New season. New coach. Familiar opponent.
The Dinos men's hockey team kicks off the season with a home-at-home with their northern rival, the University of Alberta Golden Bears.
It'll be a tough opening test for the Dinos, considering the Bears, though finishing third at last year's CIS championships, have won eight of the last nine conference titles and three of the last five national titles.
"You find out where you stack up, immediately," says Dinos head coach Mark Howell. "There's not going to be any false sense of security or anything like that. You're going to know right away how your team's going to do, your depth and your talent and where you stack up, for sure."
The Dinos will have to measure up well if they are going to accomplish the lofty goal Howell says he has in mind for this team. He says that though a top-four finish and a playoff spot would be acceptable, the team wants to shoot to be top-two in the conference. That means either knocking off the Bears, or the equally tough University of Saskatchewan Huskies, from their perch.
"Your start is really important, not just who you're playing, just having a real good start," says Howell. "You want to come out of the gate really well and build some confidence at the start of the season. In saying that, we can't get ahead of ourselves too far. We know we have lots of work to do to change and adapt to how we want to play."
They've had a bit of time to implement Howell's system. Howell took over as head coach in June, and has had five pre-season games to find out what his team is made of. Though they dropped four of the five, three of them were against tough NCAA Division I opponents Colorado College, Denver and Air Force, which they lost by competitive scores of 4–2, 3–2 and 3–1 respectively.
Howell says his team needs a bit of work on playing a good defensive system, but the trip helped the team.
"We learned a renewed sense of work ethic . . . and what's required to play at a high level all the time," says Howell. "It's a real good test for our guys, to go down there. It was good to get together and know each other a little bit."
They may have needed it, with all new coaches, including assistant coaches Brad Isbister and Cory Cross, both former NHLers, and seven new faces on the roster, including four new d-men. The Dinos return Canada West top-10 scorers in Torrie Wheat and Brock Nixon, though, and fifth-year Jeff Weber and Canada West all-freshman Dustin Butler in net.
For Howell at least, it's been an easy adjustment.
"I've enjoyed it," says Howell. "I think the transition's been good. Administratively, there's a lot of similarities [with coaching in junior] . . . On the academic side, making sure we stay on top of our guys and make sure their classes are in order- those are the differences."
Last year, the Dinos missed the playoffs by finishing last in the conference. This year, the expectations are high, but it's a long road to the playoffs and the Bears present the first in a series of tests, including four of their first six games on the road.
"It's going to take some time," says Howell. "We do wanna make sure our guys understand the urgency of the first 10 games of the year."