CHL Notebook: Kitchener’s mindset, deadline deals breeding success

Francesco Pinelli of the Kitchener Rangers. (Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

On Nov. 23, the Kitchener Rangers were 7-10-2-2.

Since then, the Ontario Hockey League club has lost just twice in regulation and sits in first in both the OHL’s Midwest Division and Western Conference.

What’s gone right for the Rangers since then?

“I don’t know if it’s one specific thing,” Rangers general manager and coach Mike McKenzie said. “Our guys show up to work nine out of ten nights. There’s the odd one here and there that every team has, but for the most part our guys continually show up to work eight or nine times out of ten. When you do that and you have some skill players like we think we do and a good goalie, it’s a pretty good recipe.”

A change in mindset also helped the turnaround.

“There was a point where we said enough was enough,” goaltender Jacob Ingham said. “We got together as a team and had a closed-door meeting.”

Ingham went on to say the meeting saw some of Kitchener’s veteran players talk about not wanting to be moved at the trade deadline.

“There were a bunch of older guys that took it upon ourselves (to make an improvement) and the younger guys stepped in line and followed with us,” Ingham said.

A franchise that has been a model in the league over the years, McKenzie spoke of the experience of veteran players on the Rangers and creating a culture in the organization.

“They know what it takes and what it’s like,” McKenzie said. “It sounds cliché to say it, but that’s how you build a winning culture. That’s how you can build a losing one, too. You see it now in the NHL where teams are having trouble getting over that hump because they’ve lost and lost.

“It goes the same way with winning,” McKenzie added. “Once you’ve won and had some success, the guys start to understand what it takes. Then, when the younger guys come in, they just look at the older guys and they’re doing things the right way and (the younger players) just fall in line and do it that way because that’s the only way they know how and it keeps rolling over.”

Ingham went further and spoke of the additions of defencemen Holden Wale and Serron Noel at the trade deadline that added to that element.

“There are a lot of guys that have been in this league for a long time, so they know what it takes to win,” Ingham said. “It’s just about buying in and everyone did that. Then we got Waler and Noel at the deadline. Those were two awesome pieces for us and two older guys as well. It’s helping mentor the young guys so when they’re in that position in two or three years, they’re going to be able to step up.”

Another veteran who has played a key role in the Rangers’ success is forward Liam Hawel, who was acquired by the team from the Guelph Storm prior to the start of the regular season.

Hawel joined the team on the heels of an OHL title last season in Guelph.

“He’s been great for us,” McKenzie said. “He’s one of those steady guys. He’s a mature kid. He gets it. He knows what he has to do, and he knows what it’s like to prepare and those things that sometimes the younger guys don’t fully know yet. He’s a good mentor for our younger players. He’s 6-foot-4, he can skate, shoot, and pass the puck, There’s not much not to like about him.”

After spending time with the Guelph Storm, Hawel joked that it “was definitely weird at first to not be getting booed in that rink.”

Hawel spoke of fitting the system as another element to the hot streak.

“We have a good mix of size and speed and skill,” Hawel said. “We play a puck-possession style and it suits well with our skill and the playmaking ability of this team. Off the ice, we have a really tight group.”

PREPARING FOR 2021

With the 2020 Memorial Cup on the horizon in Kelowna, Monday is the deadline for teams to submit letters to the league outlining their interest in hosting the 2021 tournament, which moves to Ontario.

The Soo Greyhounds announced late last week their interest (https://www.sootoday.com/local-sports/greyhounds-confident-in-bid-for-memorial-cup-2075839) while the Oshawa Generals have also entered the process (https://www.thepeterboroughexaminer.com/sports-story/9778102-oshawa-generals-enter-bid-to-host-memorial-cup-in-2021/).

GETTING HOT AT THE RIGHT TIME

With the playoffs looming in the Western Hockey League, it’s not just teams that are looking to get hot.

A pair of Spokane Chiefs forwards are on a roll of late offensively.

Veteran Eli Zummack has points in 11 straight games while former first round pick Luke Toporowski has points in his last 10 contests.

The Chiefs currently sit third in the WHL’s U.S. Division with a 30-17-4-1 record. Spokane has won of eight of its past 10 games, which includes five straight wins.

Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Calen Addison of the Lethbridge Hurricanes has gone 10 games with at least a point as well for a Hurricanes team that has won four straight and eight of their last 10 games.

DOWN TO THE WIRE

The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Rimouski Oceanic are doing everything they can to take over top spot in the Eastern Conference.

Winners of 10-straight games, the Oceanic sit second in the conference with the Moncton Wildcats and Chicoutimi Sagueneens in a tie for top spot, two points ahead of Rimouski.

The Wildcats, meanwhile, are doing everything they can to hold off the Oceanic.

Moncton has gone 10-0-1-0 in their last 11 games to maintain their lead on Rimouski.

Not to be outdone, the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, who sit fourth in the conference, have won nine of 10.

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