Men’s hockey Titans looking to turn tide on slow start to season

Wallie Sears
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Most people we know would be disappointed, discouraged and, yes, even desperate if they opened their season with a nine game losing streak.

But that's not the position being taken by the upbeat coaching staff of the local high school boys' hockey team, the Tantramar Titans. Ernie Austin, Ben Brown, Mike Cullihall and Tim Hicks believe they see a general improvement in the squad since opening with a pair of lop-sided exhibition decisions to teams in the Eastern Conference and nine consecutive losses to AA teams in the North-East Conference.

But perhaps that is the only approach to take.  Unlike teams in other levels of play – junior and up – their hands are tied in that they simply can't reach out and bring in more players so they must go with the hand they have been dealt.

This year the decision was made to withdraw from the AAA Eastern Conference and compete at their own AA level even though it meant extensive travelling. Tantramar is located at the extreme eastern end of the province and it was more convenient, travel and cost-wise, to remain with the teams in the greater Moncton area, but the Titans were finding themselves getting thumped on a regular basis. The belief was that they would be playing against teams of a similar level in the lower classification but the ensuing results have come as somewhat of a shock.

Only a handful of their fixtures have even been close, but Austin, the head coach, says they have no option but to "stay the course" and continue to work hard in every practice. He is somewhat confident the string of zeros in the win column will soon be broken and the Titans will step up their performance and earn some wins.

But the coaches are also realistic when they look at the number of athletes they have to choose from. With a total population of well under 500 students at Tantramar, and assuming 225 are male, it seems reasonable to estimate somewhere between 50 and 75 have the skills to compete at the interscholastic level. This means that a good many of these people must play two major sports – football and soccer in the fall and hockey and basketball in the winter – in order to have any hope of success.

It must be noted that the football team, for the most part, was reasonably successful this past season, while the soccer squad won the championship of the Eastern Conference and went all the way to the provincial finals before falling by a single goal.

Tim Hicks is quick to stress that the fact seven hockey players from Tantramar have chosen to take their game elsewhere must not be used as an excuse for any failure by his Titans. Currently there are four playing at the top level of triple A midget, one playing junior C, one at the bantam AAA level and another attending a prep school in the US.

"If they choose this route it is their decision and we wish them luck," says Hicks.

But after watching one recent game against a team from Campbellton, we believe these seven could form the core of any Titan squad. Local athletes playing triple A bantam can be affiliated with the Titans and one, Ethan Crossman, was called in to help in the two game series and he set up one goal in an 8-2 loss and had three goals and two assists the following day in a 10-7 defeat.

"We never expected anything would be easy when the decision was made to compete at the AA level, but the teams are a step ahead of what we thought they would be." Ernie Austin

On this basis, alone, how much could the older players in midget and junior contribute to the success of the high school team? They definitely would turn the tide and the Titans could have their record totally reversed.

But that really is water under the bridge. Hicks was a member of three championship teams that were led by veteran defensive specialist Don MacIntyre 25-30 years ago. At that time few, if any, locals left to compete at a higher level in Moncton and the Titans built a strong reputation as one tough group to battle. Some of these young men developed their skills at the high school level and went on to play at the university level - like Steven Bowes, Eric Sloan, John Lafford, Colin Wheaton, Brad Devarennes and, earlier, boys like Davis Richardson, Bill Hicks and Bud Robertson.

Austin agrees and says each of the other teams in the conference boast a line that could be playing at a higher level, but unlike here at Tantramar, opted to remain at home. However, he supports any decision made by an athlete and his parents, especially since the competition is higher and the fact is they will play well over 50 games a season.

"We never expected anything would be easy when the decision was made to compete at the AA level, " says Austin, "but the teams are a step ahead of what we thought they would be."

The strength of the team at the moment seems to be in nets where Kyle Cadman and Caleb Silliker have been sharing the load and turning away a ton of rubber in every outing. A slow moving defensive unit is getting caught out of position but is showing progress with three members still in Grade 10. Up front, the main load is being carried by Dustin Zoellner and Patrick Jansen but, again, the majority of the forwards are still young and inexperienced.

"I guess you could say we are young, undersized and inexperienced," says Austin, "but that means we have plenty of room for improvement and it will come through hard work and sticking to the system."

And he is confident the day of the turnaround is not far off.

Culihall who grew up and played hockey in Newfoundland, says the system being used by the Titans is similar to the one he has seen in various parts of the country and he is also a believer in that hard work will overcome any adversity.

"In spite of our record we are very close to being able to beat any team on a given night," says Culihall.  He points to the 10-7 loss to the undefeated Rolande Pepin team from Campbellton, noting the Titans led 7-5 with five minutes remaining only to suffer a total collapse.

In spite of their losing record, fan support has been reasonably strong and the team needs all the vocal and moral support it can get. With this in mind, the local sporting fraternity will have an opportunity to lend their voices when Bathurst High School is in for back-to-back games on Dec. 27 (8:15) and Dec. 29 (7 p.m.)

Organizations: Bathurst High School

Geographic location: Tantramar, Moncton, Campbellton US Newfoundland

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