By Tyler Major-Mcnicol
Special to The Review
They ended up hoisting the Barkley Cup as the Eastern Ontario Junior Hockey League (EOJHL) champions, but the road to the Junior B title for the Casselman Vikings was a bumpy one from the very beginning of the 2021-2022 season.
After final cuts were made and the team’s lineup was set, the coaching staff held reserved expectations for the regular season. Head Coach Mike Ruest knew his team wouldn’t be the most skilled or dynamic, but they would bring a hard-nosed, dedicated mentality to the rink every day.
“Throughout the whole year we had a rag-tag (group) of players that came through our system and whatnot,” Ruest said in an interview a few days after the Vikings clinched the Barkley Cup. “We were just very average and content with making the playoffs.”
Near mid season the team and coaching staff got together as a group and assessed where things were at and where they were headed going forward. After that things started gelling.
“We knew we weren’t going to be very skilled – we needed to outwork every team, at every game, in every situation,” Ruest says. “We did not have a raw team in the beginning, but all of a sudden the guys were quiet, but very serious about what was going on.”
Another major turning point came in the second round of this year’s playoffs, in which Casselman dropped the first two games to the Embrun Panthers.
“After being down against Embrun two games to zero and coming back to win the best-of-five series three game to two, (Assistant Coach Geoff Séguin) and I realized we had something special in the room.”
The dressing room for the Vikings was a quiet one, according to Ruest, but the players let their performance on the ice do the talking. Ruest says the team’s coaches knew the players respected them and their on-ice performance filled any holes left by the lack of chatter.
“Geoff and I spoke, they bought in,” said Ruest. “We weren’t trying to sell anything – we’re not salespeople here – but they believed in what we were asking of them.”
The trend throughout the series against Ottawa West (Golden Knights) was much the same as the series against the Blue Wings – home-cooking meant very little, until the final game of the series. Each of the first five games for the two respective teams were lost on home ice, with the Vikings’ ending the trend in their barn (JR Brisson Complex) and wrapping up the best-of-seven series four games to two, sending the Golden Knights home packing.
“We lost the two games at home, beat West three games in their building, and we were able to win the final game at home,” noted Ruest, on the lack of home ice importance during two of the team’s playoff series.
The underdog mentality served the Vikings’ well during the playoffs, as they weren’t the highest seed, nor were they the best offensive or defensive team, which were Ottawa West and Embrun respectively. Ruest was particulary proud of the versatility showed by the Vikings players in matching up against the EOJHL’s best defensive and offensive teams.
“We betrayed the analytics, we ended up beating the best team in the league, that was first-overall, which was West (Ottawa) and they were the highest scoring team,” Ruest said. “We also beat the most defensive team in the league, Embrun.”
“We were able to grind it out against a strong offensive team, West and a strong defensive team in Embrun.”
In the finals, the Perth Blue Wings were relatively unknown to Ruest, Seguin and company. The staff had to resort to the internet to conduct pre-series scouting and analysis.
“Thanks to Hockey DB, where you are able to analyze a little bit of their strength and patterns, we were able to build a bit of a game plan against Perth, unknown to them as they were to us,” Ruest said. “Analytics are fine, but we made analytics not very important as far as I’m concerned.”