It sounded audacious, borderline bonkers at the time.
When North Van Wolf Pack general manager and head coach Matt Samson did his preseason chat with the North Shore News, he mentioned that his regular season goal for the team was to win 40 games. Any sport psychologist knows that it’s important to set goals, so what was so bonkers about this one? Well … the PJHL season is only 44 games long, that’s what.
To win 40 games – which would be a new league record – the team would need to nearly run the table for an entire season, winning more than 90 per cent of their games. So how is that going?
As the calendar flips to 2020, the Wolf pack is on pace to win … about 41 games. North Van is 29-1-0-1 through 31 games, and currently riding a 17-game win streak that dates back to Oct. 14. Yes, their last loss was more than two months ago.
Confidence is one thing, but how did the coach know he had a team that might be able to go 40 for 44 in a sport that can often come down to a bad penalty or a good bounce?
“We won 34 last year, and I truly felt that we would be better overall,” Samson said last week when asked about his bold prediction. “I said [at the start of the season] I don’t want to come in and be OK with just being a pretty good team, I said that I think we need to set some goals for ourselves. [Winning 40 games] is one of them. … If we don’t get to 40 it’s not the end of the world, but I really thought that we had the talent to push for that.”
The talent is evident with a look at the statistical leaderboard. Forwards Lucas Barker, Alex Suprynowicz, Dominic Davis and Jacob Fournier are first, second, third and fourth in the league in points. Barker, Fournier and Davis form a dominant top line while Suprynowicz teams with Connor Jollymore and newcomer Ryan Stack to give the Pack two lines that are very hard for opponents to handle.
“It’s hard to plan for use because we have 30-goal scorers on two lines. … We’re very lucky to have this much talent,” said Samson. Forward Sam Marburg also averages a point per game, while the defence is anchored by Jacob Callas – tied for the league lead in points amongst defencemen – and Nathan Haaksma. The goaltending duo of Bradley Cooper and Eric Clark has been strong as well, with both players sitting top-four in the league in wins, shutouts and goals-against average. The team is no doubt talented, but part of Samson’s push for 40 wins was a reminder that they can’t just rely on talent to win games.
“We have enough talent that sometimes we can not be our best and talent will win out, but I just wanted to drive home that, yes, we have talent, but at the same time if we don’t show up now, this team could take away one of the goals that we set out, which is to win this number of games,” said Samson, adding that the players have taken up the challenge. “They’re on board and they want to win every game. But we’ve had some scares and obviously we had a couple of losses and they need to know that we need to show up every night. I think it’s something that keeps them motivated.”
The team has 13 regular season games left and, to reach 40, they’ll need to win 11 of them. That still is a very tall order, and the schedule will be tough the rest of the way, said Samson. The quest continues Jan. 3 and 5 at the PJHL Winter Classic, a series of games involving all 12 of the league’s teams played at Minoru Arena in Richmond. North Van will face Grandview and Richmond in the tournament, the two teams ranked second and third in the league. The Jan. 5 game against Richmond will be the marquee game of the tournament, and Samson noted that it will count as an official ‘home’ game for North Van even though it will be played in Richmond as part of the showcase.
“That’s great,” he said with a sarcastic laugh. “January is a tough schedule for us and I think it lines up pretty well because that’s leading into playoffs.”
Whether they get to 40 wins or not, the team still has a playoff championship win as their ultimate goal, along with a victory at the Cyclone Taylor Cup provincial championship tournament. The team has played to a nearly perfect record so far, but there’s always room for improvement, said Samson.
“Our special teams, I want to just keep getting better at that, keep hammering that home,” he said. “It’s little details. … There are small things that we can work on in practice that can help us win games.”
But will they win 40? We’ll see in six weeks.
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The Wolf Pack will team up with Special Olympics BC – North Shore during a Jan. 25 game at Harry Jerome Arena. All advanced ticket sales purchased through the Special Olympics BC – North Shore website or at the door, along with the 50-50 revenue from the game, will go to the charity.