Like junior hockey programs, U Sports programs tend to ebb and flow through the years. Teams will bring in a crop of rookies and the team will gel around its core for a few seasons.
The team will be good, then great and then will start the process over as players graduate.
Last year was supposed to be the great year for the U of M Bisons men’s hockey team, but things did not necessarily go as planned. Injuries and departures pushed head coach Mike Sirant to change course and throw many rookies into the fire, and a team with a strong result in 2017-18 stumbled in 2018-19.
The club went from a fourth-place finish in the conference standings and hosting a playoff series, to seventh-place and out of the playoffs.
A massive graduating class hurt the herd even more, but according to fifth-year Bisons defender Adam Henry, the team will be just fine heading into the 2019-20 season.
“Right now [the team] feels like it’s in a pretty good place actually,” he said.
“Last year was pretty challenging […] we had a number of guys leave for various reasons, whether they didn’t want to continue university, they didn’t want to keep playing hockey, they wanted to explore pro options, so we ended up losing players that we weren’t expecting to lose and we lost a few of them last minute.
“Mike [Sirant] had tried to recruit based on what he thought we had, then we lost guys last minute so that kind of hurt us a bit. Then it was just a challenge throughout the year and some frustration and not a ton of fun.”
The 2018-19 Bisons season featured a 12-game losing streak where the club was outscored 62-23, with the team missing the playoffs by seven points.
Henry sees those struggles as a learning experience, not just for himself but the team as a whole.
“I think anyone in the room would say that a lot of the […] year wasn’t a lot of fun,” he said.
“Losing is never fun, winning is always a lot more fun, but definitely there’s things that you learn within that, how to handle it, things that we did that weren’t working, all those different things.
“When you go through struggle like that there’s a million clichés you can use, but you definitely appreciate the good feeling of winning.”
For Henry, the new recruiting class and incoming rookies are a promising group who will hopefully be able to bring stability and renewed success to the Manitoba locker room. The group features plenty of Western Hockey League (WHL) talent and could be competitive right out of the gate.
“Now we know we’ve got a lot of new guys that have had a lot of success where they came from,” Henry said.
“A few [WHL] guys, a lot of top-end Junior A guys. They all seem like really good character guys, hard-working, want to be here. The vibe in the room is really good, everyone is excited to get going.”
One area where the herd did not see much turnover is with Henry and the rest of the Manitoba defence.
After initially electing to leave his final season on the table, Sean Christensen decided to return for the senior year, reuniting with Henry to form Manitoba’s top defensive pair. Lucas Skrumeda, Ryan Carlson and Mitchell Dyck are also returning to round out an experienced Bisons blue line with room for rookies to step in.
Henry said that Carter Doerksen would also be returning to the defensive group, and that “the recruits that we got are also really good players, three [WHL] defencemen that each played a few years in the [WHL].”
“So our back end definitely is a positive and then in the net as well,” he added.
A major addition to the Bisons lineup will be in goal, as highly-touted goaltending recruit Tyler Brown has recovered from surgery and is ready to take the ice. Henry has high hopes not only for Brown, but for the other Manitoba goaltending recruits as well.
“For [Brown], missing all last year because he had to get surgery on his hips, I think that was tough for him,” he said.
“But to me it doesn’t seem like he’s missed a beat.”
Brown brings a wealth of WHL success. The Winnipeg-born netminder backstopped the Regina Pats all the way to the Ed Chynoweth Cup final in 2017.
Henry lauded the importance of having a goaltender with Brown’s experience on the Bisons and made note of the goaltender’s work ethic.
“He’s a hard-working guy [in] the gym, he competes in the net, he’s a great guy, so I think he’s going to help us a lot,” he said.
Brown will be joined by fellow WHL product Riley Lamb, formerly of the Swift Current Broncos, and Manitoba Junior Hockey League netminder Jeremy Link, coming from the Winnipeg Blues.
With a stable situation in goal, a solid blue line and renewed forward group, Henry only has playoffs on his mind.
“I think playoffs is just something that should be every year for the Bisons,” he said.
“We should never miss the playoffs in this conference, so I think that’s where we want to get to.
“I have a good feeling, I think in the room after the last weekend we had a little bit of success and starting to come together a little bit, and some of the young guys are starting to play with a little more confidence.
“I think there’s some optimism there for sure.”