In nautical terms, the Olds Grizzlys were listing badly when head coach Kevin Willison resigned in late November.
Under Brett Hopfe, who at the time was promoted from assistant coach to interim bench boss, the good ship Grizzly is back on course. The Alberta Junior Hockey League team has been on a roll through the month of January and Hopfe, who was in his third season as an assistant, recently had the ‘interim’ tag removed from his head coaching position and was also appointed as the club’s director of hockey operations.
The Grizzlys, 7-2-0-1 in their last 10 games, have reversed their fortunes by adopting a defence-first approach.
“We’ve changed our systems up quite a bit. We’ve established a more defensive system to help out our goalies as much as we can,” said Hopfe. “Earlier in the year we were giving up too many odd-man rushes and the new system has seemed to help that way.
“We’ve also talked about having roles and all of our players have bought into their roles. Every guy has a distinct role on the team. They know that if you’re a scorer you have to score for us, if you’re a defensive guy you have to keep the puck out. All 23 guys have bought into that theory and have done a great job.”
When he stepped into the temporary head coaching position, Hopfe — a former Grizzlys forward and AJHL all-star — had the advantage of being familiar with the talent level and capabilities of his players.
“It was an easy transition for myself, having known these guys for the last couple of years,” he said. “It was not an ideal way to come in with it being halfway through the season, but I’m pretty proud of these guys with how they’ve bought into the new systems that we’ve installed.
“As coaches, we really preach work ethic. Teams in this league are so evenly-matched so if you outwork the other team you should have a chance to win every night.”
The Didsbury native earned an athletic scholarship to Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh and played four seasons with the NCAA Division 1 Colonials — from 2004 to 2008. Hopfe, now 28, not only took a regular shift, but watched and learned from the RMU coaches.
“University hockey in the states is very system-oriented and I brought a lot of those systems with me to this hockey team,” he said.
In addition, the Grizzlys — in much the same fashion as NCAA players — are now working out on a regular basis with the team’s strength coach, Jeff Royston.
Dana Lattery, another former Grizzly who won the 1999-2000 AJHL scoring title before playing four seasons at Western Michigan and then two years in the ECHL and AHL, joined the Olds squad as an assistant coach in late December.
“Dana brings a lot of experience. He’s another Grizzlys alumni who had a great career here and in college, and a good pro career too,” said Hopfe. “His experience at those levels has helped our team tremendously.”
With their relative youth and NCAA backgrounds, Hopfe feels that he and Lattery, 31, can better relate to the Grizzlys players.
“We’re young guys, but I think that helps with the players,” said Hopfe. “Most of the guys in the locker room want to go to the next level and that’s the NCAA. Having two guys as coaches who have been down there, they can ask questions regarding how the game is played at the college level.”
Led offensively by the likes of Red Deer product and 25-goal scorer Tanner Dunkle, Brandon Clowes and Olds native Spencer Dorowicz, and defensively by Casey Rogers and captain Clay Howe, the Grizzlys — with Jesse Ehnisz and Brandon Thiessen providing solid goaltending — now sit comfortably in fifth place in the South Division.
The Grizzlys, who return to action Friday versus the host Canmore Eagles, need just one more win to clinch a playoff berth. As for their post-season hopes . . .
“Our fate is in our own hands. If we go out there and outwork a team we should have a chance to win,” said Hopfe. “On most nights when we’ve been on this roll we’ve outworked the other team and even in the games we’ve lost we feel we’ve outworked them or just didn’t have the bounces going our way.
“With playoff hockey, hard work is what wins games. If we continue to play that way good things will happen.”