AJHL newcomer starts North Division final against Saints on Thursday at Spruce Grove
By Curtis Stock, Edmonton Journal March 27, 2013
EDMONTON – OK, who saw this coming?
Last year, the Whitecourt Wolverines played out of St. Albert and, boy, were they awful. They finished dead last in the Alberta Junior Hockey League standings after winning only nine games as opposed to 51 losses.
Just as bad — perhaps not surprisingly — hardly any fans wanted to see them play.
But Brent Stark, the team’s new owner, obviously saw something a lot of people missed. He bought the franchise from Greg Parks, moved it to his hometown of Whitecourt, and watched it flourish.
Dramatically turning things around, the team not only won 31 games during the regular season, but the town of Whitecourt has welcomed the Wolverines with wide-open arms.
“Nobody expected us to be where we are at,” said Joey Bouchard, head coach and general manager of the Wolverines, who will open their quest for the North Division title against the Saints at 7 p.m. Thursday in Spruce Grove.
“We’re on quite a roll,” he said of the team which defeated the Fort McMurray Oil Barons in the opening round of the playoffs — a series most observers felt the defending North Division-champion Oil Barons would dominate — and then dispatched the Bonnyville Pontiacs to show that their win over the Oil Barons was no fluke.
“Last year, this team had 21 points. This year, we had 70 points — 49 points up from last year,” said Bouchard.
Just as important, the fans in Whitecourt, which has a population of about 10,000, have bought in. The Wolverines averaged over 1,000 fans a game which, if you do the math, means that one out of every 10 residents goes to see their games.
For the playoffs, it’s been standing-room-only in the Wolverines’ 1,250-seat arena.
“It’s phenomenal,” said Stark, who owns Scott Safety, an oilfield safety company that has 300 employees.
“The support from the fans has been terrific and the support from our sponsors has been ridiculous. The town has really been behind these guys and our barn has to be one of the loudest in the league.
“All the season tickets for next year have been renewed and so has all of our sponsorship.”
Stark and Bouchard both said one of the reasons for the team’s drawing power this season is because of the success of the town’s predecessor, the junior B Wolverines.
“We averaged about 800 fans for the junior B team and they won four league championships in five years. So that made the transition a lot easier,” said Stark.
“People in Whitecourt are very passionate; they love their hockey,” Bouchard said. “The junior B team was successful, so they expect this year’s junior A team to win as well.”
Bouchard said it was all about finding the right players to build the Wolverines.
Two of the “right players” came from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League: Mathieu Guertin and Jerome Raymond. Guertin scored 95 points in the regular season to lead all AJHL players; Raymond was right behind him with 90 points.
Another is Edmonton’s Ryan Berlin, who was third in team scoring.
“Last year, we were in last place. With only nine wins, it couldn’t get much worse,” said Berlin, who had a hat trick in the team’s opening game this season.
“This year, we’ve developed into a great team. No question, it’s been a big surprise. We went from last to fourth — a four-place jump.”
To beat Spruce Grove, Berlin said the Wolverines have to use their size.
“We’re a big, physical team. Spruce Grove is a very fast team. We have to overpower them, wear them down and get our wins that way.”
The Saints earned a first-round bye in the North Division for a fifth consecutive season and are obviously going to be a tough match; just as they were in the regular season. Spruce Grove won the regular-season series over Whitecourt with five wins and two losses.
“But,” said Jason McKee, Spruce Grove’s coach and GM, “three of those victories came in overtime.
“The games have all been extremely tight and I’m expecting another tight series in the playoffs. Whitecourt is a very good team. We know we aren’t playing the St. Albert of last year. We are playing the Whitecourt of this year.”
STOCK REPORT: The winner of the best-of-seven series will advance to the league final against the South Division champion for the Gas Drive Cup.
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