Moncton Wildcats goalie Matthew Waite admits he often sought advice from his father this winter.
Jimmy Waite, a former NHL netminder and the goaltending coach for the Chicago Blackhawks, talked to his son about things like resiliency and body language despite all the losses.
“I talked to him a lot during the second half,” the 17-year-old said. “He would tell me to keep fighting, play with desperation and keep your head up. It really did help me. We had some pretty tough games.”
The Wildcats (14-51-2-1) finished last overall in the QMJHL after dealing away their assets during the mid-season trade period. The club’s 14 wins tied the record for fewest in franchise history.
But Waite takes pride in being a cornerstone in the rebuilding process. He said the season’s second half was about developing “mental skills.” There are simply no nights off when you enter each game as the underdog.
“I see it as a learning curve and how to bounce back after a tough game,” Waite said. “The second half was tough for everyone, but we all stuck together and worked our butts off.
“A lot of people would have kept their heads down and their shoulders low during those tough times, but we had a special group of guys. We didn’t have the most talent, but we had guys with huge hearts and a love for the game.”
Wildcats director of hockey operations and scouting Roger Shannon sees Waite as part of the silver lining in a transitional season.
“He reminds me of his father, and why wouldn’t he?” Shannon said. “His father trained him, and the apple never falls far from the tree. He has that golden glove and his dad was the same way.”
Several other Wildcats persevered through the trying campaign. Jeremy McKenna, Adam Capannelli, Simon Le Coultre, Liam Murphy and Jonathan Aspirot each played over 60 games.
Mika Cyr overcame injury issues and tallied 21 points in 35 games. Julien Tessier, acquired in a trade with Chicoutimi, was one of the league’s most inspirational stories, having battled back from Crohn’s Disease to post 24 points in 34 games.
“The hardest thing is digging in through tough times,” Shannon said. “It’s tough to go to the rink when you know the odds of winning are not good. You have to dig deep and find positives. We just have to do that.
“To me, it’s probably the first-ever complete rebuild in the history of the Wildcats. That in itself is exciting. We’re looking at it from that perspective. We’re excited about the future.”
While next year will be a continuation of the rebuild, the Wildcats’ brass hopes their team turns the corner in 2018-19, coinciding with the opening of a new downtown arena.
“We’re going to be able to take our gameday show to a whole new level,” said Wildcats business development director Keven Charland, who played five seasons in the QMJHL. “We’re just going to have a lot more to offer our fans. That’s what hockey is all about now. People come to games to watch a good hockey game, but they also want to feel like they’re coming to an event. We’ll be able to offer our fans even more.”
Regardless, support remains strong for the Wildcats at the Moncton Coliseum. A crowd of 5,142 watched the finale on Saturday, a 5-1 setback to the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles.
Now, the most important date is the QMJHL Draft on June 3 at Harbour Station in Saint John. The Wildcats will be in position to add premier prospects.
“Now that the season is over, it’s all about moving forward,” Shannon said. “We won’t leave the foundational reputation, which is a team that’s built on speed and skill. It’s kind of our nature. We’ll have a fast-paced team and we’ll be hard to play against. (Opposing) teams will need to be on their feet.”
Meanwhile, as the Wildcats prepare for the draft, they’ll also keep an eye on the post-season party. Given the high number of trades, there will be many former Wildcats on playoff rosters.
The list includes Lane Cormier and Manuel Wiederer (Rouyn-Noranda); Adam Holwell and Zachary Malatesta (Acadie-Bathurst); Kelly and Kevin Klima (Chicoutimi); Cameron Askew (Shawinigan), and Will Bower (Charlottetown).
“I think the guys we traded at Christmas have an opportunity to play significant roles for their teams in the playoffs,” Shannon said. “The guys who were our best players are going to have playoff runs.”
As for those who stayed, it wasn’t easy. Losing takes a toll on everyone, which is why Waite credits the coaching staff for staying upbeat through all the adversity.
“You want to see the positives of the season,” he said. “To me, I see it as a good first year in the Q. I saw a lot of pucks and a lot of action.”