Stratford Cullitons Preview

Cullitons ready to take care of business

By Steve Rice, Stratford Beacon Herald

The Stratford Cullitons have 14 returning veterans coming off the team’s third straight trip to the Cherrey Cup final.

Three of those 14 have played in back-to-back finals and another three have been in three consecutive championship series.

But the GOJHL’s Midwestern Conference doesn’t hand out ribbons for second place so there’s little to show for all the hard work — other than some great memories, entertaining hockey for the fans and personal successes.

The story needs to have a different ending this season.

“No matter what, the goal is to win the Conference and win the Sutherland Cup,” said Cullitons’ captain Trevor Sauder, one of seven players entering their final season of junior hockey.

“I’ve been here three years and been to the final three times and haven’t won, and it’s pretty tough. We definitely want to win the Cherrey Cup this year.”

Sauder’s assistants — Jeff McArdle, Jake Pleon and Mitch Vandergunst — are all in their final season, as are Pat McKelvie, Shane O’Brien and goaltender Nick Caldwell.

“There should be a lot of leadership on the team, not just the captains, and hopefully that can help take us to the Cherrey Cup,” said Vandergunst. “I’ve been to the final twice and lost both times and I can’t imagine losing again. Really, this year we’ve got to put it all out there and try to win it.”

Coach and first-year director of hockey operations Phil Westman has two Sutherland Cup championships as an assistant coach, and has taken the team to four finals in the past five seasons as a head coach, while earning Midwestern coach of the year honours twice during that period.

“Deep down we all know we’ve got unfinished business,” Westman said. “The nucleus of this team is gone next year and nobody wants to go out as second.

“Unfortunately everybody else in the league feels the same way. Right now our goal is to be the hardest-working team in the league and see where it takes us.”

Westman calls the Cullitons “a blend of speed, size and intensity — a little bit of everything, which I think is what makes us a tough opponent every night.

“We’ve got some heavyweights and some pretty aggressive players. But we have to play hard, disciplined hockey and I think we have the veteran players to do it. Last year our emotions got carried away a little bit and we had to bring it back in. I think we’ve matured a lot.”

Injuries cursed the team last year and returnees O’Brien and Zach Van Louwe will be among those looking for more productive campaigns. But Westman says “we need everybody to have good seasons.”

“We’re bringing back a number of 20-year-old players and they need to carry the mail a little bit,” he said. “I’m not putting any pressure on them but they’ve got to take their role and go out and be hockey players for us.”

One who will obviously be counted on is Caldwell, whose 2.39 goals-against average in the regular season last year was the third-best in club history. He was the playoff MVP in 2013 and could easily have won the award last year with a 2.37 GAA in 15 playoff games.

“Any successful hockey team at any level is as good as its goaltending,” Westman said. “He’s been pretty steady for us the last couple of years and is someone our entire organization feels confident with in net.

“And he’s a great asset in the dressing room. He comes with a fantastic attitude. He’s looking to have a good year to get on to a college or university team and we’re looking to give him that opportunity.”

The biggest change over last season will be the absence of offensive-minded defencemen Ryker Killins (USHL) and captain Jordan Currie (age), who combined for 81 points, 51 of those on the powerplay.

“They’re highly skilled players that at our level are very tough to replace,” said Westman. “We need to get the defencemen in the rush and have them active. (But) you’ve got to coach to what you’ve got and if you think you’re going to make a player something he’s not, you’re making a mistake.

“We’re very happy with the players we’ve got and respect their talents greatly.”

While the finish to the season is the key, the Cullitons are hoping that a shortened training camp will help them get off to a good start.

“With the team already being picked coming into camp I feel we have a big advantage and it’s definitely going to help out the new guys,” said Pleon. “The chemistry is a little bit better than at this time last year. A couple of the new guys have practiced with us long enough that they know our systems.

“As long as we can stay healthy I think we’re going to be a phenomenal team. team. But it’s a long season ahead. You don’t know what other teams are going to bring to the table along the way and we just have to keep sticking to the way we play, especially in our own rink.”

There are bound to be bumps in the road throughout the season. Things like injuries and slumps can cripple a team, or as the Cullitons have proven the past two seasons, can forge them into a stronger unit for the playoffs.

“We want to be a team that can handle adversity,” said McArdle. “I think it’s been good in the past few years that we’ve taken some losses. It pays in the long run. You get into the playoffs you’re going to take some losses and it’s all about bouncing back quickly.

“We’ve got some good, young talent coming in and with the core of guys we’ve got coming back I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. Definitely the guys that have been there before all want to get back (to the final) — that’s our goal right from the beginning. And I think the young guys will realize pretty quickly we’re in it to win it.”

