It was a somber bus ride for the Nelson Leafs.
They had just learnt that then head coach David McLellan and assistant Greg Andrusak had each resigned. Now they were on their way to what should have been a romp against the lowly Spokane Braves before the holiday break. Except no one felt very festive.
Leafs forward Levi Hulston said the news shocked the struggling team, which had only just ended a seven-game losing streak the night before. “Nobody really saw it coming. It came without warning,” he said.
The trip south only got worse.
Nelson fell apart in the third period against Spokane on Dec. 16. In-game injuries to Kyle Chernenkoff and Cole Arcuri meant the team had just three defencemen to play with, and the Braves pounced with three goals en route to a 4-2 win.
“It was a mess,” said Hulston. “We started pretty well I think. We tried to do the best we could. Although we had guidance on the bench we had to be as self focused as we could be. It was a bit of a challenge.”
The loss, the injuries and the sudden lack of a head coach gave the players plenty to think about on the way home.
“It was quiet on the way up,” said Jordan Davie. “It was quieter on the way back.”
The Leafs gathered this week for their first practices under new head coach and general manager Mario DiBella. Sean Dooley has returned from McLellan’s staff as assistant coach, and former Leafs player Isaac MacLeod is back in an assistant coaching role.
The team had just days to adjust to DiBella’s coaching style and plays before facing the Beaver Valley Nitehawks on the road Wednesday. Goaltender Patrick Ostermann, who was able to ruminate on the turbulent month during a holiday trip to Mexico, said Tuesday having DiBella with the team helps even if they are essentially starting from square one mid-way through the season.
“We see that he’s moved guys onto the next level and he’s had success. So it’s good for us to see that. For sure it’s something helpful,” said Ostermann. “It’s not the question of, he’s a new coach, new here, new everything for him. For him, he’s been here before. He knows the environment already.”
Still, DiBella has his own challenges.
The former coach of the Leafs from 2000-02 needs to quickly learn what his players are capable of and decide what to do with the team’s two player cards prior to the Jan. 10 trade deadline.
“The main challenge is just trying to implement our systems that we want to run with,” said DiBella. “They aren’t used to me, I’m not used to them, so it’s a bit hide-and-seek, who can do what we want to do in a short period of time. Who’s going to respond, who’s going to step up to the challenges that are being presented to them.”
More Leafs are also ready to step up now than there were before the holiday break.
Forward Rayce Miller and defenceman Max Daerendinger, two key players who had been out with injuries since November, have been cleared to play. The team also has Austin Anselmo back following his two-game suspension. DiBella is also taking a broad look at all his roster’s resources – major midget goaltender Curt Doyle and reserve player Reese Tambellini were called up to the team this week.
Nelson (14-19-1) is fourth in the Neil Murdoch Division, four points back of third-place Grand Forks and, crucially, 15 points ahead of last-place Spokane. That means, if nothing else, the Leafs will start play under DiBella in the playoff race. The season, according to Ostermann, isn’t a write-off.
“I don’t believe so. I think we got hit by the injury bug for the first half of the year. We just really couldn’t get in a groove and things weren’t really going how we wanted,” he said. “But with the team we have we definitely can win games. I believe we are going to turn this season around and we’re going to do really good this second half and turn it around and do well in playoffs.”
There were plenty of smiles on the ice near the end of a practice Tuesday that by DiBella’s admission began roughly as players tried to understand his plays and shake off the holiday rust.
The hardest part of the season, the Leafs hope, is now behind them.
“With the distractions of the coaching, with the hurt D-men, you’re going to have to find a way to win games in this league and we haven’t been doing that all of December,” said Davie. “So hopefully with new coaches we can find a way to overcome anything that’s thrown at us. Anything.“
(CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated Anselmo and not Rayce Miller was the Leafs captain.)