It’s safe to say the Stillwater boys’ hockey team is still trying to establish its identity.
The team has good overall speed, but the players aren’t overly fast. The players are skilled, but it’s not the most talented team in the metro. They’re not big, but they’re not tiny, either.
“But we’re deep,” coach Matt Doman said. “That’s one of the biggest things we need to understand. We’re only going to go as far as everybody will take us.”
So far, that means four Suburban East Conference wins but also three overall losses leading up to Thursday’s nonconference matchup against Lakeville South. That appears to be an improvement already from last year’s 6-10 conference record and 9-14-2 overall mark. But there’s still a lot of work to do to achieve the program’s main goal: win the first conference championship in school history. Doman is in his first year as head coach of the Ponies after serving as an assistant the past few seasons. He took over after former coach Phil Housley accepted an assistant coaching position with the Nashville Predators of the National Hockey League.
Doman has been instilling some changes into the program. Nothing drastic, but the hope is that structure will cultivate results. Policies regarding academic and behavior have been strengthened.
“Winning will follow. That’s been our focus,” said Doman, a former University of Wisconsin standout. “Take care of everything away from the rink and let hockey take care of itself.”
The Ponies have been up and down. Inconsistency isn’t shocking considering the number of players who are being relied upon heavily at the varsity level for the first time. Those adjustments won’t happen overnight, but the boys have returned to the rink every day refreshed and ready for the next challenge.
Forward John Heddle is off to an explosive start. The senior is averaging a goal per game with seven goals and three assists through seven games.
“He’s been pretty impressive so far. He has a knack of sniffing out where to be at the right time — and finishing,” Doman said. “He’s one of those players. It’s tough to teach what he can do. We knew he’d be a good one.”
Having one of the best defensemen in the state also helps. Senior Mitch Reinke is a great leader with supreme skill and instincts on the blue line.
The Michigan Tech recruit is averaging nearly a point per game. His hockey sense sets him apart from the other defensemen in the area, his coach said.
“His poise with the puck is unbelievable,” Doman said. “You can just see it. When he gets the puck, everything slows way down. When I played, I was just sprinting through the forest trying not to run into the tree in front of me. When he’s playing, he’s looking eight, nine, 10 trees ahead of him. He’s mature beyond his years.”
It’s a good start for the Doman era at Stillwater, but there’s plenty of work to do.
“I want these boys to learn how to be good husbands and good fathers. That’s how we’ll mark our success,” Doman said. “It’s not always about wins and losses. So far I’ve been very pleased about how they’ve handled the challenges.”