The battle for the North Central Hockey League championship is shaping up to be a good one.
“The top three teams in the North Central look very good,” Virden Oil Kings coach Blair Koop said. “Russell, Elkhorn and us all have a good chance of winning the league.
“Whenever either of these teams play each other, it will be a real treat to watch. That type of competition is nice for players, coaches and fans.”
Seven points separate the first-place Russell Rams (10-0-1, 21 points) and the fourth-place Moosomin Rangers (7-3-0, 14 points).
Locally the Virden Oil Kings (8-2-1) sit in second place with 17 points, while the Miniota-Elkhorn C-Hawks (8-1-0) are third with 16 – although they have played two fewer games than the first two teams. Swan Valley (6-3-0) is in fifth, two points behind Moosomin.
“I think the league as a whole has improved,” C-Hawks coach Tyler Mitchell said. “You can point to almost every roster and see two, three, four guys that have been added from last year that have improved their team.
“Most prominently, you look at Virden and Russell and the guys they have added, a lot of top-end talent that will bring a higher pace and compete level to our games down the stretch.”
The Oil Kings’ leading scorer is newcomer Derek Leblanc. He is a Brandon product who played five seasons professionally, including a step away from the NHL with the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose.
The Rams added such players as hometown boys Brock Nixon (the league’s leading scorer), who also played pro, and Rylee Zimmer, a former Virden Oil Capitals Junior A standout. The C-Hawks brought in former pros Miniota’s Brad Cole and Dustin Fisher from Carberry and former University of Manitoba player Bradley Bowles. These are just a few examples of the new talent in the league.
Oil Kings forward Tanner Lewis was the league’s Rookie of the Year last season. That came after a Junior A career, which included playing for his hometown Oil Capitals. Lewis said the skill level of the NCHL is very underrated.
“You look at the top teams in the league and they have two or three lines that are skilled,” he said. “The games are competitive between the top teams and are a battle to play in. I still enjoy playing hockey and when the games are close they’re enjoyable to play in and much more intriguing for the fans in attendance.”
For the Oil Kings, commitment from players has led to them being competitive.
“Everyone that plays has another life whether it be work or school or being a dad,” Koop said. “We have quite a number of guys with families but they still make the commitment to come play every game. We don’t show up to the rink with less than three lines, which is really good for senior hockey in this area. The guys have created a brotherhood in the dressing room as well, which is something that is a huge part to success. There were some strangers at the start of the season that have developed into lasting friendships.”
Depth has also helped the C-Hawks succeed this season.
“Both goalies have been great, we have three forward lines that are full of first-line guys, and we have four defencemen that could be a No. 1 on any other team,” Mitchell said.
“With senior hockey, guys have other commitments and families to take up their time, sometimes missing games, so having a long list of guys we can not just plug in, but be confident in, is a huge plus.”