Up front the Cullitons have added Stratford’s Jared Nash, a skilled centre, and wingers Tyler Randerson and Hayden Broomhead, who will be expected to contribute offensively.

Defencemen Austin Huizenga is a physical, stay-at-home defenceman and Matthieu Bourbeau has been compared to a young Jordan Currie.

Nick Redman will provide backup to Caldwell in preparation for taking on the job next season.

“I think we’ve got a great group of guys here,” Sauder said. “Phil and Randy (GM Petrie) and even Jason (Lott) from last year did a great job recruiting guys. The new guys that have been brought in are great players — as good as any of us vets.”

The captains offered different suggestions as to why the Cullitons may have fallen short in a six-game final against Waterloo last year. Bad bounces. Perhaps some overconfidence crept in.

But they agree on one thing: it can’t happen again.

“It’s a little heartbreaking being there two years in a row and coming up empty,” said Pleon. “We were there and it just slipped from our hands. Next time we get a chance like that we’ve got to hold on tight and not let go.”

THE NEW FACES

The Cullitons have added six new faces for 2014-15, but there are no rookies on this team.

With only 20 players signed and at least one or two veterans out of the lineup for the opening weekend, the first-year players will not only get a chance to play, they’ll be expected to contribute right away.

“We’ve only got 20 players and I think everybody knows that we try to use our bench as much as possible,” said coach Phil Westman. “And there’s growing pains with that. Young guys are going to make mistakes and we have to be patient with them.

“But they’ll be cast into the fire and they’ll develop as the year goes on. It’s good for their hockey.”

Centre Jared Nash is the lone Stratford player among the group. The other five are imports, although defenceman Matthieu Bourbeau (Baden) and forward Tyler Randerson (New Hamburg) live just down the road, and forward Hayden Broomhead (Ilderton) less than 50 kilometres away.

Goalie Nick Redman is from Singhampton, and defenceman Austin Huizenga from Grand Rapids, Mich.

Here’s a look at the six newcomers, with a few comments from Westman:

AUSTIN HUIZENGA. The 19-year-old comes to the Cullitons after two seasons in the Northern States Hockey League’s Syracuse Stampede.

“He seems to be a steady Eddy defenceman that’s going to compete hard and he’s rugged in the corners,” Westman said. “I think he’s can take care of our own end, and he has a pretty good knack of slipping in on the powerplay.

MATTHIEU BOURBEAU. The Waterloo-born Bourbeau played minor hockey in Kelowna, B.C. before his family moved back to Baden. He played for the Waterloo Wolves midgets last season. “He moves the puck pretty well, similar to a Jordan Currie,” said Westman. “He’s a heads-up hockey player that distributes the puck, makes a good first pass. He likes to jump in on the offence and we encourage that.”

JARED NASH. A Guelph Storm draft pick, Nash played four playoff games with the Cullitons as a 15-year-old, scoring once. “He’s got great skill,” said Westman. “He’s a very good hockey player and he’s only going to be with us one year. We’re going to give him every opportunity to have a good year and advance his hockey. He can score and he’s gritty — a little like a Trevor Sauder with the feistiness.”

HAYDEN BROOMHEAD. The 17-year-old winger had 40 points with Elgin-Middlesex minor midgets two years ago and 39 with London Jr. Knights midgets last year, where he added 12 goals and 22 points in 16 playoff games.

“We’ve got the muckers and grinders and I needed somebody who can fire the puck and he can do that,” Westman said. “At every level he’s played, he’s put the puck in the net. I’m not putting too much pressure on him. I’m sure there are elements of his game, like the backchecking, that he’ll need to work on. He’ll be a good player who will come along and I think will be exciting for the fans to see.”

TYLER RANDERSON. The son of Stratford native Dave Randerson, who led the Cullitons in scoring in 1980-81, Tyler played Jr. C for his father in New Hamburg last season where he collected nearly a point a game in the regular season and playoffs. “I look at Tyler as similar to Drew Gross — an up and down winger who seems to go to the right spots in front of the net,” said Westman. “I know he’ll have a good year with us and then look forward to him continuing to grow with us over the next couple of years.”

NICK REDMAN: The 17-year-old had six shutouts and a 2.10 goals-against with Grey-Bruce midgets and was solid in a couple of exhibition games for the Cullitons, where he’ll serve as backup to 20-year-old Nick Caldwell. “He’s going to get some starts and (goalie coach) Mark Nelson is going to work with him so he can step into a bigger role next year when Nick Caldwell graduates,” Westman said.

To view the E-edition of this 4-page supplement, which includes a look at the other eight teams in the Midwestern Conference, click here http://virtual.stratfordbeaconherald.com/doc/Beacon-Herald/2014meetthecullitons/2014091001/#0

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