At the end of last season, Iona and Fairfield dropped hockey as a varsity program. When the only coach Findlay had ever had, Craig Barnett, left for a position at a prep school this summer, some wondered if a similar fate was in the offing for the Oilers.
It seems like the Findlay rumors were idle speculation, but new coach Pat Ford, elevated from the top assistant position, has established his mission to entrench his team with the community, making sure that no doubts ever arise again.
— Findlay head coach Pat Ford
“I want to bring a passion for our program,” Ford said. “We have a great responsibility to sell our product in the community. We are reaching out through a Student Oiler fan club in order to legitimize our program, and help us compete strongly throughout the league.”
Ford has his players doing more than just play hockey. He’s helped organize volunteer efforts, including a learn-to-read program. The team may not make much of an impact in the CHA standings this year, but Ford has larger goals.
“We want to instill a sense of pride in this program, and a responsibility to our broader community,” he said.
On the ice, Ford does not inherit much established talent, but he has an ideal situation to install his brand of hockey. With 14 freshmen on the roster, Ford has a malleable lineup enthusiastic about the new era in Oiler hockey.
The irrational exuberance of youth will be critical to Findlay’s success as it struggled mightily last year, with the worst overall team defense and offense in the conference. The Oilers averaged just 2.05 goals per game while conceding 3.85.
Only two returning players on the roster cracked 20 points: sophomore Andrew Radzak (15g, 9a), and junior Rigel Shaw (6g, 15a).
“I want to improve our transition play,” Ford said. “We have a lot of new guys coming in and that’s made it easier to tweak our style. I want to play an exciting game that is quick on special teams. I don’t want to take the fun out of the game.”
In order to see the fruits of his labors, Findlay will need some major contributions from rookies Justin Perry, Mike Badavanja, and Kurtis Peterson, all guys with the potential to make an impact.
Perhaps the most promising of the prospects comes on defense between Ken McCaluey and 6-4, 220-pound bruiser Brandon Straub.
In a year where ice time is wide open, the purest competition is at goaltender. Sophomore Jon Horrell battles freshman Will Hooper for the starting job. Horrell only played in two games last year, so neither has experience.
Over the long run, however, it may turn into a futile contest because waiting in the wings is Larry Sterling, a freshman who has to sit this year out because he played a game of major junior hockey at age 16.
“It’s really unfortunate that for one game Sterling can’t play this year,” Ford said. “All signs point to him being able to become a phenomenal goaltender.”
Relying on freshmen is the surest path to a long season, but Ford believes that in a tight league, he can sneak up on some people.
“I think we will surprise some teams,” Ford said. “At times, we weren’t a tough team to play against last year. We will catch teams by surprise as we travel all over the nation and develop consistency. We might be outgunned some nights, but night in and night out we will not be outworked.”
If Findlay isn’t going anywhere for the moment, then it has no place to go but up.