A scheduled exhibition game Friday between the Niagara Predators and the St. George Ravens was cancelled at the last minute, giving coach Andrew Whalen a chance to take a closer look at his team.
Whalen got the call from Robert Turnbull, who owns both Greater Metro Junior Hockey League (GMHL) teams, Friday afternoon.
So the 30-year-old coach handed home jerseys to half of his team and away jerseys to the other half, and put them through a number of drills and a team scrimmage. He was happy with what he saw.
“I really liked how they were moving the puck,” he told The Local. “They were getting their feet moving, and getting the puck moving even quicker. The last couple of weeks we’ve been working on getting into the flow and rhythm of the game. We want to get fast on the puck. It was nice to see them beginning to grasp that concept.”
During a 4-on-4 scrimmage session Friday, Whalen was pleased to see his 17 players using their hockey smarts in the fast-paced activity.
“What was nice in the 4-on-4, sometimes you get caught up with breakaway after breakaway,” Whalen said. “It looked like the guys were trying to slow it down to find each other, to find some of those breakout plays that we’ve worked on in the 5-on-5.”
Whalen is adamant that his philosophy runs heavily toward the player development aspect rather than focusing on winning games, especially in the team’s first year working out of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
“We kind of run our system a little bit different than probably most junior teams would,” he explained. “We want them working on their skills as much as the game, so they are ready for the playoffs.”
Whalen says he’s not the type of coach who puts the emphasis on systems.
“I’m a little more about structure, teaching them the positions, and what the purpose of the positions are. I think sometimes teams over-focus on systems and things that aren’t going to be beneficial to the game. We are more situational and skill-oriented. Our big focus is getting these kids ready for the next level.”
The father of three, with another child on the way, is no stranger to the Niagara area. Whalen played for the Port Colborne Sailors of the Golden Horseshoe Junior B league in 2007-2008, and spent a couple of subsequent seasons with the Junior C Grimsby Peach Kings.
The Hamilton native can also relate to the Swedish players on the Predators roster, having spent 2015-2016 playing for various teams in Sweden. As well, he is currently an active player himself, waiting for the Elora Rocks to begin their Western Ontario Super Hockey League season.
He also runs his own hockey development program called Whalen Hockey Training out of the Brantford area. In that role, he mentors kids between seven and 14 years of age, which could work out well for him finding future Predators prospects.
Between coaching the Predators, playing with Elora, and running his development program, Whalen is on the ice 52 weeks a year. He claims the only day he takes off is Christmas Day which, coincidentally, is the day he will turn 31.
He admits with the pandemic, and the team’s move from Toronto, it’s been a bit of a strange off-season in many ways. A few of his European players have yet to take the ice with the team, while some just arrived late last week.
“I think next year we will be in a better position, because we’ll be able to go watch the local players,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to get back to the regular recruiting process.”
He also feels the move to Niagara is a great opportunity for the Predators.
“Being one of the only teams down here in our loop is an advantage,” he said. “Being so close to the U.S. means we may be able to draw some American players up here next year. It’s been a real blessing to have the opportunity to coach here.”
He credits general manager Johan Eriksson for using his Swedish connections and working hard to recruit some local players to build him a great roster, and is eagerly anticipating seeing the team gel in the coming weeks and months.
“I’m looking forward to watching Jesper (Eriksson), and to seeing all the Swedes play,” he enthused. “I think Mario (Zitella) will bring a good veteran presence out there. He’s going to be one of our leaders out there.”
With the Predators home opener scheduled for this Friday against the Streetsville Flyers, he says the team needs to just keep up the momentum he saw on the ice in last week’s scrimmage.