Thursday, October 15, 2009

Another winning Brahmas team?

Texas Brahmas ready to open third season under coach Dan Wildfong

Originally posted on ProHockey News

After being named rookie head coach of the Texas Brahmas in June of 2007, Dan Wildfong was well behind the pack as far a recruiting goes for his first season behind the bench. Still, he managed to put together a team that had the moxy to fight their way to the Northern Conference Finals and force a game seven against the then defending CHL Champion Eagles.

After losing that game, Wildfong immediately went back to work re-building a team that last season, not only won their division, their conference, but also the 2009 Ray Miron President's Cup.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Wildfong, along with assistant coach Ron Vogel, took a very short amount of time to enjoy the afterglow of the championship win.

"Once we won, we enjoyed that night but Ronnie and I were discussing the fact that we were behind already, because other teams had already started recruiting," Wildfong said. So, it started right when we were done..."

The fruition of Wildfong and Vogel’s' effort come to bear on Friday night when the Brahmas and the Eagles face off once again to open the 2009-10 season. The Brahmas team that will take the ice will see a lot of evolution as the season wears on, but with the strength of a core of returning players, you can expect to see another winning effort as they collaborate to defend the President’s Cup.

One of the key members of that core is goaltender Brett Jaeger. Entering his third season with the Brahmas, Jaeger spent a week at the Houston Aeros (AHL) training camp before returning to duty at the NYTEX Sports Centre. Jaeger finished the 2008-09 regular season with a 2.36 GAA and a .924 save percentage, which made him one of the league's top three backstoppers last year. In the playoffs, he led all CHL goalies with a 2.20 GAA and a .930 save percentage.

One of the hardest working members of the team, Jaeger has no question as to the importance of his role.

"For me, I mean, my job is the same as it was last year and the year before – to go out and make the saves I’m supposed to make and make a couple of unreal saves (laughing) during the game," Jaeger said. "Keep the team in the game and give them a chance to win. Stop the pucks."

Backing up Jaeger in net this season will be rookie Joe Palmer from Ohio State. The 21-year-old attended training camps with the Chicago Blackhawks (NHL) and the Rockford Ice Hogs (AHL) before being assigned to the Brahmas. Palmer won his pre-season debut against the expansion Allen Americans and is anxious to learn and to contribute.

"I'm just excited to be here," Palmer said. "I'm looking forward to working hard and fitting in with the team. I know there's a lot of returning guys, so it's going to be crucial for me to come in and fit in with the guys and blend to their chemistry."

A trio of returning defensemen will anchor the Brahmas blue line, including Craig Minard, Justin Kinnunen and Kevin McLeod.

The heart and soul of that group is Minard, who was Wildfong's teammate for five seasons with the Bossier-Shreveport Mudbugs. Wildfong says he saw Minard elevate his game this past season farther than he ever saw when he played with him or against him.

"It was just a fantastic year for him," Wildfong said. "He read plays well, moved the puck. He seemed to play with that confidence of “I’m going to win and nobody’s holding me back.” He played all year like that. And when you have your leader doing that, it makes my coaching job a lot easier because everyone just starts following."

Kinnunen, a two-time CHL All-Star, was called up for 11 games with the San Antonio Rampage (AHL) last season and has accounted for 76 points (23 G, 53 A) in two years with the Brahmas.

McLeod was one of the league's top defensive scoring leaders with 50 points (20 G, 30 A) last season. The third year professional out of Cornell has tallied 84 points (32 G, 52 A) in two seasons with the Brahmas.

Another returnee, second year pro Ross Rouleau, earned a spot on the Brahmas roster last season after attending the team's "Making the Cut" prospect camp. Waived after two games, Rouleau returned in February and ended up with a championship ring. He is joined this season by rookies Denis Chisholm and Luke Lucyk.

At forward, Wildfong has brought back another core group; five of his top scorers from the past two seasons.

The first to be re-signed was CHL playoff MVP Jason Deitsch. Deitsch, who was called up for 28 games with the Houston Aeros (AHL), tallied 44 points (20 G, 24 A) in 36 games with the Brahmas. During the playoffs, he led the league with 26 points (11 G, 15 A) including a hat trick in the game five championship winner against the Colorado Eagles.

"Deitsch was a key element in winning the Cup last season and his return will put us on track for another great year," Wildfong said.

Jordan Cameron is back for his third season with the Brahmas as the teams' scoring leader with 124 points (53 G, 71 A). He played 14 games with the Hannover Indians in Germany at the beginning of last season. Cameron appreciates the "all for one, one for all" spirit that Wildfong promotes.

"What's great is, he built the team to be a team…there are just so many great players here, and it's not a team built on one or two guys," said Cameron. "We all played a role, we all came together. It's a fun team to be a part of."

Two others are back for their third seasons with the Brahmas including Grant Jacobsen, who put up 108 points (36 G, 72 A) over the past two seasons and Tyler Skworchinski who was good for 85 Points (40 G, 45 A) in his first two pro seasons.

Anders Strome returns to the Brahmas as a player/assistant after playing in Denmark last season. Strome led the team with 34 goals and tallied 60 points (34 G, 26 A) in 2007-08.

Other returnees include second year pros Pete Rouleau and Matt Burto.

New additions include Ryan Cruthers and Mark Rooneem, who played last season with the Mississippi Sea Wolves. Cruthers put up 66 points (29 G, 37 A) in his rookie season and was called up to the AHL for nine games with the Lake Erie Monsters and the Albany River Rats. Rooneem, a sixth year pro, tallied 30 points (15 G, 15 A) last season.

Rookies include A.J. Gale and Mike Willemsen.

Of his returning players, Wildfong expressed appreciation for a job well done last season.

"You know, I can’t thank these guys enough, Wildfong said. "They are such a great team to coach. They worked hard and they gave me everything they had, almost every night and it was fun, a lot of fun. I saw us go to a different level some nights. If we really needed a goal or we really needed to bear down, we’d pick it up two notches and you could see it out there. The guys really dug deep."

Assistant coach Ron Vogel won’t speculate on what the Brahmas chances are this year, but he is confident that they have a team in place that will make a strong effort.

“You don’t know 100% how things are going to work out but we can’t control that between injuries and players and all that,” Vogel said. “We’ve got a group right now – if we have to make changes we will – that will try and defend the cup. The great thing about bringing the core group back is they know how hard it was to win it. Once you know and realize how much you have to do to be successful – it doesn’t come easier, it gets harder. If you’ve been there, you want to keep that. You want to keep the Cup.”

Photo Credit: Robert Keith

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