A team comes together

Adam Williams, Sports Editor Ω

Captain Curtis Tonello stands hunched over his stick, breathing heavily. It has been a long, hard practice with a focus on conditioning for the TRU Wolfpack men’s ice hockey team. Of the 30 or so players on the ice, Tonello’s not the only player who looks gassed. None look to be having an easy time with the conditioning drills.

Thursday was the team’s last opportunity to practice before heading out on the road to start the exhibition season. With the roster finalized and the on-ice product taking form, the focus of practice shifted from players showcasing their skills, to preparing for the start of a long season.

For spectators of the practice, it didn’t take long to notice the hockey team has one major thing in common with most of TRU’s other WolfPack teams: a lot has changed since last year.

For starters, over half of the team is new to the league – that’s a pretty startling figure when you consider the WolfPack plan to carry 24 players. Factor in a new captain, a new style of play and a new playoff format and it’s hard to predict what the season will hold for the WolfPack.

“We’ve got a new look to us this year,” said WolfPack general manager Chris Hans. “13 new recruits. But what I like about the guys that have come in is they play with a lot of grit, a lot of heart and desire. Last year we had a preponderance of skill and I don’t think we were gritty enough and we got knocked out of the playoffs early.”

Grit and toughness was a priority for Hans in his offseason recruitment. Both he and head coach Don Schulz felt the team needed to be faster and more physical if they were to compete in the competitive BCIHL. The team will be looking to improve on their 2011-12 record of 12-8-4 and more than a few off-season additions will be counted on to help get them there.

“We’re really excited about the prospects of this year’s team,” Schulz said after practice. “We have good speed, we’re definitely going to be a little grittier and tougher than we were last year. [The team] is really attentive at practice, they work hard. They seem to be melding well as a team and the guys that we recruited, speaking to their [past] coaches, they were all good character guys. So we’re excited about the prospects and the possibilities of what this team can achieve this year.”

Should the WolfPack make a return trip to the playoffs they will get a firsthand look at the BCIHL’s new playoff format. The league has switched from a round-robin style tournament to a more traditional play-down format. First-place will play fourth-place in a best-of-three series, while second- and third-place will do the same. The winners will advance and play each other in a best-of-three championship final.

It’s a format used in most levels of hockey, so much of the WolfPack will be familiar with it and it should increase excitement and breed the “bad blood” between teams that usually characterizes playoff hockey.

The regular season will start on Oct. 6 and the team still has plenty to work on. The last few days have focused on finalizing the roster and working on defensive zone coverage and conditioning. In the coming weeks Schulz will turn to working on the team’s systems play and the ‘Pack should be ready to hit the ground running come October.

The season can’t start soon enough for the players.

“There’s one goal,” said Tonello. “Win the league.”