Neepawa Natives make comeback on and off ice

The Canadian Press

12/13/2012 3:46:17 PM

Last season was one of the worst on record for the Neepawa Natives of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, both on and off the ice.

Their reputation was devastated by a hazing scandal, and on-ice performance amidst the furor was, not surprisingly, dismal.

They won only a dozen games, a mark of futility since their inaugural season matched only in 1998-99.

But after a rebuilding effort that included both their ties to the area and the team, the new general manager says things are looking a lot brighter.

"It's been good, the community is all behind us, everything we needed to do to clean it up has been done and we've started a new page basically," Myles Cathcart said this week.

Their efforts include reaching out to show that they were dealing with the issue, reducing season ticket prices and rebuilding the team itself, with a heavy emphasis on talent from the region, including Manitoba's second largest city, Brandon.

That last item was perhaps part strategy, part necessity, given the hit to their ability to attract players.

"To be honest, when we were recruiting players that were outside of our region this year, nothing even came up," says Cathcart.

"If you do a Google search of the Neepawa Natives it's (the hazing) the first 5,000 hits. You can't get rid of the story and you probably never will."

Their current record of eight wins and 18 losses might not sound impressive, but it includes their first back-to-back wins of the season and new coach Ken Brooks likes the way the team is developing.

"The last four or five games we've gotten points out of them all and put ourselves back into contention maybe a little bit," he says.

"It's still a long season to go. We're a young group that needs to learn how to win and learn how things go in the league."

Neepawa is a picturesque town of about 3,600, nestled in rolling hills northeast of Brandon.

It's perhaps best known as the birthplace of writer Margaret Laurence, who is buried in its Riverside Cemetery.

The house she lived in is a museum and her fictional town of Manawaka, from books like "The Stone Angel," is basically Neepawa.

The angel itself is a real monument in Riverside and the town bills itself as the Lily capital of the world, holding an annual summer festival named after the flowers.

Less picturesque were images conjured up by the hazing scandal that rocked the junior A team, with stories of young players parading around the locker room with objects tied to their genitals.

After various league-imposed sanctions and even a police investigation, not much is left of that team.

A few players brought in as the rebuilding process started late last season are still there. Brooks also was brought in last season to deal with the mess when members of the existing coaching staff resigned or were suspended.

Cathcart, a local teacher with a long history on the executive, was asked to take over as GM. He was with that inaugural team in 1989, his brother was one of its first coaches and their father the manager.

Such strong local ties helped the Natives get through the crisis. Even sponsors didn't jump ship.

"There's lots of history here in town," says Cathcart.

"The community and the fans all surrounded us. We weren't left on our own. It was probably outside the town that was harder on us."

Attendance did suffer, dropping to just over 100 at some games during the height of the scandal, but Cathcart says even that has rebounded now to 400 on weeknights and perhaps 600 on some weekends.

Cathcart gives Brooks credit for working with a young team that includes a lot of first-year players.

"He's done a great job of helping build relationships," Cathcart said. "The boys work hard for him. He's a positive guy."

Brooks also gives credit to 20-year-old netminder Corey Koop, acquired from the Winkler Flyers in the off-season, for holding things together on a team with 11 rookies on its roster.

"He's starting to step up his game which is good to see," Brooks said.

Also showing a little of his old sparkle is Brandon native Brayden Cuthbert, now that he's recovered from a concussion sustained while playing for the Moose Jaw Warriors of the Western Hockey League.

Cuthbert was injured about three weeks after playing at the World under-17 Hockey Challenge in Winnipeg in January 2011 and didn't play for 20 months.

"Things are starting to come back for him," says Brooks, as they are for the Natives as a whole.

"We just want to be a team that works hard."