lakers.
After being knocked out of the SIJHL playoffs by the Dryden Ice Dogs in six games back in March, the second-year Junior ‘A’ squad has been itching for a shot to reassert themselves on the ice, which they’ll get to do today (Aug. 25) when training camp opens at the Ice For Kids Arena.
“I’m excited,” enthused Stevenson, who notched 21 goals and 28 assists last season. “I think we’re going to have a really good team, and with so many guys coming back, I think it should be good.
“We should be able to pick up right where we left off, hopefully,” he added.
Stevenson wasn’t the only Laker hoping a carryover from last season was on its way.
Jameson Shortreed, last season’s goalie-of-the-year in the SIJHL, felt the crew started to put things together during the playoffs, kicking things off with a seven-game victory over the now-defunct K&A Wolverines before bowing out to Dryden.
“From being a last-place team to being able to make such a big push in the playoffs, it helps you with a lot of confidence,” Shortreed remarked.
“With a lot of the guys returning, it should be a big part of our game this year.”
Assistant captain Blake Boaz is equally bullish on the Lakers’ chances to do some damage, especially with so many players back in the fold for the coming season.
“I talked to a few of the guys coming back and we’re all pretty excited,” he noted. “We’ve got our key players back, like we’ve got Shortreed back in net and [Byron] Katapaytuk signed.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Boaz added. “I think we’re going to be good this year.”
It has been nearly five months since the Lakers played a meaningful game. But while it’s possible the good feelings and togetherness of late March have worn off, head coach Wayne Strachan thinks the memories are recent enough to be tapped into before the season opens here Sept. 17 against the defending champion Fort William North Stars.
“The biggest thing is just getting into their heads—just remember how fun it was through the playoffs to come to the rink,” Strachan explained.
“There was just a different atmosphere. We were happier as a team,” he noted.
“We were happier as a staff and they were happier as players.”
Strachan later stressed, however, that the first four days of camp, with cuts coming this Saturday, will seek out the top 22-25 players—regardless of whether the players were in a Lakers’ uniform or not last season.
“No jobs are safe other than maybe Jameson Shortreed’s,” he warned. “Everyone else will have to be in camp and ready to go.
“There could be some disappointed guys come Saturday if they’re not ready to come in Wednesday and work their hardest to be here,” Strachan continued.
“We’re obviously looking to improve on last season and get in the top three of the league, for sure.”
The Lakers will play their first exhibition game in Dryden next Wednesday (Sept. 1), which Strachan said will be a major test for those players on the bubble of making the team.
“That Wednesday night could be a telling night whether some of those guys are ready to play at this level,” he noted.
“That’ll probably be a big decision night if there are some players that are tight together and battling for a position on the team.”
Aside from recalling last season’s Cinderella playoff run, another theme Lakers’ players should expect to hear is an emphasis on defensive responsibility, which will need to be stepped up.
Shortreed faced, by a wide margin, the most shots in the league in 2009-10, turning aside 1,468 pucks while just 172 got past him during the regular season (a 0.895 save percentage).
He stepped his game up monumentally during the post-season. The number of shots he faced declined only slightly (from 38 per game to 37), but his save percentage rose all the way to 0.923 to keep the Lakers in many games.
“We’ll start off with our own end. That’s where we need to improve,” Strachan underlined.
“If we understand our own end and we can get out of it as quick as we can, it’ll definitely increase our odds of success,” he reasoned.
One way Strachan hopes to help his players get the message is to put together a playbook and then sit down with them to make expectations clear before the first stride on the Ice For Kids surface.
“This year, we’re going to actually sit in a classroom format and go through everything as a team,” he explained. “We’ll make sure that everyone’s on the same page so that when we get to the ice and eventually into exhibition, we’re top-notch defensively.
“This is one step in the right direction by doing this, to make some players more conscious of our own end.
“[We’ll] try to get it in their heads ahead of time before practice, and obviously the games, to correct things they don’t understand,” he added.
It’s not hard to get the feeling that Stevenson and others will be getting a little bit anxious during the classroom session, though, given he’s looking to get back on the ice soon.
“They’re getting eager to go,” he noted. “A lot of guys just want the puck to drop. It’s been a while.
“I know a few guys have been training all summer and after a while, you just want to get into game situations and get into camp and around the guys.”
Stevenson, who was named team captain after Colton Kennedy was shipped to SJHL’s Melville Millionaires in January, said he has a little extra drive as a 20-year-old—and hopes to cap his final season of junior hockey with a championship.
To do that, he stepped up his training over the summer.
“I’ve changed it up a little bit,” Stevenson admitted. “I really focused on trying to get a little stronger in the gym and working on the core and leg strength.
“I tried to stay off the ice at the start of the summer just to regroup, and the last little while I’ve been on the ice a ton just trying get back in the flow,” he added.
“It’s my last year of junior, and maybe of hockey at this point, and so I’m excited to just go and lead by example and get back into it.”
For his part, Shortreed said he didn’t change up his routine much, but still put his nose to the grindstone in the gym over the summer.
“I trained quite a bit over the summer, getting in shape, working out,” he recalled. “I pretty much kept it the same. A lot of cardio.”
The players also stressed the stabilization of the second-year franchise should put the Lakers far ahead of where they were at this point last August.
Several key cogs of the 2009-10 edition will be in camp, and won’t be hard to get up to speed, while there likely won’t be as many newcomers who are unknown entities to both coaches and teammates.
“Last year, we were starting from scratch and this year, we can pick up from where we left off,” noted Stevenson. “Everyone knows what it was about last year, and we won’t have to get into each and everything.
“The new guys can just fit right in. With so many vets coming back, they can really follow everyone’s lead,” he reasoned.
“We won’t have to spend the whole first month, like last season, trying to figure everything out.”
Boaz acknowledged those in the locker-room knew the confusion around last year’s team led to some trying times during the season, but things are looking up for this year.
“Last year, we knew it was going to be a rebuilding year with the change-up in ownership,” he remarked. “It was going to be a year that we had to struggle through.
“At the end of the year, everyone came together and most of those guys are going to be back.”
Stevenson is hopeful the enthusiasm from last year’s playoff run carries over not only among those in the dressing room, but in the stands, as well.
The Lakers drew nearly 700 fans for that Game 6 loss to Dryden.
“Hopefully, we can get the town out and get a lot of support,” he enthused. “In playoffs, it was great having all those fans and we’d love to start off with great crowds again.
“This year, we really could be a contender and something special to watch.
“I’m excited and hopefully the town is,” he added. “Come Wednesday, I think it’ll be a pretty exciting time.”
Tryout games are slated for tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m., Friday at both 10 a.m. and 7 p.m., and then Saturday at 9 a.m. All games are open to the public, and Strachan hopes to see some fans in the stands.
“[The players] get pumped up when they see 150 or 200 fans watching the tryouts,” he noted.
“It makes them feel pretty special and feel pretty good about Fort Frances and, obviously, to stay here and play and get into the spirit of being a Laker and being a part of the community.
“It’d be nice to have a good showing in the crowd, and hopefully there’ll be a good showing in the product on the ice,” he added.
On a final note, Strachan said the team still is looking for billets for four players.
Those interested in helping out can contact Mary Cooper (274-6608 or 486-1320) or Mary Polz (274-7264).