Friday, March 19th, 2010

Woodstock Renegades could learn from the top teams

When the puck is dropped to start the Niagara Junior C final tonight, the Woodstock Renegades would be wise to pay attention.

Not for the obvious fact that the Norwich Merchants and Grimsby Peach Kings are meeting for a fourth straight post-season.

Look closely, and the teams share at least one important quality that keeps them coming back for a shot at the Schmalz Cup:

An identity.

And that is something the Renegades, and before them the Navy Vets, have sorely lacked since the days when competing in the Niagara League final was expected.

It starts at the top.

In Norwich, general manager Tom Wright and president Randy Nobbs have been running the team since hockey was played without helmets. The faces of the franchise are constant and the philosophy is the same -- to build the best 'team'.

It might seem simple enough, but just ask fans in Simcoe how the Storm has fared recently as big names are brought in but ultimately sputter in the playoffs. If talent alone won games, the Niagara final would be played in Norfolk County tonight.

The Merchants eliminated Simcoe in five games and did it, like always, with defence. Whether it's Pat Lenehan, Derek Partlo, Dave Smith or current coach Chad Paton behind the bench, the Merchants' motive has always been defence-first. Holding the explosive Storm, who scored over 200 goals during the regular season, to only 12 goals in five games, was the latest example of the Merchants' defensive team concept winning over the more individually talented Storm.

In Grimsby, the Peach Kings have been the class of the Niagara Junior C League for almost a decade.

Grimsby recently won its eighth consecutive Niagara east title and, despite losing to Norwich in the Niagara final last season, has won five of the last seven league championships.

Two of those -- 2003 and 2004 -- resulted in Schmalz Cup titles, the second and third for the almost 80-year-old franchise.

In 2005, they fell one win short of a third straight championship but did produce last year's NHL Calder Trophy winner, goaltender Steve Mason.

Behind the bench, longtime head coach Dave Brownridge has preached a well-rounded style and his teams have battled Norwich for the goals-against crown each season.

This used to be the case in Woodstock.

The Renegades were swept from this year's playoffs, once against going with a whimper and the hope that "next year" will be better. Where once Woodstock used to win at least two series each year, the team has just two playoff series wins since 2001-02.

Dave Bogart and Scott Brooks enjoyed tremendous success as head coaches in the 1990s and early 2000s, while the late John Jensen was a top general manager in the league.

In the team's best years, the seasons changed but its disciplined style -- not to mention its organizational structure -- didn't.

The Navy Vets/Renegades of the last eight seasons have been a mostly rudderless group with no true identity.

At least one worth bragging about.

Since Brooks left after the 2002-03 season, Murray Paton, Bruce Schlitt, Doug Salt, Derek Partlo, Wayne Maxner, Dave McLaren and now Bill McLeod have taken their turns behind the bench.

McLeod, also the Renegades' owner/general manager, bailed the team out a few seasons ago after the Barnum and Bailey tandem of Steve Barber and Roy Leggat left the team in shambles and on the verge of collapse.

On the ice, there is no consistent philosophy. Woodstock's Junior C teams have become putty for each coach to mould, with neither an emphasis on scoring, like Simcoe, nor defensive discipline, like Norwich.

If there is a new head coach and/or GM next year, which is a possibility, the franchise's identity will change.



Niagara Junior C final

Game 1 @Norwich (tonight 8 p.m.)

Game 2 @ Grimsby (Sunday 7:30 p.m.)

Game 3 @Norwich (Mar. 24 7:30 p.m.)

Game 4 @Grimsby (Mar. 26 7:30 p.m.)


(Source Sentinel-Review)