They say practice makes perfect, and maybe that’s why Mike Berry’s slap shot is so menacing to opposing goaltenders.
The Berry Bomber grew up in West Edmonton firing pucks into a cage that his dad built in the driveway — three inches of vulcanized rubber propelled into that cage day after day.
“We have kind of a three-car garage driveway, and we don’t use the third one,” the 18-year-old explained. “It’s kind of like a golf cage, about the width of a car and 10 feet high.”
The cage is bolted into the ground and it has taken a beating.
“It’s there to stay, but there’s dings and it’s been broken a couple times,” Berry laughed. “We’ve actually had to put new steel in one of the upright posts.”
The Berrys used to buy cheap nets to put in the cage as targets.
They lasted about as long as a paper bag in a hurricane.
“We used to hang water balloons in the net, and I had a best buddy down the street, Sean MacTavish, and we’d have competitions to hit those things,” Berry said. “In the winter, we’d hang one up, and if we couldn’t hit it one day we’d come out the next day and it would be frozen. You really had to blast it.”
On one occasion Berry broke the window on his neighbor’s Ford F150, ringing a puck off the post of the cage.
A couple times, Berry tagged MacTavish, who was crazy enough to go into the cage to practice tipping shots.
“I hit him in the shin and the arm, but he’s still my buddy,” Berry said with a chuckle.
Former National Hockey Leaguer Al MacInnis spent hours and hours of his youth doing the same thing, banging shot after shot after shot against a sheet of plywood set against the family barn.
All that work paid off when he reached the bigs, where MacInnis won the NHL’s hardest shot competition seven times during his career. If it worked for a Norris trophy winning defenceman, why not the graduate of St. Francis Xavier High School?
“It helps so much and it’s just the repetition,” Berry said. “You hammer down that technique and it pays off in games. For a defenceman, a good slap shot gets you time on the power play, and I take pride in mine.”
Just 10 games into his junior A career, Berry hasn’t had the opportunity to instill fear into a lot of BCHL goaltenders.
Penticton’s Chad Katunar was the victim on Berry’s first, and so far only, goal of the season. Midway through the third period of a 7-1 opening night rout of the visiting Vees, Berry teed up a point shot that left vapour trails on its way into the net.
His teammate, Josh Hansen, can certainly testify to the punch a Berry shot packs. In that same game against Penticton, Berry tried to clear the puck on a penalty kill, only to have Hansen’s head get in the way.
The Chilliwack native had to be helped off the ice, and afterwards grimaced as he said, ‘He’s definitely got the hardest shot on the team.’
But velocity is only part of the equation.
Release is just as important, if not more so. What good is a 90 mile per hour blast if you can’t get it away?
“Especially in the BCHL where it’s pretty fast paced, you don’t have time to get shots off,” Berry agreed. “It’s nice to do a full windup if you’ve got time, but more often you’ve got to make do with half-swings and one timers.”
Berry spends plenty of time practicing one timers, taking feeds from fellow blueliner David Thompson.
When the work pays off in a game, when he hits it just right and sees the puck flying right where he wants it to go, that’s magic.
“It’s the best feeling, especially when it’s a tight game,” he said. “It’s almost like everything slows down because you see the puck and you know it’s going in. It has eyes.”
Berry’s dedication is paying off with tons of power play time so far this year, a treat for a kid who spent most of last year as hockey nomad.
Berry had planned to spend last year with the Vees, but transfer snafus kept him from joining the BCHL club.
He practised every day with the Vees, but played with the Penticton Lakers and Osoyoos Coyotes in the junior B Kootenay International Junior Hockey League.
“With the transfer stuff, things didn’t work out until sometime in December, and Penticton obviously had their defence picked out by then,” Berry said. “Harvey contacted me in the summer and said he was very interested. I hadn’t been to Chilliwack, but I’d heard a lot of good things about it.”
Ex-Chilliwack Bruins actually played a role in Berry’s decision to come to the Fraser Valley.
Brandon Magee, Brendan Persley and Cole Holowenko all said good things about Chilliwack and its devoted hockey fans.
“I know the guys who went to Victoria, they were very sad to be moving on,” Berry said. “But the Chiefs, we’re so happy to be in Chilliwack.”
Through seven games coming into weekend action, Berry had one goal and four points, tops among Chief blueliners.
Like all of his teammates, his hockey goal is to attract the attention of NCAA talent evaluators and get his education paid for through a scholarship.
For that to happen, he knows he needs some refinement.
“I want to be committed to a program either this year or next year, and I need to have a good season,” he said. “I’m an offensive defenceman, so putting up points is a goal, to be in that top echelon of scoring. But improving my defensive game is a must too, and Harvey just hammers that into our brains every day. In that past, I’ve had good coaching, but nothing to this level.”
The Berry Bomber and his Chilliwack Chiefs play their next home game Friday night, hosting the Trail Smoke Eaters at Prospera Centre.
Puck drop is 7 p.m.