What a difference a year can make.
On the first day of the Muskie boys’ hockey team tryouts a year ago, head coach Shane Bliss had a pretty good idea concerning who was likely to make his team and who wouldn’t make the cut.
The Muskies were returning a veteran squad with no fewer than 17 players looking to reclaim the spot they’d occupied the previous season.
Seeing as how Bliss traditionally carried only 20 players on the roster, there were very few spots available to new players.
Of course, everyone knows how last season’s veteran squad made out—advancing to the quarter-finals of the all-Ontarios in front of the hometown faithful back in March.
What’s less certain is how the 2006/07 team will fare.
In fact, as tryouts began for this year’s team a week-and-a-half ago at the Ice for Kids Arena, even Bliss wasn’t sure about who was likely to make the cut.
“It’s going to be a pretty new team,” he conceded.
“Last year we only had three spots open when you considered the guys who could come back,” he added. “This year we only have about five or six spots filled.
“It’s going to be quite a different team.”
Bliss certainly has had no shortage of new players to choose from as just over 60 hopefuls signed up for the tryouts.
And so far the head coach has liked what he’s seen.
“The boys are looking pretty good out there for what you can expect at this time of season,” Bliss remarked.
“I had a little talk with them tonight [Monday] about giving a little more effort and looking like they want to make the team because it looked like some of them were going through the motions a bit last week.
“Tonight [Monday] it looked like there was a lot more energy there.”
Of the original group, 24 players were cut after the first week, leaving the coaching staff with roughly the same number of cuts to make by week’s end in order to meet the target roster of 20 skaters.
Although two weeks is hardly long enough to get a firm handle on the strengths and weaknesses of this group, Bliss believes there are going to be some tough decisions to make—particularly between the pipes.
“There are four or five goaltenders out there that could all play the game so I think that’s going to be a good strength for us,” he said.
“I don’t like the decisions we’re going to have to make [over] the next few days about which ones we have to let go because it’s not going to be easy.”
But while the Muskies’ goaltending should be strong this year given the number of able candidates at tryouts, Bliss does have some areas of concern—namely the ability to put the puck in the net.
“One of the areas I think we’re going to have trouble is scoring goals,” Bliss admitted. “I think the forwards we’re going to end up with are going to be good-working forwards, but I don’t know if we’re going to have a guy like Tyler Miller who had a real gift around the net.
“We’re going to miss that scoring touch we had before, but hopefully somebody will step up to the forefront and take that role and run with it,” he added.
Despite all the uncertainty surrounding all the new players, what hasn’t changed are the goals Bliss has for this season.
“I’d love to take this group back to OFSAA again,” he said. “That’s always our goal.”
However, Bliss knows the Muskies will have to overcome several tough challenges within NorWOSSA alone before they can book their return trip to the all-Ontario showdown.
“Realistically I don’t know what the other teams in our league are like this year,” Bliss said of the Muskies’ immediate competition. “I expect they’ll probably be pretty strong.”
The final two nights of tryouts are scheduled for tonight and tomorrow at Ice for Kids Arena, with the coaching staff selecting the team following Thursday’s skate.
The Muskies then will begin dryland training in hopes of being in top physical form come time for their season-opener.
The team will train twice a week at Energy Fitness Centre under the watchful eye of Jackie Lampi-Hughes. FFHS teacher Adam Craig will round out their training with sessions held at the high school.
The Muskies’ first on-ice action of the year is scheduled for Nov. 3-5 when they host their annual tournament.
Tentatively scheduled to attend this year are Shattuck St. Mary’s, the Thunder Bay Minor Midget Kings, and a team from Green Bay, Wis.
The Muskies begin league play Nov. 10 here against Red Lake.
What a difference a year can make.