Jets' pilot busy building first flight crew
JANESVILLE Dane Litke doesn’t believe in stopwatches or concrete benchmarks when it comes to evaluating hockey talent.
The new coach of the Janesville Jets—which begin their expansion season in the Junior A NAHL just nine weeks from tomorrow night—said base standards would eliminate too many potential prospects from a team’s talent pool.
“We’re looking for guys who can help our team be successful right away. I don’t use the stopwatch,” said Litke, who has been in Janesville since Monday looking at houses, familiarizing himself with the town, and getting started on the intense process of getting a hockey franchise started from the ground up. “A lot of guys get passed over because their skating is suspect, but they make up for it in other ways.
“Real hockey guys are able to sniff that out. We’re looking for guys who are self-motivated and want to improve. We’re looking for kids who aren’t afraid to put time in the weight room, time on the ice, and if they’re in school, put the time in the classroom.”
Litke got his first look at the available talent during the team’s tryout camp at the Mars Lakeview Arena in Duluth, Minn., June 26-28.
The camp attracted 45 players, about 15 less than Litke had hoped for. The lower numbers did give more ice time to the campers. Twenty-five players from that camp have been invited to the team’s final August training camp. Among those landing an invitation was defenseman Mike Krieg, son of Dave Krieg, the former NFL quarterback and Milton College legend.
The Duluth camp attracted 14 players from Wisconsin, eight from Michigan, 10 from Illinois and 2 other players from 14 states and one from Canada.
“There was some good talent,” Litke said. “The quality was better than I thought it would be. The goaltending, though, wasn’t what I thought it would be. Guys got a lot of ice time.”
Sixty-five players have already signed up for this month’s tryout camp at the Janesville Ice Skating Center on July 17-19.
Litke said 76 players will be invited to the team’s final August camp—with 26 from the Janesville tryout join the 25 Duluth invitees and the 26 players the team drafted or signed to tenders. Those 100 players will be divided into six teams of about 17 players each. Litke and the Jets have to trim the roster to 25 players before the Sept. 12 season opener against the Traverse City North Stars.
Two players drafted by the Jets will not be on the roster. Madison Edgewood’s Cody Strang and Appleton North’s Matt Paape, both University of Wisconsin recruits, have signed with teams in higher junior leagues. Strang will play for Youngstown SteelHounds of the Central Hockey League and Paape landed a roster spot with the Sioux City Musketeers of the United States Hockey League.
“That’s good for them,” Litke said.
Meanwhile, the Jets’ personnel decision-making process won’t fall solely on Litke’s shoulders.
He’ll get input from Bill McCoshen, team president and managing partner of Wisconsin Hockey Partners—the team’s ownership group—and assistant coach Sean Storrie.
“Obviously, it will be a lot of work,” Litke said. “We’re obviously putting a team together from the ground up. This being a brand new team, meeting new people, getting new ideas, hopefully we can help each other out.
“Hopefully Bill can help me out with the players. I haven’t been around the junior game for a while. Any bit of time away from anything, you feel like you’re out of touch.
“We’re putting together a data base of players. It will be all three of us evaluating players. Three opinions are better than one. Six eyes are better than two. We’re looking for guys who can help our team be successful right away.”
Litke won’t make bold predictions about the prospects for the Jets’ first season. In fact, he might even be trying to downplay expectations.
“Being new, we’re going to take our lumps,” Litke said. “Hopefully we don’t dig ourselves too big of a hole at the start of the season.
“Maybe we can be at .500 by Christmas break, then maybe we can push for one of the last playoff spots.”
So, what kind of bench coach is Litke?
“I used to be pretty intense,” said Litke, who was head coach of the Bismarck Bobcats from May 2005-December 2007 “I learned to control that. With us being a new team it will take a lot of patience. I want to make sure these guys mature on and off the ice. I learned that positive reinforcement is the way to go with these kids.
“The real challenge for me is that I like things done a certain way.”
Litke says he learned a lot about coaching while serving as an assistant coach to John Marks of the Augusta Lynx.
“John is always prepared,” Litke said. “He always had a couple things to go over before the games. He knew when to get at it and when to back off. I’m thankful I got a chance to work with him.”
Litke, who turns 39 next month, hails from Beausejour, Manitoba.
“Being from Canada, I always liked the Montreal Canadians and the Edmonton Oilers,” Litke said. “We’d go to Winnipeg and watch the Jets. We were there one night when the Oilers won 10-1. I was like ‘How can this be an NHL game?’ Even when it was 9-1, the Oilers just kept taking it to them.”
He hopes his Jets have plenty of nights when they’re the team taking it to the opposition.