Mustangs take to the ice to help young players

Paul Mayne // Western News

Rob Duncan is gearing up for another practice at Kinsmen arena. He’s been coaching minor hockey for 21 years, and has served as chair of the Greater London Hockey Association (GLHA) for the past six.

Yet, the logo on his jacket, a purple ‘W’, wouldn’t typically be associated with any minor hockey program – until now.

We’re the Junior Mustangs,” Duncan said. “We got special permission from Western to use the ‘W’ with the ‘junior’ on it.”

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It’s not just the uniform and logo that are being adopted for 16 competitive teams under the GLHA umbrella for the 2014-15 season. The new partnership means coaching seminars are being offered, and occasionally, players from both Mustang varsity teams will hit the ice with the kids to help them practice.

“One of the ideas, from our standpoint, is to get much more involved in the community and much more involved in hockey,” said Clarke Singer, Mustangs men’s varsity head coach. “We’d like to really dig our feet into one organization a little bit more and have a bigger impact.”

One way the affiliation helps, which may come as a surprise given the popularity of hockey in Canada, is dealing with declining registration numbers in minor hockey. Like many other minor league organizations, the GLHA has been hit, which means fewer funds for the league. But Western isn’t looking to burden the league with added costs.

“They understand we are not in a position to pay them to be affiliated,” Duncan said. “What they’re asking is that the kids are enthusiastic about the Western Mustangs, who they are, that they wear their logo proudly and represent appropriately. And they do.”

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Duncan called it a “win-win,” because the GLHA was going to merge its five-member organizations anyway, due to declining registration, and this branding gives the kids something to identify with. Half of the 16 teams became the Junior Mustangs White while the other half became the Junior Mustangs Purple.

Michelle Foote, president of Oakridge Hockey, and now ex-officio of the Junior Mustangs Purple, was excited about the merger right away.

“The Mustangs have been phenomenal with this in embracing and supporting the community,” she said. “That makes our kids excited, too, to be part of that.”

Gabriel Spagnuolo is one of those kids who tried out last spring and made the cut for the purple Junior Mustangs bantam team. At 14, he knows he can learn a lot from varsity Mustang players.

“The basic skills, shooting harder, skating faster, better stick handling,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to that.”

Gabriel’s father, Giulio, feels there’s an advantage to his son learning from young players as opposed to older coaches: they’re simply better players.

“The vast majority of coaches are wonderful people, but they’re all 45, 55 years old,” he said. “They’re maybe not in tip-top condition. They can’t play through the drills at high speed, and then you get a couple players from the real Mustangs to show the children how to do certain things – that is invaluable.”

Learning from the varsity athletes helps the kids, but it also helps the university, according to Chris Higgins, women’s varsity head coach.

“I’m hoping it leads to more people coming to watch our games, because it’s very good hockey,” he said.

Foote also sees a benefit in that it gets kids to realize hockey and academics can go together.

“I think it ties our kids into the university, to think about hockey and university together,” she said. “Not just to be strictly thinking about hockey only, but to say, ‘Yeah, hey, I can go to university, I can play my favourite sport.’ It’s a great opportunity and I think sometimes, we focus too much on the Ontario Hockey League and that there are other ways to play great hockey.”

Moving forward, Duncan already has a goal in sight.

“My goal is, I want to see the first Junior Mustang graduate from Western University.”