The Antigonish Farmers’ Mutual Junior Bulldogs have been eliminated from the playoffs.
With a convincing 7-0 victory, March 3 at the Trenton Arena, the Pictou County Scotians secured a 4-2 series win in the teams’ best-of-seven Nova Scotia Junior Hockey League Sid Rowe Division semi-final series.
“It was disappointing because, up until that point, it had been a competitive series,” Bulldog head coach Richard MacKenzie said.
“There are reasons [for the lopsided loss in Game 6], but we are not about excuses – I am not about that; my players wouldn’t want me to do that for them and hockey is not about that.”
He added the Scotians “won all the battles” in the final two games of the series, which had been deadlocked 2-2.
“Including the battle of attrition,” MacKenzie noted.
As for the season, he said the players who have persevered through some lean times over the past three seasons deserve a lot of credit for the progress of the Bulldog program.
“They stuck with it and I just think the internal improvement by those guys was the start and then when you add guys like Brian MacDougall and Kieran Devine, along with our goaltending this year – Jesse Gillis and Chuck Jensen – just the whole crew coming together to really make this a team that was formidable for any other team in our league,” MacKenzie said.
After the season-ending loss, the third-year Bulldog head coach, who also served as general manager the past two seasons, informed his players that he was stepping down.
“It is a personal decision – my time flexibility isn’t the same, as it was when I started, so that’s basically the key,” MacKenzie said.
When he took the job, he noted he had a three-year plan, of sorts, in the back of his mind.
“I thought I could commit three strong years to it, so I am happy to step away, at this point,” he added.
MacKenzie described the experience as “awesome,” expressing his appreciation for “the great tradition and pride” of the Bulldog organization.
“The biggest thing I will hang my hat on here, as I step down, is I think I leave it in better shape than I found it,” MacKenzie said of the program.
“I think that is fair to say – we were a team that was just battling to get into the playoffs and we had a couple really lean years – we didn’t even make the playoffs last year.
“But, this year, we are back to where we should be – one of the teams that you have to kind of watch,” he added.
MacKenzie offered there has been “pride restored in the Bulldog.”
“I felt that, throughout the year, we got a lot support,” he said.
Bulldog president Miles Tompkins, also a former head coach of the team, praised MacKenzie for this contribution to the program.
“He brought great stability, great knowledge of the game,” he said, noting MacKenzie’s “tremendous dedication.”
“He was as dependable as the sun rising in the morning. He was there for the kids and he loves hockey.”
Tompkins added the former head coach “took us through some tough times.”
“When he came on board, we had a really young team – probably the youngest team ever in the league – and he stuck with them and made them competitive, rebuilt the foundation. Richard made some good strides this year, for sure,” he said.
Reiterating his “great knowledge of the game,” Tompkins said MacKenzie received “great respect from the players,” which he reciprocated.
“You couldn’t ask for any more from a coach. He certainly gave it his all and provided us with some solid coaching,” he added.
In the March 7 interview, Tompkins said the team’s board of directors will be starting the search for a new bench boss.
“We will have a meeting and see what’s out there and get going,” he added.
Tompkins encouraged anyone interested in taking the reins to contact the organization.
“Having done it myself, it is work – I am not going to lie to anyone – and it is a commitment, but the rewards are immense,” he said.
“I still see many of the players that I coached. It is like a big extended family – you can’t go anywhere without bumping into them.
“They are great kids and they are a lot of fun. They will be your friends for life, so you can’t ask for any more than that,” he added.
Tompkins said he is sure MacKenzie will have the same rewarding post-Bulldog coaching experience.
“They will remember him and, I am sure, will stay in contact with them for years to come,” he added.
‘Reaping the benefits’
When asked about the state of the Bulldog organization, Tompkins said “we are reaping some of the benefits now of a revamped minor hockey system” in Antigonish.
“There are a lot of good players, again, coming up through the minor hockey system. Years ago, we had numbers and now the program is really developing a good number of hockey players. They get plenty of ice time and they get some knowledge of the game and they fall in love with the game and they want to continue playing,” he added.
Tompkins noted there are more players, both local products and St. F.X. students, which the organization “can tap into.”
“We still miss – and all the teams in the north division still miss – the presence of a Junior ‘A’ team here because we used to get a little drop back later in the season, we would pick up some players from that level … we miss that avenue to get some proven players. But, again, the players are there now and coming out a little bit more,” he said.
“It is a lot of fun; it is a good and competitive league. The league is in good shape and the team is in good shape and, hopefully, we can keep it going.”
On the financial side, Tompkins said the Bulldogs are “doing OK.”
“You always have to watch the pennies and the dollar signs, but we have got a good board of directors; we have got some solid people working and helping us with our yearly fundraisers, so we are hanging in there,” he added.
Tompkins noted the challenge of ever-increasing costs for the organization, including travel.
“You want to make sure that the kids are on the road safely,” he said, noting the evolution to using busses rather than vehicles to go on the road.
“We like to get them in a bus and make sure that they are safe, for their moms and dads and everybody else; keeping everyone from worrying.”
He added ice costs “go up a little bit,” along with other things involved with “running a hockey team,” such as paying officials.
“There’s so much hockey in Antigonish that the product itself, if you can break even, it is a wonderful thing,” Tompkins said.
“We will be there for a few years yet.”