While Fort Frances Lakers’ head coach and general manager Wayne Strachan is more a fan of team awards than individual accolades, he understands the importance of the squad’s annual awards banquet, which took place Friday evening at the Adventure Inn here.
“It’s a night to award the players who are most deserving of the trophies, and it’s nice to acknowledge those players that work hard,” Strachan said.
“Plus, it gives the players an opportunity to meet some of the people behind the scenes, and have a chance to see and hear about the hard work that goes on behind the scenes to make things happen,” he added.
One of the players who was dually rewarded for his efforts was defenceman Morgan McNeill, who took home both the best defenceman and most dedicated player honours.
“I didn’t even figure I was going to win one award, let alone two,” McNeill conceded.
“There’s a lot of good defencemen on our team, so it was a honour to win that award,” he remarked.
“And to win the most dedicated player award was a nice honour, as well.”
A native of Days Corner, P.E.I., McNeill is captain of the Lakers’ “adopt-a-school” program with Robert Moore School and also is involved in refereeing local minor hockey games.
On the ice, the blueliner has 28 points in 51 games so far this season.
“I think our trainer, Dale Cooper, said it best when giving Morgan the most dedicated award in that he’s the most dedicated player both on and off the ice,” Strachan explained.
“On the ice, he’s really stepped it up a notch as of late to become a key member of our defensive core, and he’s just an all-around good kid character-wise off the ice,” he lauded.
Another player to pick up a pair of awards Friday night was goalie Tyler Ampe, who took home the Lakers’ fan club award and shared rookie-of-the-year honours with Ryan Wildman.
“If I was going to split an award with anyone, Ryan would be the guy,” Ampe said.
“We’ve been really close together all year long, and he’s the kind of [guy] that can make you laugh no matter what.
“We usually sit next to each other on the bus, and I try to pick him up from school to hang out with him as much as possible, because Byron [Katapaytuk] is usually sleeping,” Ampe joked.
With goalie Jameson Shortreed representing Team West at the World Junior ‘A’ Challenge in Penticton, B.C. back in November, Ampe took over the starting role in his absence and since that time has compiled a 22-11-1-0 mark to go along with a 3.07 goals against average, a .909 save percentage, and a pair of shutouts.
“His record this year speaks for itself along with his play, and he’s stepped up in a huge way this year to become a big part of our team,” Strachan noted.
Wildman, a forward from South Porcupine, Ont., has had a solid freshman season, compiling 11 goals and 20 assists so far to share top rookie honours with Ampe.
“He’s been one of our most consistent players day in and day out, in both practices and in games,” Strachan said.
“He’s a smart player out there and he does all the little things right, such as using the boards to make the right play,” he added.
Lakers’ captain Tyler Stevenson earned the most gentlemanly player award Friday night, which went along with the SIJHL’s most sportsmanlike player honour he had picked up on Thursday.
“It’s not my favourite award to win, but I’ll still take it,” Stevenson smiled.
“It’s nice to be honoured, though, and I’m sure that I’ll look back on the awards fondly in the long run,” he reasoned.
“Sometimes a player who wins those type of awards is viewed as a soft player, but that’s not the case with Tyler,” Strachan stressed.
“He’s a guy that comes out and plays the game the right way, and he’s become more aggressive and intense in the last few weeks, which is being shown in his point total,” Strachan said.
The most prestigious piece of hardware of the night was the most valuable player award, which went to second-year forward Byron Katapaytuk, who also is among the finalists for the league’s MVP honour.
“It’s nice to be recognized but I couldn’t do it without the guys,” Katapaytuk said.
“It’s good to win an award like this, but to me it’s all down to the team effort that we bring,” he remarked.
After notching 34 points in his rookie campaign last season, Moose Factory, Ont. native increased his scoring output this season, netting 20 goals and adding 34 assists in 52 games.
“I guess you could say he’s a true Laker both inside and out,” Strachan enthused.
“He’s a dominating player down low and in our own end,” Strachan added. “And when we need to look for someone to come up with a big shift, he’s the guy that we turn to in those situations.
“He’s a great all-around player, and he’s most deserving of this award.”
Rounding out the list of award recipients was forward Jaret Leclair, who earned the most improved player award after seeing his point total jump from nine last season to 26 so far this season.
“He’s a player that I’ve butted heads with a few times mainly because he’s a very intense guy,” Strachan admitted.
“He works on a lot of things in practice on his own, and because of that you’ve seen his point total improve and he’s become a huge part of our team,” lauded Strachan.