Natives head coach reflects on season


By: Lanny Stewart

For the fourth straight season, there will be no playoff hockey for the Neepawa Natives.

The Manitoba Junior Hockey League club wrapped up its regular season over the weekend, finishing with a 14-41-5 record, six points behind the Waywayseecappo Wolverines for the fifth and final playoff spot in the Sher-Wood Division.

Head coach Dwayne Kirkup, who joined the Natives last May, was forthright when describing the season, which saw the team finish last in the league in goals for and against.

"It was a bit of a roller coaster ride," said Kirkup. "We certainly wanted to get into the playoffs; it was a disappointing season to myself and I believe to the rest of the Neepawa Natives."

Kirkup says injuries played a key role in the club's inability to sustain any sort of momentum throughout the year. The Natives were hoping for the services of Landon Thompson this season, but the 20-year-old forward wound up having shoulder surgery at the beginning of the season, which resulted in the MacGregor product only playing in two games for the club.

"He was a guy that we were hoping for big things from," said Kirkup. "We had injuries to others throughout the year, not using that as an excuse, but it was hard to get going because of that."

Another notable player who was on the shelf for the majority of the year due to injuries was 19-year-old goaltender Davy Fisher, who suffered two concussions during the season. Fisher, who looked to be the club's No. 1 netminder to start the year, was a big part of the club's mid-November victory against the Winkler Flyers where he made a whopping 59 saves to help the Natives pick up a 1-0 shootout win at home at the Yellowhead Centre.

Despite the setbacks, the youthful Natives did have some positive signs with several of their younger players making big strides throughout the season. Moving forward, Kirkup likes what he sees.

"I think cornerstones for the Neepawa Natives as we move forward are players like Drake Lindsay, Brady Bouchard, Clayton Heindrichs, Riley Hillis, those type of players who have got a good work ethic and want to be a Neepawa Native -- those are players that we need to surround with other good players," said Kirkup. "Players like Reigan Buchanan, Riley Kolesar, Kyle McDonald, I thought those three young guys really made big strides as well and really improved a lot."

Kirkup is well aware of the team's weaknesses and says moving forward, the organization needs to, collectively as a group, organize a gameplan.

"Where's our problem, our strengths, our weaknesses. I think we have to be upfront and honest about that. I think we need to make sure that we all get back to the drawing board and we get back to working hard and turning this thing around.

"We need to upgrade in several areas, we realize that," he continued. "The new season starts as of today."

Veterans not returning; Kirkup high on Moar

The end of the season means the graduation of the 20-year-old players on the Natives, including their captain Robby Moar.

Kirkup says the Portage product played an important role on the club this season.

"He's one of the hardest working players in the league," said Kirkup. "He certainly leads by example. He's gonna be greatly missed. We used him a lot on the penalty kill. He's not just a penalty killer. He's a very good player five-on-five."

Moar took over as captain after the club traded Ryley Pace to the Superior International Junior Hockey League's English River Miners in January.

Meanwhile, forward Sam Briscoe, who finished in a tie for the team lead in scoring with 14 goals and 43 points and was a member of the club's top scoring unit with Brady Bouchard and Drake Lindsay, will not be back. Other forwards not returning include Luke Karakas, who finished second in team scoring, and Jaret Smith.

Defenceman Justin Coachman and goaltender Matthieu Verreault, who came in and played the majority of the games between the pipes after the injury to Fisher, will also not be back.

Kirkup unsure of his future with club

Kirkup's one-year contract as head coach of the Natives runs out at the end of March. He says he's unsure of his future with the team and expects to find out one way or the other in the next few weeks.

"I'm under contract until the end of March and my future has not been decided yet," he said. "I'm assuming the management group are reviewing my position. Let's face it. It was a failing grade. We didn't make the playoffs. There was big expectations, not only from me, but certainly from the Neepawa Natives group, and we didn't get it done. I'm sure they're reviewing my situation."

Leaving on a high note

The 2013-2014 campaign was the Natives' 25th season in the MJHL and the organization wanted to reward their season ticket holders with a win in their last regular season home game against the Dauphin Kings last Friday night.

The Natives did just that, edging the Kings 3-2 in a shootout at the Yellowhead Centre.

"I thought we really competed very well in that game against Dauphin," said Kirkup. "The whole message was that we were trying to finish the season on a positive note and I think we did that.

"I was very proud of them and the way they conducted their business," he concluded.

Photo: Dwayne Kirkup

Photo by Lanny Stewart