Though a little past the half-way point, with 24 games down and 17 more to go in their Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League season, the holiday break is as good a time as any for the Niagara Predators to conduct an informal mid-season assessment.
With a record of 19 wins and five losses, the team is currently tied with the Durham Roadrunners for third place in the GMHL’s South Division, though Durham has three games in hand after COVID-19 forced the postponement of three of their games. The rival St. George Ravens are a point ahead of Niagara, but the Predators have two games in hand on them, while the North York Renegades sit atop the division only four points ahead of Niagara.
“This team right now has exceeded my expectations,” owner and head coach Robert Turnbull says. “Playing shorthanded at the beginning of the season, not having enough defencemen, it’s evolved into a great group of young men who are willing to learn and to work hard enough to get there.”
The Preds also survived an early-season coaching change, when Andrew Whalen resigned for family reasons only six games into the season. After a brief search for another coach, Turnbull made the decision to take on the role for the remainder of the campaign, with 22-year-old Connor Shipton as his assistant.
As well, their number one goaltender, Oscar Spinnars Nordin, left the Predators for the Bismarck Bobcats of the North American Hockey League in late November. At the time, he was at or near the top in the GMHL in goals against average, saves, and save percentage stats.
Through all these issues, they’ve managed to string together winning streaks of five and 11 games, the longer one coming to an end on Dec. 19 in their last game before the break, when they suffered a 5-3 loss at the hands of the Renegades in North York.
“There were a couple of games where we had a lot of adversity,” says Turnbull about the recent winning streak, “but we managed to find a way to win. With the Renegades, we came up against a team that played better than we did. That’s it. As it turned out, we outshot them (42-37), and we definitely outworked them in the third period. Do I think we can beat them? Yes I do. You can’t question your ability when you’ve won 11 in a row.”
A glance at the Predators’ schedule shows a season clearly divided into two very different almost-halves.
Of the 24 games already under their belts, 18 of them have been against teams in the lower end of the South Division standings, such as the Plattsville Lakers. That team trails the Predators in the standings, sitting in fifth place 18 points behind Niagara. The Tottenham Thunder, whom the Preds have swept in four games, have won only two games this season.
In contrast, eight of the 17 games remaining for the Predators see them facing the teams they are fighting with for South Division bragging rights. They’ll open the second half of their schedule with a home-and-home against the Turnbull-owned St. George Ravens Jan. 7 and 9. The Predators have split the season series with St. George 2-2 so far. In less than a month they will face Durham four times, and their final weekend in February gives them two more cracks at their first win against the Renegades.
While the GMHL schedule is on hiatus, many of the Predators have returned to their homes for the holidays to visit family and friends. For some, those homes are in Sweden and the U.S. With omicron variant spreading quickly all over the world, there is a bit of uncertainty as to when some of these players may be available to return to the ice.
“Hopefully the guys that have gone home are back,” Turnbull says, “but if they’re not, win or lose, when the playoffs come around, we will be ready. I prefer to play a large percentage of tough teams coming up. We have two wins against the Ravens, and we outshot the Renegades both times. Provided we get good goaltending, I believe we can come out of the South.”
The Predators will need to make it out of the South Division to win the Russell Cup. To make it to the finals, they must win three playoff rounds against familiar teams to earn the opportunity to take on the cream of the North Division, which is currently topped by the 24-and-1 Temiscaming Titans. Teams from the two divisions do not face each other during the regular season.
The winner of the playoff between the North and South Divisions will move on to the first truly national GMHL Russell Cup. In previous years, the cup went to the North/South victor, while the West Division simply crowned its own champion. This year, the West champion, the North/South winner, and host city Temiscaming will face off in a three-team round robin.
A number of deals have been made by the Predators in recent weeks to add more depth and to stabilize their goaltending situation since the loss of Spinnars Nordin. Denver, Colorado native Iain Riordan is settling in as the number one goalie and Jason Humphries from Georgetown has brought more physicality to the team. New acquisitions Jaleel Adams and Mackenzie Okumura have yet to play their first game for Niagara.
In addition, Henry-Pierre Jayet will return from an injury in January, and the middle of the month should also see captain Mario Zitella rejoin the Predators. All of this bodes well for their push to the playoffs, though Turnbull hints that more acquisitions may be forthcoming
Besides the competition aspect, it’s important to keep in perspective the reason many of the Predators are playing in the GMHL. The league prides itself on being a development league for young players, helping them to reach their hockey goals. On gmhl.net, they keep track of the 889 players (as of June, 2019) who have moved on to play for professional, minor professional and college or university hockey teams.
Spinnars Nordin’s move to Bismarck gets him one step closer to realizing his goal of catching on with an NCAA school in the U.S..
“Oscar will get a commitment this year from a Division I school,” believes Turnbull, “and Mario has already committed to one. We have a few kids who are really good Division III material. The way I look at it, as long as we can get those players looking to get an extended education while playing hockey, that could mean ACHA (American Collegiate Hockey Association), and there are some fabulous ACHA Division I schools that pay a large percentage of the tuition.”
Turnbull feels a majority of his current Predators who have the skill set and the work ethic will get the opportunities they are looking for in hockey, provided that they continue to do what they are doing both on and off the ice.
He gives a lot of credit to his staff, especially Shipton, who doubles as assistant general manager, 21-year-old trainer/assistant general manager Samantha Marson, equipment manager Nicholas Dunk and general manager Eriksson, for the team’s success thus far.
Turnbull also says the town staff have been great to work with since day one, and the support shown by the fans for their home games has been phenomenal.
Barring any COVID cancellations by the GMHL or the province, the Predators’ next home game at Virgil’s Meridian Credit Union Arena is Friday, Jan. 7 against the St. George Ravens. Game time is 7:30 p.m. Adult tickets are $8, seniors and students get in for $5, while children under 10 years old are admitted for free.