M’CHIGEENG – The Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS) Mustangs hockey teams have ended their seasons early, earning different levels of success in the rankings but each gaining a sense of accomplishment and a drive to perform even stronger next year.
“We made it into the first round of the playoffs and we didn’t fare well, but we came out with one win out of the best of three. We forced the third game which was, I think, good on their part,” said Mustangs boys’ team coach Craig Abotossaway.
From the outset, Mr. Abotossaway described this season as being focused on rebuilding, owing to the fairly young team. They ended up fourth in the B division and had to face down the first-place contenders, St. Benedict, in the first round of the playoffs. They fell 7-1 in the first game but answered back with a 5-4 victory in game two, with Trent Bell earning a hat trick and Lukas Abotossaway tipping the game-winning goal with 8:54 remaining in overtime to force game three.
Unfortunately, the momentum did not continue as strongly in the third game when St. Ben’s secured an 8-2 victory over the Mustangs. Their numbers were down into those games, with a handful of players off due to suspensions and injuries. MSS ended up in fourth at the end of the competition.
Mr. Abotossaway said the biggest challenge for the team was adjusting to a field of players that are much older than themselves. Many are used to house league teams where all the players are within two years of one another, but there is a five-year age span from Grade 9 to Victory Lap (Grade 12 + 1) which can be intimidating.
“They were competitive and played past their fears,” he said. “They became seasoned players; they played with some grit and some heart.”
The boys also learned to overcome adversity in the earlier portion of the season when a weeks-long string of losses could have disheartened a team with weaker resolve.
“I think there were a lot of good learning moments to grow as players, both mentally and physically on the ice, and I think they’ve done that,” said Mr. Abotossaway. “We’re hoping for bigger and better things next year.”
Since the team is so young, only a few will be aging out this year and some have already expressed their excitement at the coming season. MSS has a history of Victory Lap players on its teams, but there were none for this year.
On the girls’ side, coach Mike Meeker said he was very pleased with the girls and their performances all season long.
“It was a really weird year,” he told this reporter. “I was so happy and proud of how they played. But we got put into Division 1 and in the end we didn’t make the playoffs. It was really frustrating to go out with a whimper after the year we had.”
The girls finished in sixth place out of all the Division 1 teams, one place shy of the playoffs cut-off. However, with the stacked teams making up the rest of Division 1, Mr. Meeker said playing the first-place Lo Ellen would have been a difficult task.
In fact, based on the points situation, the team knew it wouldn’t be making the playoffs before their last game of the season.
“It was very typical. We went into the game, even though it didn’t mean anything, and we played hard, played well and didn’t get discouraged. They’ve been that way all year. They go hard on the ice but when the game’s over, it’s over. They don’t dwell on it,” said Mr. Meeker.
In that final game, former goaltender Gabby Corbiere, a Victory Lap student, wanted to sit between the pipes for one last time. Mr. Meeker said yes and the scheduled goaltender, Macie Setterington, said she wanted to try playing out.
“I asked, are you any good? ‘Really good.’ When’s the last time you played? ‘My novice year.’ I begrudgingly said yeah. We gave it a shot and they both did really well,” said Mr. Meeker.
He said giving feedback can be challenging because everyone parts ways rather quickly after games, so he called for a meeting at the end of the second period when they were down by two goals.
“I said I wanted to thank them for their great year. It was typical for this team because the game was still going on and they said, ‘what, are you writing us off already? The game’s not over yet!’ I said I never wrote you off all year and I just wanted to tell you that while I had the chance,” said Mr. Meeker.
The team went out for a celebratory dinner after their final game and were already growing their dreams for next year. They had figured out that they had two solid lines already and knew of at least two strong Grade 8 players coming up who wanted to join the team.
Mr. Meeker said he wanted the girls to ensure they got into great shape over the summer so they could focus on their team plays and scoring goals—which was their biggest downfall this year.
“We just missed too many chances. So I’m telling them to get off their asses, go home, get a board, wax it and shoot pucks in the summer. I don’t care if their parents get mad at them for banging up the garage door, just shoot those pucks,” said Mr. Meeker with a laugh.
The fact is that, compared to other Division 1 teams, the Mustangs simply cannot compete with the on-ice time of other teams. A few teams are stacked with strong contingents of Sudbury Lady Wolves players who clock upwards of 60 games per season—the Mustangs get 14.
“I wasn’t expecting at the beginning of the year that we’d be in Division 1. But here’s the thing: the girls deserve to be in Division 1. That’s where they belong because even though we ended up in sixth place, they were never out in any game they played,” said Mr. Meeker.
If they had been in Division 2, however, although they would have had a fairly straight shot at the championship title they would have played against a handful of teams that are far below their skill level and would have been a chore to play.
Mr. Meeker said he was most proud of the girls for never quitting and for being a great group of people who got along and hung together with none of the infighting and drama that often takes over high school teams.
Based on his predictions, the future looks bright for the girl Mustangs.
“We had five Grade 9s this year who were all really good players, including two goalies that were really solid, which speaks well for the next 3-4 years because they’re just going to get better,” Mr. Meeker said. “We’ve got a real solid core of Grade 9s and 10s, and a couple of 11s, so we’re all excited already for next year.”
“Even though we went out with a whimper, that’s not how I look at it. They played real well, had a lot of fun and you could just tell,” said Mr. Meeker.