AMHERST, N.S. – If you told Jeff LeBlanc his hockey club would be firmly established in second place at the Christmas break despite missing the majority of his core players to injury he would’ve questioned your hockey knowledge.
But after a pair of wins over the Campbellton Tigers and the Miramichi Timberwolves to wrap up the pre-Christmas portion of the schedule, the Amherst CIBC Wood Gundy Ramblers entered the break in second place in the Eastlink South Division with a 19-7-2 record for 40 points – second overall in the league behind the division and league-leading Yarmouth Mariners.
“I’m really happy with where we are at right now, things are very positive when you consider all the turnover we had to start the season and then the injuries we had to deal with,” the Ramblers coach and general manager said. “To start the season I said I would’ve been happy if we were 5-5 and we went 8-2 and we’ve been playing very well since then as well.”
After losing key contributors Jordan King, Liam Conrad, Brady Griffin-Hefford and Lucas Sangster to graduation, the Ramblers added a number of newcomers via the trade route including Nick Snow, Casey Fox, Alex Lafreniere, Aidan McFarland, Stephen Fox, Matt Williams and Matt Green.
“When I look at all the guys we added over the summer and have a transition like we’ve had it’s tough to start the year. You’re looking for chemistry and you’re really not sure how well they’ll play together,” LeBlanc said. “It came together much more quickly than I thought it would and we could see early on that we have something special going on here the way the boys have come together as a team and worked through some adversity.”
So far this season, LeBlanc said, the team has one player with a broken hand, two with a separated shoulder, two major concussions, one torn ACL and one sprained MCL for guys who have missed more than four games.
“It’s just amazing to have those kinds of injuries and to still have the record we have. It’s a testament to the guys stepping up,” LeBlanc said. “We’ve adopted the ‘Next Man Up’ slogan in the dressing room because that’s what’s happened so far this season. One man goes down to injury and the next man steps up.”
With the number of injuries, LeBlanc said, it has allowed others to step into key roles. Alex Wynter, who was a healthy scratch the first few games of the season has become one of the club’s top defenceman – earning a tryout with Canada East – while others like Caleb Rich, Casey Fox, Lafreniere, Cole Waugh, Cole Darrach and Stephen Fox have clicked offensively. Even when Matt Williams went down to injury for several games in December, Joel Goguen stepped in and played strong through a pivotal stretch of games.
Heading into the second half of the season, beginning Jan. 3 in New Glasgow against the Weeks Crushers, LeBlanc said his team’s focus will be to get a full lineup in place for the first time since opening night.
LeBlanc said everyone, with the exception of Colton McKenna, should be back for Jan. 3 or within a week or two after. McKenna should return at the end of the month.
Coming up almost immediately after the start of the second half is the MHL’s trading deadline on Jan. 10. LeBlanc isn’t ruling out making some moves at the deadline, considering the club is hosting the Fred Page Cup in May, but he added he wouldn’t hesitate to the take the team he has now to that tournament because of the resilience they’ve showed and the chemistry that exists on the ice and in the dressing room.
Still, if he can make a move that moves the team closer to winning the division, the league and the Fred Page Cup championship he’ll do it.
“I’ve said every day that my goal is to improve and make this team better, whether through it’s a trade, community event or sponsorship. The trade deadline is no exception. We’re trying to make this team into a Fred Page Cup calibre team and we don’t want to just host, we want to win,” he said. “That’s the bottom line and we’re going to do whatever we can between now and Jan. 10 to see what’s there.”
NOTE: Tournament passes for the 2019 Fred Page Cup, being hosted by the Ramblers, are for sale at the Ramblers office on Industrial Park Drive in Amherst. Cost is $69 and includes all eight tournament games.