AMHERST – While much of the pre-season fanfare has been on how strong other teams in the league will be, Mitch O’Neill said fans shouldn’t count out the Amherst Ramblers.
The Ramblers will open the 2012-13 Maritime Junior Hockey League season on the road Thursday when they travel to New Glasgow to face the Weeks Crushers before returning for their home-opener Saturday against the defending champion Woodstock Slammers.
“It’s great to get started again, I’m looking forward to it,” O’Neill said Wednesday. “We had a great season last year and I’m confident we’re going to have another great season this year. We just have to stay focused and play our game.”
O’Neill is one of only a handful of returning forwards this year, but he doesn’t consider this year’s team to be rebuilding. While quality scorers like Jordan Escott and Cole MacMillan will be hard to replace, he said the team has added several key assets from other programs and has a number of players joining the club out of major midget and high school.
“People may say we’re rebuilding, but I don’t think we are,” he said. “We have a great back end and have made some big additions up front. I think the difference this year is we won’t be relying on one or two guys to do the scoring, we’ll do it as a team.
“I don’t consider a lot of our guys rookies. They are older and have some experience, and our younger players have a lot of talent. It’s going to be a fun season.”
O’Neill is entering his fourth and final season with the Ramblers. He scored four goals and added 13 assists for 17 points and 40 penalty minutes in 52 games with the team last year. He also developed a reputation as one of the premiere defensive forwards in the league and teamed up with Kody Orr to become among the best penalty killers.
The Glace Bay native said he would like to bring more offence to the team this year, but remains committed to his defensive game and shutting down the opposition’s best players.
“I’m going to try to contribute more offensively this year, it’s my last year and I want the team to get as far as we can get,” he said.
Ramblers’ coach Jim Bottomley said his players have been working hard since the start of training camp and are ready to start the regular season.
“We’re ready to go. We have a couple of injuries, but one of them could be back this weekend,” Bottomley said. “The boys have put a lot of effort into getting ready for the season and I’m confident we’ll be very competitive. Last year’s team had the benefit of lots of skill, but this year’s team is going to benefit from lots of hard work every shift and every game.”
Bottomley said there’s a tremendous work ethic in the lineup and great chemistry in the lineup.
Key to picking up a couple of wins early on will be carrying that work ethic from practice to game time and putting in a strong defensive effort.
“We have to take care of our own end and capitalize on the chances we do get,” Bottomley said.