In the overtime between Smiths Falls Bears and the Rockland Nationals on Oct. 10, Travis Ouellette of the Bears picked up the puck in his own zone. He sped down the wall and gained the offensive zone.
The rookie forward cut to the middle of the ice avoiding a defender and rifled the puck on goal. The rebound came to fellow rookie Tyson Parker who buried the puck in the net for his second goal of the game. The rink exploded into cheers at the Bears victory.
“Everyone knew what was at stake,” said Parker. “I just remember getting out there passing it and skating as hard as I could to the net … It’s probably one of my favourite goals I have ever scored in my career.”
With that marker, Smiths Falls sealed another key victory over a dangerous rival.
Winning certainly has become almost routine this season. The team currently sits atop the Robinson Division of the Central Canada Hockey League with a record of 13 wins, one loss and two shootout losses.
The Bears’ phenomenal start has not gone unnoticed. As a result of their efforts, the national Canadian Junior Hockey League (CJHL) has had Smiths Falls as the top Jr. A team in the country in their rankings.
“We’ve started well, and it means that we are playing well,” said Head Coach Pat Malloy. “We’ll enjoy it now, but when it comes game time it all means nothing. There is a new challenge in front of us and at the end of the day we are just trying to win one at a time.”
The CJHL’s top-20 rankings are compiled by independent scouts based out of Western Canada. Since the different Jr. A leagues across Canada do not play each other, the rankings are somewhat subjective. But the list is highly regarded none the less.
The rankings are adjusted throughout the season. As of Oct. 24 the Bears were No. 5 after a difficult loss to the Carleton Place Canadians on Oct. 15 and a shootout loss against Ottawa on Oct 21.
Remodeling after last year
Last year’s Bears squad was also one of the top teams in the CCHL with a loaded roster. Then captain Sean James led the league in points recording 42 goals and 44 assists in 55 games. He was joined by teammates Conor Ronayne, Owen Watson and Riley Thompson all of whom were better than a point per game and top-20 scorers in the league.
The high-flying offence racked up 232 goals in 55 games and were the top scoring team in the CCHL.
Last season ended on a frustrating note in a seven-game series with the Ottawa Junior Senators that the Bears lost. James and the other 2002-born players on the roster graduated from the team leaving significant holes to fill.
Current team captain, Trevor Faucher, remembers that loss well.
“We talk a lot about the little things we weren’t implementing in that series as much as we should have,” said Faucher. “As much as that stung … you can use that feeling of losing that game and have it motivate you for every game since.”
Faucher is one of 12 returning players all looking for redemption. Each has carried that loss with them through their blistering start to the campaign.
“Those 12 returning guys to this year’s team now have that experience of going to game seven and feeling the bad side of it,” said General Manger Josh Filoso. “We learned a lot: the type of play; what you need to bring every day to the rink. … We learned a lot and we are better for it.”
The backbone of the team has been bolstered by a younger group including Tyson Parker, Travis Ouellette and Davis Hails. These players are rapidly adjusting to life in the CCHL with the help of their more experienced teammates.
“They have done a really good job stepping up,” said Faucher. “I think they have realized the intensity it takes to play at this level and are adjusting well.”
While the team is enjoying their current success they understand there is no space for complacency.
“You can’t take a day off, can’t take a shift off,” said Parker. “This league is so good that people will capitalize on that. You have to play your heart out every shift.”
Starting goalie Dawson Labre has been a big part of the team’s success posting a 1.99 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage to along with 11 wins. Despite these strong numbers he is not satisfied.
“I am really happy … but the job is not finished,” said Labre. “Until we have a ring on our finger there is nothing to be super happy about.”
The CCHL season is 55 games long and a good start does not guarantee success in the playoffs. Coach Malloy takes a long-term view to this season and stresses taking things one step at a time.
“For us it’s all about getting a little bit better every day,” said Malloy.
To continue having success Malloy believes the team needs to cultivate a competitive environment and continually improve itself.
“We’ve talked a lot early on about how elite players are elite learners,” said Malloy. “If you continue to learn to get better every day in the little things then eventually those little things add up to something big down the road.”
This year’s team has embraced a new identity. Though the Bears are still capable of high scoring games they are learning to embrace a more structured and defensively conscious approach.
So far the Bears have scored 60 goals, second best in the CCHL, with 31 against, the best record in the CCHL.
“Being a structured defence first team is really working for us,” said Faucher. “It’s a bit of an adjustment but an easy one that I think is necessary. I think we have done it very well so far, and I think we are only scratching the surface of what we could do.”
The Bears have a long road ahead of them and can expect strong competition from the Rockland Nationals and the Cornwall Colts, both have been present on the CJHL’ top 20 list.
But, despite the competition, the Bears have their eyes set on winning the CCHL’s Bogart Cup in April and making up for last year’s loss.
“I think [the team’s] greatest strength is they are not done getting better,” said Malloy. “Some teams are good right off the hop and that’s all they are. I think we are just scratching the surface with some of these kids and how good they can be.”