WINNIPEG - They were the Cinderella story on skates last season.
The Brandon Wheat Kings were 11 games under .500 towards the end of the Western Hockey League year and looked like they might have a long golf season ahead. But the Wheaties won 18 of their last 25 matches to finish third in the East Division with a 32-31-1-8 record (73 points) and qualify for post-season play. Not only that but the youngsters gave the heavily favoured Medicine Hat Tigers, who had finished second in the Central Division with 100 points, all they could handle before bowing 4-2 in the best-of-seven series.
Fresh off that finish, the Wheaties start the 2011-12 season with a former NHL head mentor, Cory Clouston, to lead them to a tale with a happier ending.
“I knew they had a real winning tradition here, that’s why I came here,” said Clouston, who replaces Kelly McCrimmon as the head coach (McCrimmon remains as GM).
Clouston, 41, spent the past 2 1/2 years as head coach of the Ottawa Senators, but previously coached in juniors for 13 years.
“Obviously, you’re dealing with different-aged players and different experiences,” said Clouston, whose Wheaties open the campaign against the Warriors in Moose Jaw on Thursday. “This is more of a development phase and dealing with billets and schools is not something I haven’t dealt with before. But it has been a few years so, this is definitely an adjustment period.”
The players are looking forward to learning under a man who has tutored NHL stars.
“He’s got lots of experience and really knows his stuff,” said sophomore defenceman Ryan Pulock.
“It’s an extra bonus to have a guy from the NHL help us out,” added forward Paul Ciarelli of Winnipeg. “Cory has been a very successful coach and he has a very positive attitude towards the guys.”
The Wheaties are still riding on the momentum that got them into the playoffs and on their performance in the post-season where they battled valiantly.
“To get into the playoffs last year really helped us for this year,” said Pulock, the Grandview native who set a club record by scoring 42 points as a 16-year-old rookie rearguard last season. “We still had a lot of rookies and those guys are now going into their second years, and that experience should help all of us.”
Of course, turnover is the name of the game in junior hockey and those who are able to overcome the loss of key players the quickest have the most success. The Wheaties lost five of their top eight scorers from last season, including forwards Scott Glennie and Shayne Wiebe.
“We need the returning guys to pick up their games and fill those roles,” Clouston said.
Players like Michael Ferland and Ciarelli will be expected to up their games. Meanwhile, forward Mark Stone, the club’s leading scorer (and third in WHL), and defenceman Jordan Fransoo were just reassigned to Brandon by the Senators.
Pulak and Fransoo will lead a contingent of seven returning defenceman. Goalies Liam Liston and Corbin Boes are also back for another go.
“Our whole defensive corps and our goalies are back from last year, so that’s exciting,” Ciarelli said.
Brandon will play host to the Warriors in their home opener on Friday. Plans are being made for a tribute to Brad McCrimmon, Kelly’s brother who died so tragically in the recent plane crash in Russia.