Roster set for Muskie boys’ team

A crowd of players with the stress levels of Bill Clinton after his scandal with Monica Lewinsky was uncovered crammed outside of the doorway to the Muskie locker-room waiting to be called in, where they would be told either “yea” or “nay.”
Inside that locker-room last Thursday night were the coaches of the Muskie boys’ hockey team—Shane Bliss, “Kenno” Christiansen, Sean Taggart, and Neil Cooper—and each had a sheet with the players’ names that had just stepped off the ice in what was the final tryout after two weeks of sessions.
Each coach had a pen that was used to either cross out or leave a name, which indicated the player had made the team.
Thirty-two players had survived it to this day (55 players had started out), but it wasn’t over as nine names still had to be crossed off the list.
But which ones?
“We really crunched numbers and we went over each player at a time—yes, no, why?” Bliss said of the procedure used to make those final selections.
“We basically came down with yea or nay, and we came down with information from everywhere,” Bliss added. “We talked to past coaches, teachers, and other people.
“And when those players come down to the bubble, we look at those intangibles and we put it all together.”
The players who waited outside the dressing room hoped they would be a piece of that Muskie jigsaw puzzle. And whether they had three years of Muskie experience or none, they all felt the same—worried.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if I got cut,” whispered Jake Esselink as he sat on his bulking equipment bag, “I played so bad yesterday.”
Esselink was an assistant captain last season and an integral part of the team that went to OFSAA in Windsor. And though the suggestion may have seemed laughable because of his pedigree, he wasn’t smiling when he made it and no one was laughing.
Then there was Brock Benjamin, who breathed a huge sigh of relief after coming out of the dressing room as he had made the team for his third campaign.
And if veterans like Benjamin and Esselink, who also wound up making the team, were concerned about their chances, how do you think the others felt?
Take Mike McCaig, for instance, who hadn’t survived the cuts last year as a Grade 9 defenceman (Kevin Bobczynski was the only ninth-grader chosen last season). He also wasn’t feeling confident he would make the team this year.
“I really don’t think I made it,” said McCaig. “I played okay yesterday, but today I didn’t.”
He entered the dressing room to face the judges thinking he hadn’t made the team and his body language reflected as much, with his shoulders hunched over and his steps being small and calculated.
But. . . .
After a few minutes had passed McCaig came out of the room looking like he had grown a few inches taller as his shoulders were square, his head was up, and his eyes open with shock.
“I made the team. I can’t believe it—I made the team,” said McCaig, who looked like an actor on a MasterCard commercial.
Tryout fee? $50. Two weeks of tryouts? Exhausting. Making the team? Priceless.
Unfortunately, there were others who needed a tissue box for the tears, some who needed boxing gloves for the anger, and another that needed a simple pat on the back to help ease the disappointment.
Making those final cuts is the hardest part of his job, said Bliss.
“It was very tough today, [but] they believe me when I tell them that it’s really hard to let them go,” he noted.
And though the 15 players at this year’s tryouts with Muskie experience were stressing like a politician about to be thrown out of office, they all left the Ice for Kids Arena being told they would serve another year.
“They’re all back,” said Bliss.
But is that really all that surprising?
Unless you have the I.Q. of Paris Hilton, then you undoubtedly know Fort Frances will be hosting the all-Ontarios next March.
That means an automatic berth for the Muskies, who are going “all in” with their chips and hoping the gamble will pay off like it did back in 1989 when Fort High hosted OFSAA and won the gold medal.
“We do want to have a good showing because OFSAA will be here in town and, in my mind, we have to definitely consider that when we make our decisions,” Bliss was quoted as saying after the third day of tryouts.
“I think we have to go for it.”
And they are going for it, as evidenced by all 15 of those returning players being given roster spots again.
And since “experience is so crucial when you go to OFSAA,” noted Bliss, the Muskies will need all they can get if they hope to have the gold medal wrapped around their necks next spring.
Last year, the Muskies were ranked 17th out of 20 teams at the all-Ontarios, but they tied the top-ranked squad and advanced to the medal round before bowing out.
Most of the players from last season’s team also were on the squad that made it to OFSAA the year before. But none of that season’s players had ever been to the all-Ontarios, which was reflected in their poor showing in London.
“We’re setting our goals high and we’re keeping the players around that can help us achieve those goals,” said Bliss.
So the Muskies will have 15 of their 23 players having been to OFSAA at least once, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will be at OFSAA next spring.
Yes, the tryout phase may be over, but really tryouts are happening all season long. Academics play a part and, of course, so do injuries. In fact, every year sees changes to the roster.
“Technically, the tryouts are done, but in the last few years we’ve lost players and picked up players over the course of a season,” noted Bliss, who told a few players that hadn’t made the team that they may be called upon sometime during the season.
“It’s not the wheeling and dealing of junior hockey, but injuries and academics always come into play,” he remarked.
The Muskies started their dryland conditioning program on Monday and will continue with that three times a week until their first on-ice practice scheduled for mid-October.

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