Veteran players will make up the backbone of the 100 Mile House Wranglers this season.
Head coach and general manager Dale “Duner” Hladun says several of last season’s Wranglers — including Nathan Bohmer, Mason Pincott and Ty Smoluk — are all set to return. It’s the most returning players he’s ever seen in his time in the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League.
“To have a base like that is fantastic. I thought a couple wanted to move on, but they enjoy their time here in 100 Mile House and this is where they want to play,” Hladun says. “They’ll be familiar with our systems and the kind of character we want to run, so we’re not going to be retraining. There are so many good leaders on our team now that I’ll just be able to guide them. It’s going to be a fun year, even for me.”
Hladun attributes the number of veteran players returning in part to how young his teams have been since the pandemic. Many of his players last year were still in high school, and while he’s allowed to have up to six 20-year-olds on his bench, Hladun only has one.
The other major factor is unfinished business. Last season the Wranglers fought hard to get into the playoffs, only for a mix of injuries and sickness to end their playoff bid in the first round against the Revelstoke Grizzlies.
“We started slow last year. We only won six of our first 22 games. Then, in our last 22 games, we won 11 or 12, so the boys were peaking at the right time,” Hladun notes. “That’s why they came back. I think they had a taste of disappointment losing to Revelstoke, so it’s almost like the job is unfinished.
You’ve got to build a team with the end in mind, and our goal this year is to hoist another cup. I feel we can push to be a top team and the boys are talking that way, so we’ll do our best to do it.”
Already Hladun plans to build the offence around Bohmer, whom he described as an “impactful player” who will be exciting to watch. Meanwhile, players like Smoluk will be the lynch-pin of his defence with five other returning defencemen, including Kaden Ernst, Ethan Hofstrand, Andrew Teare, Memfis Burgeson and Boston Pierce. Ryder Gregga — another important veteran player — is set to return as the Wranglers’ starting goaltender.
“To add to our defence I’ve found a couple of good prospects. One is still trying out for Junior A in Saskatchewan but the other came out to our camp. I think the fans are really going to like Jackson Jesson. He’s a big kid who played for Cloverdale. He’s big, mobile and creative.”
Another new player Hladun is excited to be bringing to 100 Mile House is Terrace’s Kelton Shinde. Shinde is a good forward and centre who Hladun wanted to recruit last year but was unable to get. He joins several other players from Terrace, including Zach Gull, Kaden Stark and Jack Mulder.
“I don’t know what’s in the water in Terrace, but there’s a lot of good hockey players there.”
Hladun says he was impressed by the youth who came out to the Wranglers’ open tryouts from Aug. 25 to 27. Those around the ages of 15 and 16 especially stood out, representing “a good crop of young talent.” Ten of the Wrangler veterans also attended, which he said helped set the pace for the others.
During tryouts Pincott, a hometown 100 Mile rancher, impressed Hladun with some newfound speed. Hladun joked Pincott must have got faster from being chased around the arena by bulls while bull riding this summer.
“Mason picked up his pace and was scoring goals, and now he wants to wear a number 87 just like Sidney Crosby, so it was great to see him put his energy and time in.”
Joining Hladun and defence coach Lee Hansen as coach this year is Lucas Simpson, who will be working closely with the goalies. Hladun says he appreciates having help on the bench, especially considering some teams in the league can have up to four assistant coaches.
The Wranglers started practising on Sept. 5 and have two exhibition games scheduled against the Princeton Posse on Friday, Sept. 8 and Saturday, Sept. 9 at the South Cariboo Rec Centre. Their season kicks off on Friday, Sept. 22 with a home game against the Creston Valley Thunder Cats.
“Hopefully we can kick off the year right out of the gate with a victory,” says Hladun. “Also, it’s our team’s 10-year anniversary, so I think there will be a ton of unique things happening throughout the season. It’s an exciting time to be a member of Wrangler Nation.”