Tonawanda News — When the Kenmore West hockey team finished last season without a single win (0-19), there weren’t a lot of smiles visible in the Blue Devils’ locker room.
New Ken West coach Tim Knight knew it was time for a culture change when he took over the job, and it started with getting everybody on the team to buy into a system devised to help the Blue Devils find success.
“We determined that instead of having a system for the sake of having a system we wanted to play to our kid’s strengths,” Knight said. “This year we’re young and we have a lot of 10th and 11th graders — there’s only three seniors. There’s not a whole lot of experience out there so we wanted to put them in a system where they can be successful. That involves extremely hard work and we try to teach the kids that everyone has a role.”
The changes have made a big difference and the Blue Devils enter the playoffs — tonight at 7:30 p.m. against Grand Island — after an 8-12 season and are looking for their first post season win in five years.
The on-ice changes have paid off, but Knight said there are two catalysts behind the team’s resurgence: defenseman Tommy Ryan and goalkeeper Sean Guetti.
Ryan is a senior and the team’s leading scorer at his position on the blue line, notching 8 goals and 11 assists. Guetti said Ryan has a rifle of a slap shot and his experience allows him to impact the game on defense and offense.
Knight said Ryan is a special kind of athlete.
“Tommy just does what Tommy Ryan does, he’s just an amazing athlete,” Knight said. “He recently was named to the small school All-Fed team. It’s a pretty big accomplishment because there is only two defensemen that get nominated for it.”
Ryan, a three-sport varsity starter his entire four-year career (baseball, hockey and soccer), is also quite the academic. He’s a part of the International Baccalaureate Program at Kenmore West, and Knight said he is one of the top students in his class. He has applied to the U.S. Naval Academy and hopes to study either electrical or nuclear engineering.
His high I.Q. helps the senior out on the ice, Knight said.
“He’s focused, not like most kids that aren’t sure what they want to do, he’s pretty clear cut on where he wants to go and that’s how he approaches hockey,” Knight said. “He works hard but likes to have fun at the same time. When he steps on the ice he’s all business. He plays power play, penalty kill, I’ll double shift him back there and I’ll put our sixth or seventh defenseman out there with him because I know they won’t hurt us if he’s out there with them.”
Ryan is trying to enjoy the few remaining games in his hockey career.
“Being here four years you kind of put things in perspective and try and go out there and have a good time,” Ryan said. “The two other seniors are out so it’s just me out there trying to lead this team. It’s a fun time.”
Between the pipes, Guetti has been rock solid all season. With only three seniors on the team, he has mostly inexperienced players in front of him, but on most nights it hasn’t mattered much.
At the start of the year, Guetti was dealing with some confidence issues, but has returned to top form. He credits his teammates for staying behind him.
“I’ve been getting some confidence back after last year not winning a game,” Guetti said. “It’s been a more positive environment to be around. My defense has been playing really strong in front of me, so I have to give credit to them. … There’s been a lot of ups and downs with this team but staying positive is the most important thing.”
Knight, who has been involved with the Ken West program for about a decade, has enjoyed watching his goalie grow over the past three seasons.
“I think Sean has grown up and matured a lot this year and he’s taken on the leadership,” Knight said. “I can tell you this, we’re a different team in front of him than any other goalie. He wants to win for the guys in front of him.”
Guetti, 6-7 with a 2.92 goals against average on the season, wasn’t in net when the Blue Devils lost 5-2 to Grand Island earlier this season, and Knight hopes his go-to netminder will be the difference tonight at the Northtown Center in Amherst.
“It’s a huge game and a good matchup,” Knight said. “Our records are pretty similar. We haven’t won a playoff game in a few years here, so if we can come in and get the first win, no matter what we do after that I think that would be a huge accomplishment.”Contact sports editor Matt Parrino at 693-1000 ext. 4117 and find Tonawanda News sports on Twitter @tonanewssports.