The St. George Dukes are finding the move up to the Niagara and District Junior Hockey League more challenging than they expected.
“At this level, we are finding if you make a mistake you’re likely going to have a face-off at centre ice,” general manager Brian Shouldice said. “It’s a bit faster and it’s tougher than I anticipated. There is a lot of stuff going on behind the play.”
The Dukes lost to the Aylmer Spitfires at home on Sunday by a score of 8-2 to drop the team’s record to 1-7-1 this season.
They are last place in the Niagara and District Junior Hockey League’s East Division.
Shouldice said he expected some growing pains when he accepted the early promotion to the Junior C loop.
The Ontario Hockey Association is working to bring the Niagara and District Junior Hockey League under the same league umbrella as the Dukes’ former league, the Southern Ontario Junior Hockey League, which used to be Junior D.
The Dukes accepted an early promotion to full-time Junior C when a spot opened this season, while the rest of the Southern Ontario Junior Hockey League teams only have a handful of games against Niagara and District Junior Hockey League competition.
“We like the division,” Shouldice said. “The champion always seems to come out of this East Division, so it’s a good benchmark of where we need to be. Although it’s tough, I think it will make us a better hockey team.”
Dukes captain Dennis Larson played with the team last season. He said there is a big difference on the ice this year.
“There is a higher skill level and more size,” Larson said. “There are definitely some big (Junior C) teams out there.”
One goal in moving up to Junior C competition a year early was to attract better hockey players to St. George.
“It’s hard to say if we would have had the same guys come play for us if we were still in the SOJHL,” Shouldice said. “But I think this move has brought us some better hockey players. We are now just one step below Junior B instead of two. I know that may not seem like a lot to most people, but it makes a big difference to a hockey player.”
Four of the Dukes losses this season have been by a one or two-goal margin.
“We are right there,” Larson said. “A couple bounces here and there and we are right in it. We just need to get together, work our systems and we’ll get some wins out of it.”
Shouldice has arranged team training with Nathan Gillies of Drop the Puck Inc. in Cambridge, which he thinks will help his team take the next step.
“I’m hoping that will address, primarily, the mental part of the game,” Shouldice said. “We need to up the competition level to get us through this season.
“There is a lot of skill in the room, we just need to come together as a team.”
The Dukes travel to Glanbrook on Wednesday night to take on the Rangers before coming back home next Saturday to host the Simcoe Storm at 7:30 p.m.
Elsewhere in the Niagara and District Junior Hockey League this week, the Paris Mounties lost a 6-5 overtime decision to the Storm on Saturday. The Mounties beat the Chippawa Riverhawks 4-1 on Friday and currently sit tied for second place with 18 points in the standings, one point behind the Norwich Merchants.
In the Southern Ontario Junior Hockey League, the Burford Bulldogs lost a key game to Ayr Centennial last Thursday, won on Saturday against the Delhi Travellers, but lost on Sunday to the Wellesley Applejacks. The pair of losses dropped the Bulldogs record to 8-4. They are now three points back of the Centennials in the SOJHL’s McConnell Conference.
The Bulldogs have two games at the Burford arena this weekend, against the Travellers on Saturday and the Hagersville Hawks on Sunday.
The Mounties host the Spitfires at the Brant Sports Complex on Thursday, travel to Dunnville on Friday and are at home against the Woodstock Navy Vets on Saturday night.