Finally, Junior A hockey has come back to Manitoba. The Manitoba Junior Hockey League season began last night with a five-game slate, and the action continues tonight with five more games going down.
The Portage Terriers are making their regular season debut tonight as they travel to Neepawa to take on the Titans. Head coach Blake Spiller says the end of September is one of the best times in every season.
"I think we always get excited at this time of the year. We have a lot of new guys, which is normal, but I think we have a few more than we normally do. I'm excited from what they've shown so far."
The Terriers will have eight returning players this season, including third-year goaltender Jayden Catellier. The 20-year-old has started 65 regular season games for Portage over the last two seasons. However, the Terriers also brought in 18-year-old goalie Gavin Renwick via trade this offseason.
"When you have two goaltenders, you always want to make sure that they're both ready to go, especially come playoff time," Spiller explains. "Cats (Catellier) will start game one, and we'll go from there."
Spiller has named defenceman Tayem Gislason the captain for the 2023-24 season, with Daniel Siso, Austin McLean, and Slade Stanick as assistants.
"I think you always want to have guys returning to send the message that we've been trying to send. Those guys are important in their leadership role with helping the new guys that come to town get around and teach them the logistics of what goes on."
The coach notes they will adjust their style of play as needed, but he adds they should be a fast team.
"I think we're going to be quick. We brought some guys in on the backend that have their feet move really well. They will make plays. As far as identity, it's hard to tell right now. We'll know more as time goes on here," says Spiller. "I think we'll be quick enough, and hopefully, we can make plays and defend well. That's what everybody hopes for their team, but we're looking forward to seeing what we look like when real things start happening tonight."
Last season was the culmination of a long-term plan for the Terriers, as they knew they would be playing in the Centennial Cup before the season began. Despite a lot of changes to the roster, Spiller says their aspirations are still high for this season.
"Every year, when we get going, we hope that we're good enough from the get-go. As things go along, if we have to tweak the lineup to get to try to get to, first off, the playoffs and potentially challenging whoever is at the top. The biggest thing right now is to get off to a good start and that always seems to help things progress as the season goes along."
Spiller says one thing that will be a major benefit this season is every player on the squad wants to be a Terrier.
"There's guys (from last year's team) that moved on to various things. We had the graduating guys, and some guys moved onto greener pastures for them. Everybody here is excited to be here, and that's what you want to see. That sometimes can be lacking, but everybody wanting to be here makes us even more excited to get going."
He adds the season starting on the road tonight could work in their favour.
"That can be a good thing. There's probably less jitters when you're on the road compared to being at home. So, at least we can get one game in prior to the home opener," Spiller explains. "We just want to get off to a good start and get our game established as soon as we can. Hopefully, we'll come away with the W."
The Terriers will be fighting for that fight win of the season tonight at 7:30 in Neepawa. The Dogs make their season debut at Stride Place tomorrow night.