By Matt Mackinder
With wins in five of their first six games, the Cleveland Jr. Lumberjacks aren’t quite at their 19-1 start of a year ago, but their goal is to just keep winning.
Cleveland returned eight veterans to the squad this season, including captain Fred West and assistant captains Andrew Mitch and Pat Smith. All three have been through the hockey wars in the North American 3 Hockey League and want nothing more than to bring a 3HL title to Cleveland next spring.
“So far, we are right where we want to be,” West said. “We still have a long way to go, but we feel good about how we've played so far and we definitely have the potential to make a good run this season.”
“The season has gone great so far and the team is finally starting to gel,” said Smith. “Team chemistry is perfect and everyone gets along. I know in the beginning, the rookies didn't feel comfortable, but once we got to know them all and find things in common, they got some of their nerves out and relaxed around us. After all, we’re all just big, goofy hockey players.”
Mitch said that one of the biggest reasons why the Jr. Lumberjacks have success year in and year out is due to the intensity of the coaching staff.
“From the first day of training camp, the coaches tell is what is expected and how we are to act on and off the ice,” said Mitch. (Assistant coach) Jason (Dickey) is hard on us and yells a lot, but that’s so everyone knows what to expect from the organization. Some of the rookies might be a little timid around coach Jason, but we’ve been in their shoes and as veteran guys, we just let them know that that’s how Dickey is and that he expects a lot and to not worry about it.”
Wearing the ‘C’ this season, West said it’s an honor with increased responsibility, but a situation he is taking with pride.
“I think the biggest thing in being captain is knowing the difference between when the team needs me to say something and when I need to just work hard and lead by example,” said West. “There are times during games or practices when one will work better than the other. I learned a lot last year from our coaches and veterans on the team. Having a year in the league under my belt has definitely made me more confident.
“It’s a long season and you have to keep working all year if you want to be successful.”
Smith and Mitch also see the added pressure with wearing a letter.
“Some pressure, like in high-pressure situations, you want to make the right decision and show the newer guys how to deal with those situations,” said Smith. “I always just do what I've done so I'm comfortable now being a captain than earlier in the season.”
“There is more pressure, for sure, but having a lot of returning guys back helps to relieve some of that pressure,” Mitch said. “The chemistry on this team is great. We had a couple team dinners at the beginning of the season and guys got to know each other and learned to be pretty talkative and comfortable around each other.”
West said he’s been impressed by all the Cleveland newcomers this year, especially goalies Christian Michalik, who won a Michigan Division I state championship last year with Brighton High School, and Dave Heflin. Mitch said forwards Scott Cuthrell and Dallas Szustak have stood out as well.
Looking ahead, the Jr. Lumberjacks know it will be a tough road to win the East Division.
“Our division is always tight and it’s tough to tell now who will be at the top come the end of the season,” said West. “Every weekend will be important.”
“We just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing everyday,” said Mitch. “We’ve been a pretty competitive team the past few years and I think skill-wise, this might be a better team than last year. Time will tell.”