Very dangerous babies Niverville’s MJHL squad no ordinary expansion team

NIVERVILLE — The early days were supposed to be filled with baby steps for the Niverville Nighthawks.

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NIVERVILLE — The early days were supposed to be filled with baby steps for the Niverville Nighthawks.


June 4, 2021: Niverville granted MJHL expansion franchise
Jan. 3, 2022: Announce hiring of Kelvin Cech as GM and head coach
Jan. 21, 2022: Nighthawks nickname chosen after name-the-team contest in local schools
Aug. 22, 2022: Training camp opends
Sept. 16, 2022: First regular-season game, a 6-4 loss in Steinbach
Sept. 21, 2022: First regular-season win, 5-1 in Winkler

The town was new to the MJHL — granted an expansion franchise in June of 2021 — and the recently constructed arena hadn’t been around long enough to be saturated with hockey sweat and covered in puck marks. When training camp opened two months ago, the players were strangers to each other and their coach.

Yet, 11 games into their debut season, the Nighthawks went on the road and did something miraculous, sending the powerhouse Portage Terriers down to a 6-2 defeat Wednesday night.

Yep, these are the same Terriers who were tied for the lead in the East Division with a 10-2-0-0 record and ramping up to host the Centennial Cup, Canada’s junior A hockey championship, next spring.

“We knew how tough it was going to be and you get there (and) they’ve got banners in the rafters and they’ve been there for years and we’ve played what — 11 games as a franchise?” Niverville general manager and head coach Kelvin Cech said Thursday.

“I thought the guys really respected their opponent but a lot of them aren’t from Manitoba. So, they don’t quite know just the depth of how good Portage has been and for how long. It’s almost like they just didn’t care. So, we just went and played our game.”

The result could be construed as a statement game for the Hawks but it was probably more of warning to the rest of the MJHL.

Niverville, sitting fourth in the East at 5-6-0-0 with a plus-eight goal differential entering Saturday’s game in Neepawa against the Titans, could be a more dangerous expansion team than anyone could have imagined.

Except maybe team captain Brett Tataryn and some of his teammates.

“Everybody can beat everybody in this league — I experienced that last year,” said Tataryn, a 19-year-old centre who came to Niverville in an off-season trade from the OCN Blizzard. “A top team will beat the worst team and the worst team can beat the best team. It doesn’t really matter. We just played our game (Wednesday) night. We were very good.”

From the beginning, Cech and team president Clarence Braun made it clear they were not content with a slow build. The club’s hockey department, with the addition of assistant-GM and director of scouting Mike McAulay, would aggressively seek out new players in Canada and the U.S.

And an influx of American talent, including right-winger Brendan Bottem, defenceman Carson Reed, centre Gavin Gunderson and left-winger Braden Panzer, has quickly made an impact.

Bottem, a 19-year-old from Thief River Falls, Minn., scored twice and added a pair of assists in Wednesday’s victory over the Terriers. Meanwhile, Panzer, a 19-year-old Grand Forks, N.D., scored in his MJHL debut Wednesday while playing on a line with Bottem and Tataryn, who hails from Argyle.

Cech said his import players are hungry for an opportunity to establish themselves.

“Bottem and Gunderson and some of those American guys (are players) some American teams missed, for sure,” he said. “Steinbach does the same thing — they’ve got American kids. I just think these guys see this as a good opportunity to come to Canada, be a part of a program like this where this becomes their job.”

Bottem, who played high school hockey in his hometown last season, had never heard of Niverville before McAulay reached out eight months ago.

“I was a little nervous at first because you play with the same kids for what — 12, 13 years growing up?” said Bottem. “It’s a small town and it’s a little different playing with new kids, but I’d say after the first day it was great. I mean, the nerves are gone. All the kids are very nice.”

Bottem, a 6-foot, 180-pounder, already has four goals and 11 points, which is good for third in team scoring. Cech admitted Bottem probably rates as the biggest surprise of the season thus far.

“The video on him wasn’t great — just the quality — so watching him in February it was really hard to tell,” said Cech. “But when he got here, he’s almost leading us in scoring. He’s fast and he looks like a pro. He’s just got pro habits.”

Tataryn, with 12 points so far, was happy for a reboot after playing on a non-playoff club in OCN last season.

“I was pretty stoked about that, just with it being a new team and everything,” said Tataryn. “It was kind of a fresh start for myself… The day I got traded Kelvin called me on the phone and instantly I knew he was a good guy. You could just tell he was a player’s coach and he sounded like he knew what he was talking about.”

Two out-of-province players have also proven to be crucial to the early season success.

Josh Paulhus, a 20-year-old forward from Saskatoon with 77 games of WHL experience, leads the club with eight goals and 12 points in 10 games, while another overager, Evan Bortis, who came to the club with 106 Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League games on his resume, plays on the power play and first defence pairing.

Bortis has nine assists in 10 games.

“We had a general idea of how old we wanted to be, but as far as where the guys came from — you get six imports — so, we’re within that. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that there would be six Americans; I barely even know what states they’re from,” said Cech. “That’s all Mike McAulay.”

While the on-ice product is improving, the Nighthawks are, indeed, popular with their new fan base. An overflow crowd of 1,200 attended the home-opener against the Steinbach Pistons — a 4-1 loss on Sept. 17 — and the support has remained steady in three home dates since at the Niverville Community Resource and Recreation Centre.

“It’s always a great atmosphere here — everybody loves us,” said Tataryn. “We get treated like pros. Kids are always asking for autographs and sticks or pictures with us if we go into a store. I think everybody’s welcoming us pretty well.”

Bottem said his new home reminds him of his old one.

“It’s small, just like the one I come from, so nothing’s really surprised me at all,” he said. “It’s been fun.”

Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

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