Thursday, July 11, 2013

Part 15: The Battalion looks west

Stan Butler was never averse to looking beyond the Ontario Hockey League’s conventional confines for players who could help the Brampton Battalion.

Using contacts he made in the Canadian national junior team program and during a season as head coach of the Western Hockey League’s Prince George Cougars, Butler repeatedly looked for players who had cleared waivers when the WHL held its overage cut-down in early October.

Butler’s first foray to the west was made in 2002-03, when he landed defenceman Kevin Young, let go by the Kelowna Rockets. The following season Butler picked up blueliner Rob Smith, who had played two seasons with the Calgary Hitmen, and he tabbed Nolan Waker in 2005-06 after the centre had been waived by the Prince Albert Raiders.

The Battalion acquired another westerner, Dalyn Flatt, an overage blueliner who had played 177 games with the Saskatoon Blades and Kootenay Ice, in a trade with the Owen Sound Attack on Jan. 9, 2007. Defenceman Matt Strong, a veteran of 93 games with the Everett Silvertips, Red Deer Rebels and Chilliwack Bruins, played six games with the Troops as a 19-year-old in 2009-10.

Young came recommended by Kelowna head coach Marc Habscheid, who had been Butler’s assistant with the 2002 Canadian national junior team.

“I think Stan told Marc he needed a defenceman,” Young said recently from Kansas where he’s in his second season with the Wichita Thunder of the Central Hockey League. “I’d never heard of Brampton. I looked at a map and checked the website.”

Young wasted no time making an impression, recording three assists in his OHL debut, a 4-3 win over the visiting Sudbury Wolves on Oct. 14. Young set up Jay McClement’s winning goal at 19:59 of the third period.

“It was a really good situation to come into,” said Young, a resident of White Rock, B.C., who often was paired with 18-year-old rookie Stuart Simmons. “I hadn’t really heard of anybody but McClement, but it was like any other team; it became a new family. There’s no way you can deny the talent on that team, and a lot of guys on that team are still doing pretty well for themselves.”

Young, who had played four WHL seasons with the Medicine Hat Tigers, Portland Winter Hawks and Kelowna, was the elder statesman on a Battalion blue line that featured four newcomers.

“The defence corps was pretty young except for me, Simmons and Frank Burgio. My job was to run the power play and have a calming affect on the blue line.  I was older, in my fifth season of junior, and had seen everything there was to see.”

Young played 47 games, scoring 13 goals and adding 30 assists for 43 points. He registered three goals and one assist in an 8-0 romp Oct. 27 over the visiting Mississauga IceDogs, one of his eight multipoint games. Six of his goals came on the power play.

“We could really get the puck moving. There were no bad options out there. You could put the puck down the wall, and we had guys who could work from there with it. There were guys who could make it work from the point. The coaches wanted us to be moving all the time, and I still do that today. I keep moving and trying to confuse the other team as much as I can.”

One of Young’s biggest goals came on the road March 6 against the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors when he raced in from the blue line and beat goaltender Justin Peters at 4:59 of overtime to lift the Battalion to a 5-4 win.

“I think there was less than one second left on the clock when I scored. I remember picking off a pass and going in alone. I think the Majors thought the game was over.”

Following the end of his junior career, Young spent two years at the University of New Brunswick before embarking on an eight-year pro career featuring stops in the Netherlands, England and Germany as well as two stints in the Central League.

“If it wasn’t for that last season in Brampton, I don’t think I’d be playing now. I didn’t know much about junior hockey when I got into it. I was invited to camp in Medicine Hat and I made the team. In Kelowna I was the odd guy out, and I got a new opportunity in a new league and I’ve been running with it ever since.”

Smith was a different player, a physical, stay-at-home defenceman from Steinbach, Man., who was signed as a free agent. He was brought in to shore up a blue line corps that had lost Young, Burgio and Dan Marziani, a second-round Priority Selection pick in 2002 who left the team.

“Things weren’t looking good for me in Calgary,” said Smith, now in his first season as the assistant general manager and assistant coach for the Steinbach Pistons of the Manitoba junior league. “They had a lot of good players available to come back as overagers that year. It was going to be tough for me to stay there. I didn’t get traded within the league and figured I’d end up playing junior A somewhere.

“I heard there were a couple of teams interested in me in the OHL, and I didn’t have much time to think about it, but I made some calls and did a little research and Brampton seemed to be the best fit. Stan was there and had a good reputation. They had a younger defence corps, and it looked like I’d be able to come in and play big minutes.”

