WATERFORD, Mich. – If one were to ask anyone associated with the Metro Jets back in January if the North American 3 Hockey League playoffs were a possibility, there would have been reluctance, but the answer would have been a resounding ‘yes.’”
As the days went on and games were played, the standings watch started – it appeared the final two games of the regular season for the Jets against the Toledo Cherokee would ultimately decide the team’s playoff hopes.
And with two wins in those games, the Jets, who finished 22-24-2, were in.
The first game in Toledo, Jets’ coach Justin Quenneville pulled goaltender Kam Limburg late and with the game tied (yes, the same move Gordon Bombay pulls in the first “Mighty Ducks” movie) and Brad Hepler scored to win it for the Jets.
In the days leading up to the Toledo contests, again, ask anyone with the team their thoughts on the playoffs and there was no reluctance at all to answer affirmatively.
“Really since Christmas, we were playing playoff hockey,” said Jets’ coach Justin Quenneville, who took over in early October for Jason Cirone, who stepped down to start up the Midland University ACHA Division I college programs in Fremont, Neb. “The guys all bought in and came to the rink everyday to work. I'm proud of the way they responded and they deserved all the opportunities despite the season's distractions, call-ups and adversity.”
It’s been said that adversity breeds character and the Jets had enough of that this season as tragically, both Zack MacKay and Connor McLean lost their fathers during the season.
“We went through many positives this season with a couple being winning a few games many thought we wouldn't,” Limburg said. “But really the biggest thing was making the playoffs. We were able to come together and perform down the stretch and steal some games for crucial points.
”Our team was one of the closest I have ever been a part of. Even from the first weekend together, we all seemed to get along great. And with the loss of family members a couple of my teammates suffered, we all tried to support them as much as we could and came together for them.”
Couple that in with the fact that the Jets had one of the NA3HL’s youngest teams and that their better players advanced to higher levels (not a bad situation by any means, however) and one might see how much of a successful season this actually ended up being for the Jets.
Forwards Kevin Shand (Springfield/NAHL, Cedar Rapids/USHL) and Lucas Linville (Port Huron/NAHL) spent a short time with the Jets, but it only helped to get their confidence ramped up for the upper echelons of junior hockey. Limburg and fellow goalie Trevor Kalinowski had a cup of coffee in the NAHL (Limburg with Springfield, Kalinowski with Port Huron) and defenseman Carter Reid practiced with Springfield for a stretch.
Forward Kyle Shreve, who ended the 2012-13 season with the Jets, began this year with Springfield, along with defenseman James Roznowski, one of Metro’s first-round picks in last year’s draft, but both wound up playing in Waterford.
Roll everything into a ball and MacKay said he wouldn’t trade his time with the Jets for the world.
“The past two years have been a huge learning experience for me and I feel like my game has improved a ton,” said MacKay. “Being captain has given me more responsibility and I felt it made me more mature. The group of guys this season was the best and I love each and every one of them. We were close as a team, more so than I've been with any other team. I built a bond with some of the guys and I know we'll be friends until we’re old.
“My time with the Jets was huge. I went through a lot this season and it showed me that I could overcome whatever was thrown at me.”
MacKay took over as captain when Josh Beleski left to enlist in the Navy in early February.
And MacKay had a knack for drama, too. Just days after the death of his father, Ron, MacKay decided to play against Cincinnati in the Jets’ home opener. The game was tied in the waning moments of the third period until yep, you guessed it, MacKay scored the game-winner and pointed skyward and then to his mother in the stands at Lakeland Arena in a very touching moment.
McLean scored some emotional goals at the NA3HL Showcase in suburban Chicago back in December after learning of his father Don's death.
So yes, adversity – the Jets’ were the epitome of it this year.
In goal, Limburg seemed to take over between the pipes and played both games in the playoffs against the Flint Jr. Generals – two tight games that didn’t go Metro’s way.
“I will take a lot from this season – the long bus rides, my stint in the NAHL, the early-morning practices, but the thing that I will remember most from this season is the last game of the regular season,” Limburg said. “We clinched the final playoff spot with that game and it was my first shutout of the year. The locker room after the game was electric and everyone was elated.”
Hepler led the team in scoring with 36 points and second-year veteran Alex Holm was the top goal-scorer with 16. Both Hepler and Holm are eligible to return next season, though Quenneville is certain each will get opportunities in the NAHL.
“I believe in building a successful model that finds balance in developing and winning,” said Quenneville. “None of this would be possible without a coaching staff and owner willing to provide that platform. We have that here with Metro. Given the success we had this season moving players, several of our guys will be looked at closely this offseason at NAHL camps. They deserve those looks and it wouldn’t surprise me if a few guys made it. This organization has been around 25 years and has moved on a great deal of players. I see that happening again this summer. With that said, the eligible returners have expressed interest in coming back, which allows us to build off this past year’s success. As a staff, we’ll address our biggest needs at the draft (Tuesday, June 11) and look at some free agents and get our tenders on board.
“I’d like to think this season was one that saw the guys leave everything they had on the ice and that’s how it should be. I’m proud of the way we came together and of the way they never quit. This will help us build for the future.”