'They always leave smiling': Canada's pluckiest hockey team has scored 22 goals, given up 369 and never won a game. But they keep trying
Page: A3 , Section: News
Byline: James Mirtle
Source: National Post
THORNHILL - Chalk in hand, Toronto Aces coach Bill Burton was mapping out a play on the dressing-room wall for his team of eight- and nine-year-old boys.
"OK, so who picks the puck up here?" Mr. Burton asked as he pointed to an X marked behind an imaginary net.
"The winger ... no, the centre," replied a chorus of voices.
"The winger," said the coach. "He brings the puck to the other side. And if the other guy gets it, it doesn't matter how big he is, hit him. Don't skate away from the puck."
It sounded like typical advice from a minor-hockey coach, but for the Aces, nothing this season has been typical. They are a new team in the Greater Toronto Hockey League's (GTHL) Minor Atom A division and, as with most expansion franchises, the first year has been a trying one.
The team has played 30 games and lost them all.
"When we joined the team, I knew it was going to be an uphill battle," said Troy Ellenor, whose son, Brendan, skates for the Aces. "But the way I looked at it -- and what I told him -- is that it would be a learning experience."
That it has been. The Aces struggled to put together a lineup to start the season, scrambling to find house-league players to fill their roster. Even now, the team has only 13 players -- two fewer than league requirements -- and only a handful have played outside of house-league hockey before.
The Aces dropped their second game of the season 21-0, and the losses have continued to pile up. They have scored 22 goals and surrendered 369, or more than 12 a game.
The results have not come from a lack of effort, and the parents say their children's play has improved immensely.
"We don't dwell on the losing at all," Mary Slavik-Peters said. "And they have been getting better, playing better as a team."
"When Brendan started, he was a little bit wobbly [on his skates]," Mr. Ellenor said. "Now he's doing really well out there. He would never want to go back to house league again."
Yesterday, the Aces played the Markham Islanders, a team they lost to by one goal two weeks earlier, and a team with many players who stand a head taller than most of the Aces.
The Aces took to the ice at the Thornhill Community Arena to the sound of cheers from their parents, and while the Islanders scored immediately after the opening faceoff, the cheering seldom waned.
The puck, though, rarely left the Aces' end. Aces goalie Quintin Davis, with the top of his helmet not quite reaching the crossbar, kept his team in the game by pouncing on pucks like a smaller Dominik Hasek.
Kelly Casey, Quintin's mother and the Aces manager, was quick to point out the positives of the routine peppering her son faces. "He's getting 40 to 50 shots every game," she said, just as the Islanders slid another goal into the Aces' net as part of an 11-0 rout. "Last year, he only got five to 10, so he has gained in shot exposure and it has made him a better goalie.
"We don't have that emphasis [on winning]. Sometimes the kids get down on themselves, but they always leave the arena smiling. And it doesn't matter what the score is, they always play hard."
In his 10 years of coaching minor hockey, Mr. Burton has helmed more than a few struggling teams. The Aces are different, he said, because of the effort they put in on the ice.
"Morale is very good. They have all been playing hard and look much better out there [than in the beginning]," he said. "You know, we lost 14-1 [on Saturday], but they played with a lot of heart.
"I'm very proud of them, even though we lost."
The GTHL wanted to fold the Aces over the Christmas break due to their lack of players, but Mr. Burton fought to keep the team afloat.
"I didn't want them to be without a team," he said. So the team kept playing, and the parents and players rallied around. Even without the wins, it is their team. And, if nothing else, the Aces are a shining example of winning not being everything.
"He still wakes up every weekend and says, 'When am I playing hockey today?' " Holly Harrocks said of her son, Ian. "We were worried we wouldn't even have a team. That's really one thing I'm glad for -- we still have our team."