Smith earned three assists in his OHL debut, an 8-2 win at Sudbury on Oct. 17. He went on to record 19 points, including two goals, in 53 games. But his biggest goal came in Game 2 of a conference quarterfinal against the visiting Ottawa 67’s, when he scored at 18:59 of overtime to end the longest game in Battalion history to that time and get the Troops even in a series they eventually captured in seven games.

Ryan Oulahen won a faceoff deep in Ottawa territory and fed the puck to Smith, whose shot from the right point beat 67’s goaltender Lukas Mensator, possibly screened on the play by Chris Clayton.

“There was a mad scramble in front of the net, and I can’t believe that puck got through,” said Smith. “It was one of those shots. I’m thankful it found a way in. Everything happened so fast there. It was probably the biggest goal I ever scored.”

Smith acted as a mentor to his defence partner, 16-year-old Phil Oreskovic, a Brampton native who was the Battalion’s first pick in the 2003 Priority Selection.

“Phil and I had a good connection. He had a great attitude when I played with him. He wanted to learn and was open to everything. We really gelled and, for me, knowing I was moving on, it meant a lot that I’d be able to impact a guy or two in junior before I left.

“I’m still learning about coaching, and I think my playing experience helps me. I work with the defencemen here, and I feel like I’ve been able to use some of what I did with Phil and expand on that with the guys here.”

After his junior career ended, Smith spent four seasons at the University of Manitoba. He played one season with the Fischtown Penguins in Germany and retired after playing 11 games for the Victoria Salmon Kings of the ECHL and one game with the Missouri Mavericks of the Central League in 2010-11.

“I’m really thankful for the opportunity I got in Brampton. I was blown away with how I was treated. I had a great time there and felt at home right away. I have really great memories, and Brampton was probably my favourite place to play.”

A native of Swift Current, Sask., Waker won a Memorial Cup with Kelowna in 2003-04. He played the following season with the Rockets and Raiders before being released after one game with Prince Albert in 2005-06. Waker had also played under Habscheid with Kelowna.

“I went home for two weeks, and Marc told me Brampton might be interested,” Waker said from Winnipeg, where he’s finishing a degree in agriculture business at the University of Manitoba.  “I was practising with the local midget team and then I got the call from the Battalion.

“I still had the dream to keep playing, and it was very exciting to be picked up by the Battalion. I knew Brampton was in the Toronto area, but it took me about a month to get acclimated.”

A two-way forward, Waker was right at home on a high-scoring Battalion squad featuring forwards such as Wojtek Wolski, Luch Aquino, Aaron Snow, Luke Lynes and Taylor Raszka.

“Stan seemed to like the way I played,” said Waker, who played 42 games with the Troops, scoring nine goals and adding five assists for 14 points. “I played a pretty simple game, got the puck out and killed penalties. I really enjoyed playing with guys like Graham McNabb. It was a good fit for me. There wasn’t much pressure on me there. I could just focus on what I knew I could do well. We had guys like Wolski and Aquino and Snow who could score, so I knew I wouldn’t be counted on much to do that.”

Waker’s regular season came to an end when he suffered a broken right collarbone in a 9-4 win Jan. 22 over the visiting Erie Otters in which Wolski set a club record for points in a game with seven, including four goals, tying the club record.

Waker had surgery and missed the rest of the regular season. He worked diligently with head trainer Brad Handley and returned for the playoffs, where the Troops were eliminated in the second round by the Barrie Colts.

“I didn’t know if I would ever play hockey again,” said Waker, 27. “I still have a plate and eight screws in there. I owe a lot to Brad. We spent a lot of time together so I could get back.

“It was disappointing the way it ended. We had a big winning streak to end the season, won our division, and there was a little Memorial Cup talk around the team. The expectations were very high, but Barrie was a good team that had our number that year.”

Waker spent five years at Manitoba, where he was a teammate of both Smith and Flatt. He returned to finish his schooling after playing 16 games for two teams in the Southern Professional League last season.

“I really enjoyed playing for the Battalion,” said Waker. “It was a great experience, I had great billets, and it was such a good group of guys. I was fortunate to get the opportunity to play as an overage.”

A resident of Teulon, Man., Flatt was acquired with centre Thomas Stajan for Oreskovic and centre Howie Martin.  Flatt played 26 games, registering three assists.

“It was only a few months, but playing for the Battalion gave me some of my fondest memories of junior hockey,” Flatt said in a 2010 interview. “I loved playing there and wish I could have spent more time there. It was such a good group of guys, a great coaching staff, and everyone had such a great attitude.

“You could tell how committed the young guys were. There were no attitudes, just well-rounded guys who were very mature for their age. They weren’t worried about getting drafted into the NHL or spending their NHL signing bonus.”

No comments:

Post a Comment