WATERFORD, MI – Let bygones be bygones, says Metro Jets head coach Jason Cirone.
After taking over the Jets last year just before the start of the season, Cirone guided the Jets to a 15-29-1 record in the North American 3 Hockey League. Not a bad year, all things considered, and then to move a half-dozen players up the hockey ladder this offseason made last season seem worth it.
That was then, though, and with the Jets’ season opener slated for Friday night at 7:50 p.m. at Lakeland Arena against the Flint Jr. Generals, Cirone feels more prepared for this year.
“On paper, I like my team, but it’s always easier to like your team on paper,” said Cirone. “I think we have a different team than last year where we were a meat and potatoes-type team who liked to dump and chase. This year, we’re going to be a little more skilled and will hopefully control the play a little more than last year. Last year at this time, this really wasn’t my team, but now, this is my team.”
New captain Tommy Kilgore, who tallied 12 goals in 40 games a season ago for the Jets, has noticed the difference in the two seasons as well.
“We’re a lot closer-knit team and I think everyone is more committed than this time last year,” said Kilgore, a 19-year-old native of Pinckney, Mich. “Guys aren’t just showing up whenever. Everyone is coming to the rink on time and ready to play hockey. We had probably twice as any guys at our camps this summer and five times the talent. (Cirone) recruited so many guys and I know it had to be hard for him to make some of the cuts. Last year, we were still trying to get guys at this point.”
“We’ll have a lot of depth this year and again, that’s by design and that’s from the hard work of a lot of people this summer,” Cirone said. “Last year at this time, we were basically begging other teams for scraps. That’s nothing against the kids we had last season, but my team last year, we worked our tails off and I’ll never take that away from them. What made us win as many games as we did was the fact we were family.”
Returning skaters along with Kilgore include forwards Travis Hargett (Clarkston, Mich.), Matt Stemkoski (Novi, Mich.) and Matt Stirling (Dexter, Mich.) and defensemen Ian Costello (Lansing, Mich.), Jake Schlacht (Allen Park, Mich.), Andrew Shalawylo (Clinton Township, Mich.) and Will Shier (Sterling Heights, Mich.). Stemkoski, Stirling, Schlacht and Shier will serve as alternate captains – two will be home captains and two will wear the ‘A’ for away games.
“All five of our letters are kids that are coming back and that’s not taking anything away from the new kids we have because some of those kids are good leaders, but I told the kids at a meeting this week that you don’t need to have a letter on your jersey to be a leader,” said Cirone. “The way I see it, we have 26 players on the team, 26 leaders.”
Kilgore said being named captain is something that wasn’t expected, but is a challenge he’s ready to tackle.
“It’ll be different for sure,” said Kilgore. “Last year, I really wasn’t a talkative guy. I pretty much came to the rink, played my game and that was it. This year, I’ll have to get the team through any tough times we might have, get guys to step up, things like that. It’ll be more pressure, but I think I can handle it.”
“The reason why we made him captain, and it was unanimous, is that last year, he probably took more crap from me, persevered through it and didn’t take it personally,” explained Cirone. “He worked at it, got himself a call-up (to the NAHL’s Port Huron Fighting Falcons in January) and even though he didn’t get another (NAHL) chance this year, he’s come back here and shown the leadership qualities and abilities he showed last year. It was actually a pretty easy decision to show loyalty to a kid that has shown loyalty to me.”
New to the team this year are goalies Dillon Kelley (Petoskey, Mich.), Devin Williams (Saginaw, Mich.), a 2011 draft pick of the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters, and Ethan Loo (Raleigh, N.C.), and forwards Tim Wlodkowski (Katy, Tex.), Chris Hellebuyck (a Commerce Township native whose younger brother, Connor, was tendered by the Jets to play goal this year, but wound up cracking the roster of the NAHL’s Odessa Jackalopes), Mike McKinnon (Troy, Mich.), Steve Klisz (Livonia, Mich.), Cameron Bruff (Flushing, Mich.), Branden Morganroth (Highland, Mich.), Josh Beleski (Southgate, Mich.) and Doug Andrews (Macomb, Mich.). Oxford native and forward Tim Perks also made the team, but will miss the season recovering from a torn ACL.
Though two of the three goalies will be young (Williams is only 16 and Kelley just turned 17 last week), Cirone isn’t worried one bit.
“We have three guys who can step up and carry the load for us and play the most important position in hockey,” said Cirone. “Goalies have short memories, or at least they’ll learn to have short memories working with Randy, and that’s one of the reasons we brought him in on a full-time basis. I don’t know much about playing goal and I’m not going to start trying, so that’s why Randy’s here.”
Adam Reid (Georgetown, Tex.), Max Biggings (Hartland, Mich.), Niels Oleson (the Jets’ first-ever Sweden native), Neal Krentz (Bloomfield Hills, Mich.), Zach Schlacht (Jake’s younger brother) and Chad Frost (Clarkston, Mich.) make up the new crop of defensemen.
“I think we’re going to be strong on the back end and I also think we’ll have a lot of talent up front,” Kilgore said. “Our goalie situation should be really good again and having (assistant coach and goalie coach) Randy (Wilson) back is definitely a plus. Losing some of the guys from last year will be tough to replace, but I think a lot of the new guys coming in and some of the returning guys will be able to pick up the slack. We have the talent and we have the skill and I think if we all play the systems coach Cirone wants us to play, we should have no problem winning games.”
Dave Hague steps in as a new assistant coach. Sean Clark, an assistant last season, took a job with the central scouting office of the United States Hockey League. Jamie Hayden, a former head coach of the Jets, remains with the team in a special coaching capacity.
“I have said this since day one when I walked through the door here – we don’t just take good hockey players, we also want quality people,” Cirone said. “I don’t care how good you are. If you’re not a decent person, you don’t play here. The same goes for the coaching and scouting. I like to think I’ve surrounded myself with good people and as a team, that’s what we need to do for the players, too.
“I don’t think a lot should surprise me this year. I tell the kids all the time that the day you stop learning is the day you stop playing the game and it works that way as coaches, too.”
Wins and losses have their share of meaning when it comes to gauging team success, but according to Cirone, the NA3HL is more than numbers in columns.
“We call ourselves a development league and the kids all get a chance to play here,” said Cirone. “I told one kid this week that I treat everybody fair, but different, and as soon as they figure out what that means, we’ll be fine. The goal is always the same and that’s to move kids up. If we go 25-5 in our first 30 games and then 2-18 over our last 20, that’s a good season for me. That means other teams noticed our kids and now they’re gone. Was I disappointed in our record last year? Not one bit. We won more games last year than in the two previous years combined.
“Getting to the playoffs and winning a championship is always a goal, but overall, the main goal of Metro Jets hockey is to move kids to the next level.
ON TAP: FLINT AND CLEVELAND
The Jets host Flint on Friday night and then the Cleveland Jr. Lumberjacks on Saturday night.
Both games face-off at 7:50 p.m.
“Flint usually has a pretty physical team, but we didn’t have too many problems with them last year,” explained Kilgore. “Cleveland is more of a team that doesn’t hit and is usually one of the faster teams we play. With the way things are looking right now, I don’t think we should have too many problems this weekend, but we’ll see.”
Cirone said he doesn’t want to look past any one game this year.
“Our division (with Flint, Cleveland and the Pittsburgh Jr. Penguins) will be one of the toughest in the league,” stated Cirone. “It’s so cliché, but we’ll take it one game at a time. Hopefully, we have a team here that will make other teams worry about us rather than us worrying about them.”
Metro hits the road to play the Queen City Steam in suburban Cincinnati next weekend.