What comes first—the student or the teacher?
That is one of many questions Borderland Thunder head coach Dave Allison asks new players vying for a spot on his team.
“Really to me, it’s the student that comes first because you have to be willing to take direction, and be willing to listen,” Allison said after Friday’s tryout session.
When Andrew Perrault was asked the same question Saturday, the 17-year-old defenceman going into his second season with the Thunder gave the same answer.
“I’d say student, because he’s pretty much our teacher and he wants us to get better. Because when you’re better, the team is doing well,” he reasoned.
“We do what he says and we get better from that,” added Perrault.
The Thunder open their fourth SIJHL season Sept. 25 in Thunder Bay against the defending champion Fort William North Stars. Their home-opener is slated Oct. 2 against the K&A Golden Hawks (Thunder Bay).
But before those dates arrive, the coaching staff has to get their roster in place, and one of the first steps in doing that comes through the tryouts.
Close to 50 people were vying for about 25 spots. Since last Wednesday, two dozen have been re-assigned—with a few veterans still expected to arrive in camp.
“This will be a continuing process [over] the next couple of months,” said Allison, who hopes to have his final roster set prior to a tournament involving Manitoba Junior Hockey League teams coming up Oct. 8-10.
“But you know, we’ve had some real pleasant surprises [so far].
“And I think the most encouraging thing is that the guys who are returning from last year have come with such great attitudes, and come with such ability to show that it’s fun when you work hard and when you have good habits,” Allison added.
“And I’m talking about guys like [Josh] McAndrew and [Dennis] Morrison, and [Andrew] Dault and ‘Beefy’ [Clayton Windigo] and [David] Gooch. And Perrault has come with a lot better patience.
“[Tyler] Barker from around here has really stood out,” remarked Allison. “And Steven Sus, who has been the most valuable player for the Muskies in the last two years, has really come here and shown that he can excel.”
Cutting, or “re-assigning” players, is always one of the most difficult things to do as a coach, and it’s a process Allison doesn’t look forward to. But he sees it as “necessary evil,” and hopes that players who don’t make the team take it “as a challenge” to improve and get better.
“Michael Jordan got cut from his team when he tried out in high school basketball and instead of sulking and saying it’s somebody else’s fault, he got better,” Allison noted.
“So your choice is to get bitter or get better.
“It’s never exciting to [make those cuts], but a lot of these guys are going to places where they can flourish,” Allison reasoned. “Like a lot of kids are going to the ‘AAA’ Midget program and in this point in their career, that’s a great move.
“A lot of [other] kids are going to play high school hockey, so there weren’t a whole lot of kids where we were basically saying, ‘You’ve got no place to play.’”
But of course, there are always the few who believe they are ready now and don’t agree with the coach’s decision. Allison doesn’t see that as a fault in the player, but in the way that player was brought along.
“One of the most difficult things around here is that kids don’t really handle adversity as well as they could,” he said. “And I don’t know if that’s indicative of the ‘AA’ system, but the ‘AA’ system seems to have made complacency within the ranks.
“Where as soon as you make a team and you get your jacket, it’s over and you don’t have to improve. [Then] when you get into a junior situation, where people are always looking for improvement, they have a hard time with that.
“I really do think that you have to address or have to find a way to continually make kids accountable,” Allison stressed. “Because it’s sometimes disappointing to see kids not rise to the challenge or maybe not being good enough right now.”
Perrault was one of those players who has been able to handle adversity after joining the Thunder last year, where he had difficulties at first handling the transition.
Now he is more comfortable and ready to flourish.
“When I first started last year, I was pretty shaky with the puck and not used to the high speed of the game,” Perrault admitted. “But now I feel this year, during the tryouts, a lot more confident with myself and feel a lot faster, also.”
Perrault also noted there were a lot of new kids at the tryouts that have a lot of potential.
“We’ve got a few American boys that can put the puck in the net, and we’ve got a few local boys like Steve Sus and Justin Larson, and they look like they can do pretty well for us,” he remarked.
When it comes to filling those roster spots from an array of players with different capabilities and skill, Allison takes a Capt. Kirk-like approach to making those decisions.
“It’s difficult, but it’s like Star Trek—the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the individual, and there are certain times when you’ve got to make sure that that group is in a position to win,” he reasoned.
But have there been any cuts Allison made that he later regretted?
“My second year, I had a kid that came in and fought everybody and he scored goals, but he had a reputation,” he recalled.
“I regret it to this day because there was no reason for me to cut him other than the fact that I had made pre-conceived notions that I wasn’t going to keep him—and I dislike that decision to this day.
“He was a great young French kid and he broke down in tears and he asked, ‘What else could I have done?’ and he was right.
“It was a lesson that I learned and each situation is different. But the longer you’re in it, the more you realize that you’ve got to have standards and some things aren’t negotiable,” said Allison.
What isn’t negotiable is a player with an attitude of individual first. What isn’t negotiable is laziness and lack of accountability in players. And Allison believes players must realize no one’s spot is ever “secure”—that they must constantly be improving to earn and keep those spots.
“We are very pleased with out nucleus,” he said. “They’ve come in and they’re going to get in better shape, and they’re doing it with a smile and they’re working hard and they’re not grumblers.
“They want to be here and they want other people to be here.
“And they realize that you’ve got to look better every day because if you don’t, somebody somewhere is,” he stressed.
What comes first—the student or the teacher?