Optimism abounds for 99ers squad
The Brantford 99ers will undoubtedly look different once the 2017-18 season gets underway.
However, one major change has already taken place for the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League Mid-Western Conference club - its attitude.
After rallying late this season to gain a playoff spot, the culture change of expecting to win versus knowing they can win should be a marked difference from years past.
"It's gigantic," head coach Wes Consorti said of the team having a tremendous 2017 portion of their season.
"For the guys who do come back, they know what they can do. They've seen how they can play against any team in the league. Experience is huge in junior hockey and when those guys do come back they have that belief, the work ethic and preparation to know what it takes to be successful at this level.
"We're expecting big things from the guys who are coming back and I think they are, too."
Like the team's first three seasons, this one began with optimism that the 99ers could climb higher than ever before. But things didn't get off to the greatest start and once head coach Scott Rex stepped down, Consorti and Dan Nadeau took over as co-coaches.
At the Christmas break, Brantford was last in the nine-team MWC, well behind the Brampton Bombers for the final playoff spot. However, after losing their first seven games of the new year, the 99ers got hot by winning six of their final 12 games.
Brantford (11-32-2-5) wound up two points ahead of Brampton (10-33-2-5) for the final post-season berth, a feat that had management's chest puffed out.
"The thing that jumped out at us was that we were really proud of the guys getting to the playoffs from where we were at, given the situation we were in at the break," said Consorti.
"Considering all the things that needed to happen for us to get in happened, that's on the kids. We're really proud."
Up against the first-place Listowel Cyclones in the first round of the playoffs, Brantford was eventually swept 4-0 in a best-of-seven quarter-final series but not before taking the Cyclones to overtime in Game 1 and then losing by a goal in Game 4.
"After that first game, people kind of looked and said, 'That's not supposed to happen,'" Consorti explained.
"We weren't an eighth-place team going into the playoffs the way we were playing. We were on a roll. We were playing our best hockey.
"We still lost four straight but the way we lost, I don't think people thought that was going to happen."
The 99ers made it hard for the Cyclones and Brantford's players learned what it takes to win while also seeing how good teams like Listowel prepare and execute.
Brantford will lost two overagers - Mike Finger and Kevin Bray - but management has spoken to the players and, from what they've been told, a good chunk of the roster should be returning.
Those players will be added to a few the 99ers will select from its May 27 and 28 rookie camp at the Gretzky Centre to build what the organization hopes will be a successful team for next season.
"We're always growing as an organization," said Consorti, who thanked the fans, volunteers and city for its support. "You have to pinch yourself and remember we're only four years in.
"It's a process and things like this take time. We're on the right path to building a program where kids want to come here.
"We're going to continue to grow and build."