As Andrew DeGroot walked off the bench midway through the second period Friday after being ejected from the game, there was plenty going through the head of the Delhi Travellers head coach.
“I really love how these kids aren’t giving up,” DeGroot said a couple of days later reflecting on it all. “This is a really great group of kids. They’ve had a really tough year and they are fighting to the bitter end. They don’t care that Ayr is the best team in the league. You can see that our kids want to win just as bad as they do, and they’re doing everything they can to do it.”
Unfortunately for the Travellers, there’s a reason the Ayr Centennials are at the top of the Midwestern Ontario Junior C Hockey League with a 31-6-1 record. And it showed in an 8-3 decision in favour of them.
“They have more talent than us. It’s as simple as that,” DeGroot said. “But our kids don’t care. They are playing for respect and I love that about them.”
After losing to the Centennials, the Travellers lost 5-1 to the second-place New Hamburg Firebirds, and then dropped a 3-2 heartbreaker to the Burford Bulldogs, the team that secured the final spot in the postseason ahead of them.
And with the three losses, the 4-34-1 Travellers have one more game before another frustrating season comes to an end. Despite it all, DeGroot has seen many things that made this season far from a write off.
“I had a meeting after that game (Friday) and I couldn’t stop complimenting them on the way we’re playing with structure,” DeGroot said. “They are doing things that we’ve taught them that have now become instinct for them. Watching them read and react to situations and doing it properly, especially to things away from the puck is gratifying to see. When I got here there was none of that. Because of this, all of the sudden they’re competitive.”
Which is one of many things DeGroot says has been major progress. And because of that, there is plenty of hope for the Travellers, who suffered its second-worst season since 1991-92. The worst, of course, was the 0-40 season a year ago.
Another sign of things to come is the core group of players, many of which were learning the junior hockey ropes for the first time this season.
“They’re a really close group. The room has been wonderful,” DeGrrot said. “The core that’s in there is fantastic. They’re so eager to learn. When you coach a long time you think kids don’t like structure… but they do. When you lay it out there they really enjoy it now. That’s nice to see.
“When we first started having meetings before games, players were strolling in at the last minute,” he said. “That changed quickly. The ones that want to learn and want themselves and the team to be better stayed and began coming earlier. That speaks volumes about these kids, especially since we aren’t winning. But they want to win and that’s part of the new culture here.”
With a solid core hopefully returning, DeGroot said the next phase is to bring in more talent to compliment the group, which is something the Travellers brain trust, led by general manager Chris Longthorne will need to work tirelessly on as soon as the season is done Friday.
“There has to be an improvement in recruiting,” DeGroot said. “You need stability and show that you’re on the upswing. When you show kids that you are on the upswing, that’ll help. You’ll start gaining players. From top to bottom we all have to be on the same page. Chris (Longthorne) really wants to see this team move forward.
“When I walked in to the room two months ago I had no idea what to expect,” he said. “I really like to get to know each individual. At the end of the day I’m about accountability. If they’re doing bad or good you have to tell them, even if they don’t want to hear it.
Everyone in the organization has to be held accountable and because of that we are all going in the right direction together.”
The Travellers end its season Friday at 7:30 p.m., against the Paris Mounties.
ICE CHIPS: Friday, Max Klunder led the Travelers with a pair of first period goals to give his team the lead before the Centennials scored three-straight power-play markers. Chad Ingalls scored the other goal for Delhi. Saturday, Mitchell Graham scored the lone Travellers goal. On Sunday, Jared Ebdon and Klunder scored, giving the Travellers a lead before the Bulldogs came back, scoring the winner with a minute to go in regulation.