When the will doesn’t match the skill, all too often the end result isn’t favourable.
The Red Deer Rebels are a talented group, no doubt, but there have been nights when GM/head coach Brent Sutter hasn’t seen enough commitment from his charges, most notably his go-to players.
Saturday’s Western Hockey League contest versus the visiting Brandon Wheat Kings is one such example. The Rebels were 2-1 losers but the score greatly flattered the home team, whose best performer was netminder Rylan Toth.
When the players and coaches convened on Monday, the Rebels boss had a message for his charges … a message they’ve heard before but struck a little closer to home considering how Saturday’s game went down.
“The important thing is at this time of the year you have to take your game to a different level, to a higher level,” Sutter said Tuesday, relaying the tone of his talk. “You can’t have certain guys have their game drop off, we have to make sure everyone is on the same program.
“I thought the one line really struggled the other night. They didn’t play enough straight-line hockey, there was too much circling and too many turnovers. Your best players can’t play that way.”
Sutter stressed that he wasn’t placing all the blame on the Michael Spacek/Ivan Nikolishin/Adam Helewka forward unit.
“There were other guys who didn’t play that well either, and we can’t be that way,” he said. “The thing is there was no excuse for it. It’s not like we were playing our fourth game in five nights. It was our second game in seven nights.
“The coaching staff certainly wasn’t happy about that. We have to keep our emotion level up to where it needs to be and we have to understand that there’s a certain way we have to play to have success. The other night we didn’t have enough guys who wanted to play that way.”
If the Rebels are aiming to chase down the Central Division and Eastern Conference leading Lethbridge Hurricanes or simply stay clear of the Brandon Wheat Kings and Calgary Hitmen — both of whom are within easy striking range — a more consistent work ethic will be needed over the final seven weeks.
“It’s going to be tit-for-tat for the rest of the year, it’s going to go back and forth,” said Sutter of the divisional and conference races. “But we can’t worry about what other teams are doing, we have to just try and get our game to the level that’s acceptable, to the point where we can say, ‘OK, we’re taking steps’.”
The Rebels, as the 2016 Memorial Cup hosts, are a moving target this season.
“I know we’re still in a great position but the reality of it all is that every team that plays us is going to try and bring their A game, just because of our situation,” said Sutter.
“We have to understand that and we have to be able to match their intensity and work ethic. The other night we didn’t do that and to me that’s unacceptable.
“At the end of the day we know we have a good team, that we’re very talented. I’m not worried about that, it’s the commitment to team play and work ethic — those are the things we have to keep at a high level. It’s been somewhat inconsistent at times and the other night it dropped off on us.”
Sutter has reminded his players more than once that skill and size has to be paired with passion and resolve.
“It you’re not willing to work extremely hard then a hard-working team will always beat you,” he said. “The other night we cheated in a lot of ways.
“We’re a big team, to be honest the biggest team we’ve had since I came on (as owner) in ‘99. We’re bigger than our Memorial Cup (winning) team (in 2001) and we have to play that way … we have to play a heavy game. But if we want to take short cuts and take the easy way out, then we’ll struggle.
“Brandon’s best players were better than ours the other night, their team as a whole was better. Do I think we’re as skilled as Brandon? Absolutely, but if your ethic isn’t going to match that of the other team, then 99 per cent of the time you’re probably not going to win.”
The Rebels return to action Friday against the Kootenay Ice at Cranbrook. The Moose Jaw Warriors visit the Centrium the following evening.