By Gord Montgomery
Spruce Grove Examiner
Like their captain, the Spruce Grove Saints appear ready and willing to slug it out to pick up tough wins this year in the AJHL.
Led by veteran Tim Nolte, a feared fighter in his early days in the league, the young Saints have shown the ability so far this year to come away with wins in games that require them to dig deep and scrap for every goal they get.
That was proven twice last weekend, first with a 4-3 OT win over Whitecourt on Saturday evening and then a 3-2 victory over Drayton Valley on Sunday afternoon.
While the wins weren’t overly pretty they were good working man victories and that’s pleased both the team’s captain and their head coach, Jason Mckee.
“Lately it’s been like that,” Nolte, speaking outside the team’s dressing room after Sunday’s win, said of the scratch-and-claw wins. “We’ve just been finding a way to win. We’ve had a great start the last two games, then let them (opposition) get a sniff, but we’ve found a way to win and that’s a credit to the guys.”
The Saints led 2-0 early against Whitecourt and 1-0 over Drayton before seeing both leads evaporate. Fixing that problem is a work in progress with this young team but good things are beginning to happen given the weekend results.
While Mckee said any win is a good win, he particularly liked the way his team came back in the Drayton Valley victory and protected the late lead. While his club never trailed in the contest, they did surrender two one-goal leads before finally winning by that one goal margin.
“We’re figuring out ways to win hockey games and I think we’re doing the little things properly which has been a great change over the last two weeks. The two teams we beat this weekend were very veteran teams and I thought our young guys and older guys are getting on the same page. I think a lot of games are going to be close like this through the year and we really have to manage our emotions when things are good or not going great.”
In the latest win, Mckee pulled starting goalie Nathan Park, who stopped 16 of 18 shots, in favour of Kenny Cameron after the Thunder had scored both their goals. That move didn’t signify the way the starter had been playing, the coach noted. Rather, the move was done for one reason only – inspiration.
“I just thought we lacked a bit of emotion at that point and I think we just needed a change to spark some guys,” he said of changing goalies with the game tied at two. Drayton had also pulled their goaltender, although not for the same reason, after he’d given up two goals on nine shots.
As for now being the motivational leader of the Saints rather than the penalty leader, Nolte said the rookies are finding out how to protect a lead, and win, an especially tough task in the North Division of the AJHL.
“They’re finding a way to stay the course, lock it down defensively while still pushing forward offensively,” he commented. “They’re finding a way and we’re maybe a lot farther (along) than was maybe expected. They’re doing a great job.”
The captain noted the improvement from the start of the season to now has been impressive.
“The first few games, that consistency, the work ethic, the attention to detail, there’s been a big improvement. It took them a while to run the systems but they’re finding the way to stay the course and do what Spruce Grove does.”
As for his new role with the Saints, although Nolte would likely still drop the mitts if challenged, he said it has been a bit of an adjustment for him but at the same time, he’s thrilled with his new responsibilities.
“It’s good. I haven’t changed much, just work hard every game, every practice and do the little things. If you have to do it, you have to do it,” he said of fighting. “If somebody crosses the line, that’s the good thing about Spruce Grove, we have each other’s back and you gotta do what you gotta do for your teammates.”
The Saints were back in action Wednesday against Whitecourt, then host the Lloydminster Bobcats on Friday and the unbeaten, No. 1 nationally ranked Brooks Bandits on Saturday. Both games begin at 7 p.m. at the Grant Fuhr Arena.