A long time ago, a sharp Whalers fan suggested since baby whales are known as pups in the Animal Kingdom, that Plymouth Whalers rookies should be called pups.
It is a term used with respect for young players who are going through a major adjustment, both on and off the ice.
Whaler pups Mitchell Dempsey, Matt Mistele and Danny Vanderwiel made their OHL debuts last weekend in the opening pre-season games against Windsor. All three saw regular shifts in each game and did not look out of place. In fact, the Whalers got stronger as the game went on Monday in Windsor in earning a 3-3 tie.
Mistele opened the scoring on Monday in Windsor and Dempsey added an assist later on a Dario Trutmann power play goal. Vanderwiel was prominent in a defensive role as a penalty killer and face-off man.
Along with everything else going on early this season, Dempsey, Mistele and Vanderwiel joined Plymouth vets Tom Wilson, Mitchell Heard and Garrett Meurs in the Compuware Arena Learn-to-Skate/Learn-to-Play Open House in their first official public appearance within the community.
The Whaler pups were asked – How did the first weekend go, on the ice? Off the ice, how is the adjustment to Plymouth and the Plymouth-Canton Educational Park going?
“It was an exciting experience,” Dempsey said about the games. “They were fast-paced games. It’s a quicker tempo. It’s a big adjustment, but its good stuff. I’m looking forward to the season.”
Dempsey comes from Cambridge, ON, roughly three-and-a-half hours east of Plymouth, not far from Kitchener.
“The school is huge, but after the first day, it’s been all right,” Dempsey said. “Hopefully, I’ll make some new friends and make things a little easier.”
Mistele experienced the thrill of scoring a goal literally in front of his family.
“It was fun, scoring my first goal,” he said with a smile. “My whole family was there to see it, sitting behind the net I scored in. It’s exciting to get the first goal in Windsor where a lot of my family lives.”
Mistele talked about the play that led to the goal.
“I remember I got the puck at the (center) red line and chipped it in – like the coaches have told us to do – and Tommy (Wilson) went in hard and got the puck,” he said. “The goalie kind of fumbled it and it popped out to me and I put it in the back of the net.”
Mistele comes from Whitby, ON, roughly five hours east of Plymouth, just outside of Toronto and Oshawa.
“Plymouth is nice and I really enjoy playing here so far,” Mistele said. “My old school had 500 kids and this one has about 6,000, so it’s a little getting used to. But I think I’m handling it well – I’ve got Danny (Vanderwiel) in a few of my classes and that makes it a little easier.”
Danny Vanderwiel looks younger than 16-years-old, but don’t let his looks fool you – he plays the game with grit.
“It’s been a lot of fun, so far, a great experience,” Vanderwiel said. “It’s been a lot of hard work. The games are a lot of fun. The pace is a lot faster than minor-midget hockey. There are better players here, so you learn a lot from the older guys.”
Last weekend, Vanderwiel often played with the Whalers first penalty killing unit and took a lot of defensive zone face-offs. He won his share of draws.
“I’ve been a centerman my whole life,’ Vanderwiel said. “We worked on draws in practice the night before. I try to be aggressive and focus where the puck is dropped.”
Vanderwiel comes from Island Lake, IL, north of Chicago and just south of the Wisconsin border.
“Island Lake is a lot smaller than Plymouth,” he said. “The school is outrageous here – there are so many kids here.”
Last season, Tom Wilson was often looking for rides to school or anywhere else in the area. This season, he’s cheerfully returning the favor for his younger teammates.
Wilson is very happy to be back on the ice after missing the second half of last season.
“One of the hardest things to do for a player is to sit out while your team is doing battle,” Wilson said. “I’m really excited this year to try to help this team win. The fights seem to find me, but I’m trying to contribute a little offense this year.”
If you are wondering why Wilson is a potential candidate to wear an “A” this season, one reason is his willingness to help his younger teammates during a time of adjustment.
“I’m driving the guys to school, so I spend a lot of time with them,” Wilson said. “They are a good group and are further ahead than I was when I started last year.”
The Whalers finish up the preseason this weekend, playing in London on Friday at the John Labatt Centre and playing London again on Saturday at St. Thomas, ON.
TRAVERSE CITY TOURNAMENT STARTS THIS WEEKEND: Vanderwiel, Dempsey and Mistele will continue to receive plenty of ice time this weekend as many of the older Whalers are headed to National Hockey League rookie tournaments.
Austin Levi and Matt Mahalak will play for Carolina in the 2011 NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, starting Saturday through Wednesday. J.T. Miller skates for the New York Rangers and Curtis Crombeen will play for Dallas.
In addition, Mitchell Heard will join Jamie Devane with the Toronto rookies starting Saturday in Oshawa.
Rickard Rakell goes to Anaheim on Sunday.