The Pembina Valley Twisters aren’t wasting any time finding their stride after returning to play the Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League.
Twisters head coach Matt Dyck said the many returning faces from the cancelled 2020-21 season have impressed him with their early-season on-ice form. At press time, the team had won four of its first five games.
"We’ve got two solid goalies and our backend is pretty strong," Dyck said. "When you have those two things it helps out a lot. We have depth and a lot of the guys have been together for a while, even though we only got four games in last season."
Dyck said the first few weeks of MMJHL play have seen teams struggle to play defensively, resulting in a lot of high-powered offensive attacks. The Twisters are currently averaging 3.80 goals-for per game, which is only sixth best in the league.
"I expect that it should tighten up as teams start going," Dyck said.
"There’s a lot of elite players in this league that if you give them the time and space, they’ll make you pay on the scoreboard."
Twisters captain Travis Penner said the team is doing a good job of moving the puck from both ends of the ice early on in the season.
"A lot of those goals I think we can attribute to our good transition game, getting pucks out of our zone and moving through the neutral zone and getting pucks in deep," Penner said.
The return to a 45-game regular season has been appreciated by both the coaching staff and players. For the 21-year-old captain and forward, the fast pace of the game has forced him to adjust his on-ice training to stay in top shape after a slow off season.
"It’s good to see a competitive league again, after COVID the league hasn’t dropped in calibre, I’d say it’s gotten quicker," Penner said.
"Personally having that off year, just getting my legs back under me. I haven’t been used to this much skating because we were off for 18 months."
Entering his fourth and final year as a player with the club, Penner is helping mentor the new rookie class on the team and encouraging his new teammates that the MMJHL is a solid adjustment from high school hockey.
"It’s hard for those guys who missed their rookie season, so this is now their rookie season, you really have two classes of rookies," Penner said.
"I think it’s a better league than it’s made out to be before you come here. The biggest adjustment would be the size of the players because it’s a four-age-group league. Now they’re playing against guys that are four years older than them."
Penner spent last winter skating and training on the river in his hometown of La Salle.
The team draws from all over Pembina Valley and currently has players from Morris, Oak Bluff, Carman, Morden, Winkler and other communities.
The head coach said managing both school and hockey has been very manageable for his players.
"I think this league has come a long way in the last five to 10 years, it’s a very competitive league and gives the guys the ability to work full-time or still be in school, as we play on weekends," Dyck said.
"Once they get here and realize the speed of the game is still high-paced, they enjoy it. We push these guys pretty hard and they have answered the bell."
Now in his first full season as head coach, Dyck who has been with the organization since 2016, said he is looking forward to the Twisters renewing their rivalry with the Fort Garry/Fort Rouge Twins.
"If you want to call it the ‘Battle of the 75 Highway,’ for some reason we always have good games against them, always high-paced and physical," Dyck said.
"Across the board we have good games with every team out there. If you take a night off there’s a good chance you’re going to lose. The parity in the league is there."
After winning the MMJHL championship with the Twisters in his first season in 2018-19, the message for Penner is simple; make the most out of is final year with the club.
"My goal for this season is to try to win the championship again with these guys," Penner said.
"A lot of these guys got hooped last year and are now coming into their last year of junior hockey. We’re all here to win."
At press time, Penner has two goals and four assists through five games.
Joseph Bernacki was the reporter/photographer for The Headliner until December 2021.