24 Teams in 24 Days: Odessa Jackalopes
The ‘24 in 24’ series features an in-depth look into all 24 NAHL teams, with a new team being highlighted daily, leading all the way up until the start of the regular season on Saturday, September 8th.
‘24 in 24’ will go in-depth into each NAHL team and will include interview with all 24 NAHL head coaches as they prognosticate and break down their outlook for the upcoming season.
Hockey in the Permian Basin of Texas underwent a change at the start of last season as after 14 years in the professional hockey ranks, the Odessa Jackalopes made the shift to the NAHL. The Jackalopes were the latest in a recent line of NAHL teams that have been springing up in former professional hockey markets in the hopes to make the NAHL model work and thrive within their communities. Judging by what the Jackalopes were able to do in their first NAHL season, it was mission accomplished.
“We struggled at first because the entire process was a new one to the staff, so we didn’t know what to expect until we started playing some games and could really evaluate what the NAHL and our players were about,” said Jacks head coach Paul Gillis, who had coached in Odessa for four years prior when they were still in the professional ranks. “Our team started to get better, our players started to get better and improve and it was nice to see their hard work pay off as we got later into the season.”
It was also a transition for the Odessa/Midland community. “Having been in the community for five years now, I think it was a change and a shift for the fans in the beginning as well,” said Gillis. “However, as they team started to play competitive, fun and exciting hockey, I think the fans caught on and realized that this level brings a lot of excitement to the arena on a nightly basis. I think they appreciated the fact that the team improved and that we started to win as the season progressed.” The Jackalopes ended up 4th in the NAHL in attendance, averaging just under 3,000 fans per game and actually averaged more fans per game than they did during their final season of professional hockey.
Anyone involved with the Jackalopes, be it a coach, player, staff member or casual fan would admit one of the major reasons for the success last season on the ice was goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. Hellebuyck, a rookie last season, was the workhorse from the start for Odessa. The numbers that the goaltender from Commerce, Michigan posted were truly remarkable. He led the NAHL in shots faced, saves and games/minutes played. While doing all this, he also managed to rank second in the NAHL in save percentage at 93.0%. For those reasons and then some, Hellebuyck was not only named as the NAHL Co-Goaltender and NAHL Co-Rookie of the Year, but he was also drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in the 5th round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft this past June.
“I think a lot of our success can be attributed to Connor, and rightfully so,” said Gillis. “He has a great work ethic, is a great kid and I think the thing that stood out most was his consistency. He was able to be great in almost every game without any kind of lapse and to do that at a young age is one of the main reasons that he was able to get drafted in the NHL. We were very happy for Connor when his name was called in the NHL Draft by Winnipeg. It was a very positive thing to happen for him, our organization and the NAHL.” Gillis should know, as he is a veteran of 600+ regular season games played in the NHL.
The Jackalopes ended up making the playoffs in the always tough South Division as the #4 seed, where they had to face the Amarillo Bulls in the 1st round. Although they succumbed in four games to the eventual South Champions, the foundation had been built, setting the team up for another exciting run in the upcoming 2012-13 season. “We certainly expect to be better this upcoming season,” said Gillis. “Our scouting staff had an entire season to evaluate prospects and bring in the kind of guys we want and the kind of guys we think will make us successful. We wanted guys who can skate, who have size and can play an up-tempo style. We thought our main camp went really well, so there is a lot of optimism.”
Gillis said he wanted to have a better start to this season and his veteran players will be instrumental in that process. Gillis mentioned that Jared Docken and Tyler Minx should be able to provide a nice veteran presence on the blueline, while Lawrence Cornellier, Ryan Doucet, Jalen Krogman, Tyler Cayemberg and Taylor Portner are veteran forwards who will be expected to carry the offensive load. Cornellier and Krogman were #1 and #2 respectively in scoring last season and Doucet is an Air Force Academy recruit.
It sets up for what appears to be another successful hockey season in Odessa, but Gillis and the Jacks will be looking for a better start and the opportunity will arise for some young players, including two new netminders, to fill the void left by players like Hellebuyck from last season’s playoff run.
Next up in the NAHL 24 Teams in 24 Days series, the Minot Minotauros.