It’s challenging to think about the next hockey season when the weather is so warm.
But hockey is on the mind of Dave Olenik, who not only teaches at Westgate Collegiate and Vocational Institute (CVI) but is also behind the bench of the under-18 AA Thunder Bay Queens squad.
The girls will be on the ice in the middle of August, even though Olenik admits the schedule is flexible for the athletes.
“The unfortunate part about female hockey is that there are a lot of prospect or showcase tournaments early in September and October before the universities and colleges start. That’s the best opportunity for our girls to get seen and identified,” Olenik stated. “That’s why we decided to go to probably one of the most difficult, but important tournaments of the season in Stoney Creek during the first week of September. We take our August ice time this year very carefully. We only practice Tuesday through Thursday, which gives the girls weekends off to travel and enjoy the summer.”
The U-18 Queens had a strong season in 2022-2023, making the quarterfinals in both the Stoney Creek Sabres Showcase in September and the Female World Sport Challenge in January in Winnipeg. The girls also went 3-0 in the round robin portion of provincials in April before bowing out in the quarterfinals to the eventual bronze medalists, the Oakville Hornets. This was one of the best showings by a team from Thunder Bay in the last decade.
Olenik feels hockey in Thunder Bay is on the upswing, with consistency within the Queens program helping those efforts.
“I think when the Queens program brought in the U-11 athletes [formerly known as Atom] that sort of led the way to bringing some female hockey players [into the sport] earlier, which starts the bonding process, [and perhaps makes] skill development with that group of kids easier,” said Olenik.
“We’ve had some great leadership [over the years] with Rob Van Dyke as president, and a great board, which has brought in some great coaches over the years. [That has carried over] with the new leadership, which has recruited a new crop of good coaches. [The future] looks very promising in the Queens program for sure. The U-13 did very well at provincials, the U-15 AA team had a strong showing as well despite being a younger team.”
Olenik noted that six players from last year’s team have moved on, but 10 skaters will be returning with a younger crop of defencemen joining the team along with some new forwards. The head coach is expecting more offence from the forwards with another year of experience behind them. More goals will compliment what Olenik calls “rock solid” goaltending that the U-18 AA Queens have enjoyed the last few years.
Olenik is prepared for growing pains while the new girls get used to the new age bracket.
“When I first coached this team two years ago, we had ten of eleven first year players and it took until Christmas until we figured things out, we had a rough first half of the season,” reflected Olenik. “In saying that the girls grew, developed and understood what it was we were preaching and at the provincial championships, we lost one game by a goal and tied two other matchups. The growth and development was there, we were just missing that one goal offensively. Last year, we were a year older and that showed. You saw the confidence in the players and that’s why we had a strong start in my opinion. I feel that this year we should be strong out of the gate.”
The Queens will take part in the U-18 AA Showcase from September 9th to 11th in Stoney Creek, hosted by the Sabres. Other events on the schedule include a showcase in October hosted by the Durham West Lightning, a National Invitational Tournament in Minnesota in November and the US Canada Cup in Kitchener in December.
Olenik added that the team will take three weeks off from game competition in December because it’s a lot of hockey, especially with the August start. The squad will also be off for a few weeks in January to hopefully avoid the injury bug and the worst of cold and flu season.
Olenik himself caught the coaching bug after graduating from teachers' college and felt like he could offer some knowledge to help kids get better. A former player that he used to play with got him involved with a U-15 AA team.
When it comes to joining the Queens program, it was Olenik's then-six-year-old daughter who got him back into coaching circles. He walked into the dressing room and was taken up on an offer to help out from other former players including Jason Mallon and Jeff Riccardi.
Olenik played with the former Thunder Bay Flyers in the United States Hockey League (USHL) between 1991 and 1993, amassing 15 goals and 56 points in 86 regular season games.
“As a player, I made it more on hard work and discipline, which is why I would call myself a smart hockey player, but maybe not the most skilled player,” Olenik added.
“I had coaches that recognized my hockey sense and my work ethic, and I’ve brought [those traits forward] as a coach. Work hard, be disciplined, if we teach you something hopefully you get it… if you don’t get it, ask questions, the door is always open. The U-18 player, just from my experience as a teacher and as a coach at that level, they advocate for themselves and ask a lot of questions. You have to be a good communicator and be able to give them the answers.”
Olenik was also a coach in the Thunder Bay Kings organization from 2004 until 2008, serving as the under-18 AAA Assistant Coach under Doug Colbon for a pair of seasons before becoming the head coach of the squad in the 2006-2007 season.
The Queens are also planning games with members of the Thunder Bay Minor Hockey Association.