The bright yellow hair sported by Woolwich’s minor Midget A team tells the story: these kids are on the playoff hunt.
That’s not the whole story though; heading into the playoffs on a seven-game undefeated streak wasn’t just impressive for this group, it was unprecedented.
Most of the kids on the team have been playing together since they were seven or eight years old. In all those years, their best finish was second last; most years, they finished at the very bottom. Just winning two games back to back was almost unheard-of.
“Thirteen points I think was our high,” said player Graham Colby.
They weren’t close losses either, those first four or five years. Scores like 8-0, 9-0, 10-0 were common. And over the years, losing all the time began to take a toll.
“It got to the point that these boys would go to the rink knowing that they’re going to lose,” said coach Brad Nickel. “We’d go to tournaments knowing we’d be coming home after the third game.”
Woolwich’s rep teams have always had a smaller pool of kids to draw from than larger centres, but this age group seemed to be particularly small. Where teams in Kitchener or Cambridge would have 50 or 60 at tryouts, the coaches in Woolwich never made more than one or two cuts. A few years, they had so few try out they had to approach kids to play to fill the roster.
When Nickel invited Tim Hall to become assistant coach two years ago, Hall hesitated. He’d been captain of the Junior B Waterloo Siskins and played on winning teams as a kid, and he was surprised that this group wasn’t more excited about hockey.
“It was almost like a morgue in the change room,” he noted.
“I thought pretty long about it and just realized what they’d been through. The fact that these kids still loved to play hockey even though they hadn’t exactly won a whole lot – it’s hard to keep coming back every season knowing it probably wouldn’t turn out in their favour.”
This season started out as the same story all over again. The Midgets were in familiar territory, back in second last place. But the games were getting closer; by November, they had won a few and were vying for fourth place in the eight-team division.
When it finally happened, the turnaround came where no one expected it.
It was the third game of a Silver Stick tournament in Vaughn. Woolwich had already lost the first two games, so they decided to play the third game just for fun. Some of the players asked if they could try new positions: a defenceman moved up to centre and a winger dropped back to defence. Nickel and Hall threw their coaching boards in the corner of the dressing room and left them there.
“We said guys, just give us your best effort and we’ll be happy,” Nickel said. “And we won. And we haven’t lost since.”
Something about the new lines clicked. The players settled into their positions. The goalies, who’d been struggling a bit, hit their stride. The coaches threw out some of their systems and refocused on straightforward hockey. But most importantly, the team realized they could win.
“We came out and … beat the first-place team. We beat the second-place team after that and then we realized we could compete in this division,” said goalie Alex Martin.
“It’s a mindset, and over the years of what we’ve been through, we had to find ways to change that mindset,” Nickel said.
Nickel has pulled a few tricks out of his bag to inspire the team. He likes to re-read a faded newspaper clipping he saved from 2007, about a baseball team that hadn’t won a game all year and went on to win the championship. He also had a sign made that reads “Woolwich Minor Midgets, 2008/09 Tri-county Champions.” At the bottom, it says “OMHA finals, here we come!”
Just convincing the team that they can win, that they can get down by a goal or two and fight back into the game, was half the battle.
“We don’t get a lot of bounces, we don’t get a lot of lucky goals, we don’t have a lot of Sidney Crosbys,” Nickel said. “If we’re going to win, we’re going to win on grit, we’re going to win on 100 per cent effort on every shift, we’re going to win on 60 minutes of hockey. These guys can’t give up and they know it now.”
The undefeated streak ended at 11 games in Oakville on Tuesday night, but the Midgets have already knocked Oakville out of the running. They need just one more win to advance to the quarter-finals against Brampton.
Their final round robin game, against Fergus, is tonight in Elmira at 5 p.m.