By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
IROQUOIS FALLS – Eskimos fans have likely had the date circled on their calendar since the NOJHL released its 2015-16 schedule earlier this summer.
The community’s former franchise — the Abitibi Eskimos — will pay their first visit to the Jus Jordan Arena as the Timmins Rock Wednesday night.
Given the anguish the fans felt at the loss of their beloved Eskimos during the roughly two-week period prior to Allan Donnan, of TPA Sports, announcing that he would be relocating the Blackhawks from Mattawa to the Jus Jordan Arena, Rock players and off-ice personnel should not expect too warm a welcome.
As Eskimos coach and assistant general manager Corey Bricknell notes: “Wednesday’s game is going to be a packed house. The fans have been waiting for this game.”
The Eskimos first home game of the 2015-15 regular season — against their Highway 11 rivals, the Cochrane Crunch — attracted 824 fans, eager to prove the original Eskimos made a mistake by pulling up stakes and moving to the bright lights of Timmins.
Only time will tell if they are correct in that assessment or not, but early indications suggest both franchises should be able to thrive in this hockey-mad environment.
Attendance —1,046 — at the first regular-season home game in Rock history was equally as impressive Saturday night at the McIntyre Arena, as the team hosted the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners.
There are, of course, a few avid hockey fans that will attend home games for both franchises throughout the course of the season, but they had to choose one or the other Saturday night.
“I expect a large loud crowd (Wednesday night),” Bricknell said.
Heading into the contest, the Eskimos are still searching for their first victory of the season but fans are likely not too concerned at this point.
After all, last season they witnessed the former Eskimos drop back-to-back 9-3 and 10-3 decisions to the Crunch early in the season and that squad managed an over .500 finish.
So the 7-1 and 11-2 defeats the current Eskimos suffered on the weekend are no reason for panic.
And Bricknell and his staff are confident they can produce a much better result against the Rock Wednesday night.
“We, as a team, have done a video breakdown of the past two games,” he said.
“We have to capitalize on our chances and look after our end of the ice. We can’t play an entire period in the box like we did during the game here.”
The Eskimos have been working hard in practice this week to fine tune their game.
“We have ice this morning and tonight,” Bricknell said prior to Tuesday’s first session.
The Eskimos have three players on their roster — defenceman Josh DeJulio (0, 0-0-0, 0), as well as forwards Kezmin Madden (2, 0-0-0, 2) and Dalton Bruce (1, 0-0-0, 0) — who played with the former Eskimos last season.
The Rock, meanwhile, have seven players — goalie Logan Ferrington (120:00, 1-1-0-0, 0, 2.00, .940), defencemen Kealey Cummings (2, 0-0-0, 2), Nicholas Hautanen (2, 0-0-0, 2), Ryan Kerr (2, 0-0-0, 0), Michael Rancourt (2, 0-0-0, 0), as well as forwards Tristan Salesse (2, 2-0-2, 2) and Kyle Levis (0, 0-0-0, 0) — who were part of the last Abitibi Eskimos squad, plus coach and general manager Paul Gagne who was born and raised in Iroquois Falls.
“It will be strange going into the Jus Jordan Arena because I like to refer to it as my apprenticeship building, from minor hockey to the pros,” he said.
“As far as the team (the new Eskimos) goes, though, there really won’t be anything emotional because this is a team that has played in three different towns in the past three years.
“They are the Eskimos right now, but it will be just like playing Mattawa, basically.”
We are not quite sure the fans in Iroquois Falls will see things that way, of course.
“We only have six or seven players from last year and the fans are not mad at the players,” Gagne said.
“There is no reason and there are only a handful of fans that are mad we left. Regardless, I am not going to take it personally. This is my livelihood and I can’t base it on what other people think.”
For all intents and purposes, the Rock are treating Wednesday night’s encounter with the Eskimos as just another hockey game.
“We are preparing this week to play on Wednesday night and it doesn’t matter if we are playing Sault Ste. Marie or if we are playing Iroquois Falls,” Gagne said.
“We just prepare to play our program and I know it sounds cliche but it’s true. We have to live in the moment, work on our game and make progress in our program.
“We got to see the first period of one of their games when they played Cochrane on FastHockey and that gave us a bit of an idea (of how they like to play).
“The scouting report is that we are going to have to go in there, work hard, get our forecheck going and play well defensively.
“We are going to have to try and win every zone we are in, gain the next zone and eventually bury the puck.”
Picking up a pair of points, or at least a single point in Iroquois Falls Wednesday night will be important for the Rock given they have a tough three-game road trip on the weekend that will see them make stops in Sault Ste. Marie Friday night, Sault, Mich., Saturday night and Espanola late Sunday afternoon.
“Even after beating Kirkland Lake last Saturday, the boys are looser in practice,” Gagne said.
“They work hard but there is less stress and they have got a lot of energy. You can see them laughing and having fun. They are setting the tempo also in the dressing room with the rules.”
The Rock have some injury and suspension woes heading into Wednesday night’s game.
Defenceman Ryan Kerr (2, 0-0-0, 0), forward Cole Gilligan (2, 0-0-0, 0) and defenceman Tyler Somers (0, 0-0-0, 0) will all miss Wednesday night’s game with injuries.
In addition, forward Kyle Levis (0, 0-0-0, 0) will be serving the third game of the four-game suspension he picked up after being assessed a butt-ending penalty in the final exhibition game against the Cochrane Crunch on Sept. 4.
On the plus side of the ledger, defenceman Justin Mendoza (0, 0-0-0, 0) will make his regular-season debut after getting his paperwork issues cleared up.
The Rock may also have a new blue-liner in the lineup, as well, if the paperwork on defenceman Braxton Davis (40, 1-9-10, 196, Las Vegas Storm, of the WSHL) is completed in time for Wednesday night’s contest.
“He is a stay-at-home defenceman who plays really tough and knows his role,” Gagne said.
“Actually, he told us what his role was going to be. He plays the game tough and he is going to hit. He is going to give us a little bit of breathing room when somebody tries to take liberties with our players.
“It will be kind of nice to see that.”
The only person in Timmins likely happier to see Davis at Rock practice on Tuesday was goalie Logan Ferrington, who was run over at least four times during the first two games of the regular season against the Gold Miners.
At 6-6 and 209 pounds, the 20-year-old Hermosa Beach, Calif., native certainly has the physical presence needed to keep the front of his team’s net clear of traffic.
“I can supply a physical presence out there, but I can also move the puck pretty well,” Davis said, prior to practice Tuesday afternoon.
“I try to have the best vision and think about playing defence first.”
Davis had been in camp with the Springfield Jr. Blues, of the NAHL, prior to being acquired by the Rock.
“I only got to play the one preseason game with them, but before that I played with the Las Vegas Storm, of the WSHL.”
In case you were wondering, Wikipedia does not list any current or former NHL players among the famous citizens Hermosa Beach has produced over the years.
So, what influenced Davis to opt to become a hockey player?
“My dad got me involved in the sport,” he said.
“I was introduced to it at a young age, when I was around five or six years old and ever since then, I have been playing hockey and loving it.”
Davis and his family were actually living in Utah — not exactly a hockey hotbed, either, but a little closer to the Canadian border — when his dad introduced him to the sport.
Suiting up with the Rock this season will definitely be the farthest away from home Davis has been while pursuing the sport he loves.
“I drove up from Springfield, Ill., which is about a two-day drive,” he said.
“I made it all the way to Blind River last night, stayed the night there, and made it up here just now.
“I am looking forward getting my feet wet real quick (at practice), before I can relax and get to know the town.
“I am hoping to get into action as soon as possible.”