Strachan calls past season tops as coach
For as much as Wayne Strachan has accomplished in his hockey coaching career, it would be logical to think picking a favourite one would be difficult.
But mention this past season manning the bench for the Fort Frances Lakers, as they won their first SIJHL title, and the answer quickly becomes evident.
“But this season, the way it happened in being down 3-1 and then this team battling back to win in Game 7, has to be the highlight of my coaching career thus far.”
Strachan knows an encore of this season, which included a 46-6-2-2 regular-season record and a semi-final appearance at the recent Dudley Hewitt Cup, will be a daunting mission not for the faint of heart.
“We can return some good hockey players and a good core of our team,” he noted.
“It is always hard to repeat,” he acknowledged. “But if you want to build a tradition like we do in the Lakers’ organization of winning, we will have to not get complacent in what was accomplished and strive for new goals and to better our game as a whole.
“We got a taste of the Dudley [Hewitt Cup] and I know for myself having experienced it, I am hungry to get back there to use what I learned to help next year’s team have even more success.”
Having said that, Strachan understands it will be a significantly different cast of characters that will be on hand for next year’s championship quest.
Six Lakers played their final junior games at the Dudley Hewitt Cup in Wellington and now are past the CJHL’s age of eligibility for the 2014-15 campaign.
Those include twin sibling forwards Lyndon and Bryce Lipinski and Patrick Sofer, along with defenceman and captain Cody Wickstrom and fellow blueliners Riley Daly and Tanner Fricke.
Strachan was descriptive on what each brought to the team.
“Riley was a ‘steady Eddie’ on defence for us,” he lauded. “On most nights, he was solid and played the game hard, making us competitive on the back end.
“Defence that will do a bit of everything to help the cause are not easy to come by.
“[Sofer] was a leader and spark plug for the team,” Strachan added. “With his speed, he could set the tone for us to get moving and play at a high level.
“[Wickstrom] was our leader, a guy we could rely on to step up and lead the way and keep the guys on an even keel emotionally and on the ice,” Strachan continued.
“To find a defenceman that could bring what he brought day in and day out just doesn’t come around often.”
Strachan called Bryce Lipinski the team’s best two-way player.
“[He] provided some key goals when we needed them and could be relied on to shut down the other teams’ top scorers.
“Lyndon [Lipinski] exceeded any expectations I had for his offensive output,” Strachan noted.
“He gelled with his linemates and formed the top-scoring line in the SIJHL.
“He also scored many big goals and was a solid penalty-killing player.”
And Strachan said Fricke was an offensive threat every time he was on the ice.
“His skill level was high and he could make plays to get out of our zone or help us put the puck in the net,” remarked Strachan.
“We have big shoes to fill with the loss of these six to graduation and they will all be missed in some way when we set out next season,” he stressed.
Lucas DeBenedet and Mason Meyer, two-thirds of the Lakers’ potent “DLM” Line along with Lyndon Lipinski, may have drawn the attention of U.S. college scouts after both had fantastic campaigns.
But Strachan was hopeful he could have both back firing on the Lakers’ behalf this fall.
“At this time, I believe it would benefit both Lucas and [Meyer] and their games if they played at the junior level,” he argued.
“Obviously, at this time in the early off-season, we hope to see both back in uniform and setting out to help our cause next year,” Strachan added.
“Will it be an easy task to have them both back at this time? I am not positive,” he conceded.
“However, I know I will do everything possible to see them back in the opening lineup for next season.”
Strachan also commended the Lakers’ fan base for providing as much excitement to the players as the team did to those watching from the stands.
“As always, we have the best fans in the league that are a great seventh player at every home game,” lauded Strachan.
“Your support is second-to-none and it doesn’t go unnoticed by the organization.
“We appreciate all you do to help the team and it was awesome to see the turnout for Game 7 of the final series [official attendance of 1,087],” Strachan enthused.
“We hope that we can return a top-quality team and that many people who came out to Game 7 will be back on a regular basis to watch some fast, exciting SIJHL hockey.”
The Lakers will hold their open spring camp in the upcoming weeks, although official dates have not been confirmed yet due to issues with scheduling ice time.