By no means would this season be considered “traditional” for the Durango Demons varsity club hockey team.
The Demons are out to one of their hottest starts in recent seasons and have shown plenty of promise. However, looking at the bench, it might be hard to recognize how this rag-tag group consisting of just 12 players, four of which are 14 or younger, including one eighth-grader, sit in second place and are just one point out of first after 10 games.
Durango is in second place in the Colorado division of the Rio Grande High School Hockey League and has gotten off to a 6-3-1 start.
Head coach Brian Ensign said his team has punched above its weight.
“We’re probably above expectations from where we were when we looked at our roster,” Ensign said. “I’ve noticed that throughout every game we’ve played, we’ve been able to hang with everybody. We’ve got four bantam guys at 14 or under, who are playing against guys who are four to five years older than them, but we’ve competed well with every team, and most of the time, we’ve come out on top.”
Forward Zak Wentworth is the lone eighth-grader, but three freshmen have seen significant ice time, including forward Cole Matava, defenseman Body Ensign and forward Dean Hewitt, who has been called up from the junior varsity team twice. Billy Downey and Luk Petranek, both of whom are freshmen, have also been called up from the junior varsity team this season. Wentworth plays on the first line alongside senior Gus Kidd, who had a seven-goal weekend, which included a three-goal performance in Durango’s first game against Albuquerque on Saturday. The eighth-grader is holding his own, however, as he has scored four times and has registered six points this season.
Ensign said it’s been impressive to see the young group develop.
“The kids can hang with everybody, and that’s what I’ve noticed throughout every game we’ve played,” Ensign said. “We have attrition with these younger guys, so we’re always trying to grow these kids from within the program, and we’re always pulling up promising younger kids. It might be hard for them to adjust mentally to the bigger, faster and stronger level that varsity is, but by February, come playoff time, I think we will have these young kids ready for sure.”
Assistant captain and junior forward Braden Lyons, who is second on the team with nine goals and 11 points, said the key to this year’s team is staying mentally fit, no matter how many players they have on the bench.
“The mindset for hockey, especially with a team with not a lot of depth, has to be one shift at a time,” Lyons said. “The mindset is really getting out there and getting after it from the opening shift. Because by the time the third period rolls around, we’re usually gassed, but it comes back to being mentally tough. You just have to hold on to that feeling of working hard, no matter how tired you get. It’s really about mental toughness, and so far, this group has shown it. We’ve dug deep and have shocked some really good hockey teams because of our belief that we can do it.”
It has worked, at least on the offensive side of the rink, where Durango has scored 18 of its 44 total goals in the final period.
Gus Kidd, the lone senior on this year’s team, leads the league with 24 goals scored and has been a key part of this year’s team.
“It’s the little things in practice that have helped us get to where we are,” Kidd said. “It’s a lot of competition and that’s what I think the key has been to developing our skills. When you do competition, the 3-on-3, stuff like that, you literally work everything, passing, shooting, skating and defense. It’s all combined into one and I really think it’s paying off, and provides further experience to those younger kids.”
Lyons said with everything going the Demons’ way so far, he believes the end of the season could see Durango out on top.
“I think that even our small team, I believe even we can win the league,” Lyons said. “I think of this as an underdog story and we’re just getting started, really. We’re still getting toward peak conditioning levels, where we can hang with these teams for all three periods, and if we keep working as hard as we have been, I don’t see why we can’t do really well.
“Everyone comes out with this preconceived idea that the Durango hockey team is not the best hockey team, and I feel like we can prove that underdog story and come out on top come playoff time.”
Durango will travel to Amarillo, Texas to take on the Big Texan Bulls Jan. 4 at the Amarillo Civic Center, with the time to be announced at a later date.