By Alex Kyrias, NAHL
Perhaps no team finished the regular season on a higher note than the Springfield Jr. Blues. Unfortunately, the season did not start in that fashion. The Jr. Blues were a team of streaks last year. They opened the season by dropping their first six games, but followed that by winning eight of their next 10 games. However, by the time that January rolled around the inconsistency had the Jr. Blues hovering around the .500 mark. With that in mind a coaching change was made.
In stepped Joe Dibble for the remaining 20 games. The playoffs were considered a longshot, but the Jr. Blues responded with a flourish of wins in the final two months. During Dibble’s tenure the Jr. Blues played their best hockey of the season, going 14-6 in that stretch and although they missed the playoffs in the North Division by four wins, their 31 wins were the most for the team since the 2003-04 season.
On March 23rd the Jr. Blues announced that Ryan Hardy would take the reins as the new head coach for the 2011-12 season and that Dibble would remain as associate head coach. Hardy had recently completed his first season as assistant hockey coach at Division III Williams College in Massachusetts. He previously two seasons as an assistant coach at Sacred Heart University.
“I think Joe (Dibble) really did a commendable job last year with the team, especially with the way the team finished,” said Hardy. “We have a lot of returning guys who are eager to be in camp and I think the momentum from last year has spilled over into this season.” The transition for Hardy from the college to the junior game is one he says he is still adapting to, but one that contains many of the same elements. “I am still looking for some of the same things in the players, but there definitely is more freedom with the rules and regulations in recruiting versus what the NCAA allows,” said Hardy. “You want a lot of the same things, but mainly guys with good character.”
The Jr. Blues enter the 2011-12 season continuing as the NAHL’s longest running franchise, having entered the league back during the 1993-94 season. “The people and fans of Springfield are as passionate as I have seen thus far. They remember how good things were in the glory years of the mid 90’s and want that feeling back again,” said Hardy. “We are hard at work at getting back to basics and letting the fans know they are going to be a team that works hard and play an exciting brand of hockey. We hope it is something the community rallies around and is proud to call their own because one of the things that the Jr. Blues prides itself on is our tradition.”
Part of that hard working team will be some veterans who Hardy will rely on, especially to start the season. “It’s encouraging because just in the past week, I have been contacted by 10-12 NCAA Div. I schools about some of these guys, which tells us that they are doing the right things heading into this season.” Heading that list is Ethan Nauman, who was the leading scorer for the Jr. Blues a season ago with 62 points. Forward Gavin Tufte, who scored 21 goals last season and led the team in game-winning goals, returns as well and team captain Stewart Bell will also be back in the line-up providing some much needed size, leadership and toughness.
In goal, the Jr. Blues have three goaltenders in training camp. The returner is Caleb Neal, who like the Jr. Blues played his best hockey towards the end of the season, winning his last three starts, including posting in first career NAHL shutout. Another goalie is Connor Gerrard from Edina, Minnesota, who Hardy says has emerged as the probable starter. Gerrard led Edina High School to the Class AA state title in 2010 and is just coming back from an injury suffered last year. The final goalie in camp is Tyler Parks, a 6’7 goalie from St. Louis, who Hardy says is still in the mix. As for any of the new players that will have an impact in the line-up, Hardy reserved comment about any of them, but made it clear that he would rely consistently on production from the Jr. Blues rookies.
Dibble started it and now Hardy continues the leadership for the Jr. Blues behind the bench, and in the new look Midwest Division, Springfield should have every opportunity to make the playoffs, but with the momentum continuing from last year and the with the amount of returning veterans, look for Springfield to try and finish in the top two and make some noise in the playoffs.
Next up in the NAHL’s 28 teams in 28 days series, the St. Louis Bandits.