TIMMINS - Neither TSN nor Sportsnet aired any day-long coverage like they do for the NHL Free Agent Frenzy in July, but as of June 1 Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ teams have been able to sign players for the 2015-16 season.
Unfortunately, no official announcements can be made on the signings of any new players until the paperwork has cleared the NOJHL offices.
Traditionally, teams do not announce a lot of player signings at this time of year, with most of the news coming closer to the opening of training camps in the fall.
However, there is at least some news involving the four local NOJHL squads — the Timmins Rock, Iroquois Falls Eskimos, Cochrane Crunch and the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners.
Earlier in the off season, the Rock confirmed the return of goaltender Logan Ferrington (regular season: 928:10 10-6-0, 0, 3.56, .914; playoffs: 60:00, 0-1-0, 0, 5.00, .857) and defenceman Kealey Cummings (Regular season: 49, 4-11-15, 30; playoffs: 6, 1-2-3, 2).
Two more veterans — defenceman Joe Olson (regular season: 14, 4-8-12, 6; playoffs: 6, 0-0-0, 0) and forward Tristan Salesse (regular season: 33, 15-30-45, 23; playoffs: 6, 1-1-2, 0) have now committed to returning to the squad, as well.
“Joe came in near the trade deadline (Jan. 10) last season, so coming into training camp, he is going to be in our Top 2 defence pairs,” said Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“He knows the philosophy. He knows the program. He is going to be a leader like he was last year.
“It is going to be his last year of junior hockey and he is enthused about coming back.”
At 6-2, 190 pounds, Olson brings some size and grit to the Rock blue-line and while he is more of a stay-at-home defender, he showed flashes of an offensive upside last season.
“When he first got here, he was not accustomed to what the coaching staff’s philosophy was towards the game,” Gagne said.
“He is a real mature player and he was really conscientious of his defensive play. The year before, he was more of an offensive defenceman.
“Now, coming into this season, he knows our program defensively and he will continue to explore his offensive skills.”
Salesse also joined the team midway through the 2014-15 campaign, coming over from the Fort Frances Lakers, of the Superior International Junior Hockey League, in a blockbuster four-player trade Nov. 2, 2014.
“Tristan had played midget hockey the year before and then all of a sudden, he was playing junior hockey away from home,” Gagne said.
“He really progressed throughout the year. Whenever we put him out there with some offensive players, on our top lines, he really excelled in terms of playmaking.
“I was also impressed with his commitment to defensive play.
“He is another player who will be coming in knowing our program, knowing our philosophy and knowing how our dressing room is run.
“Like Joe, he will be taking a leadership role.”
The Rock will be holding a fall tryout camp at the McIntyre Arena starting on Tuesday, Aug. 4, and running through Friday, Aug. 7.
The team’s main training camp will then open on Monday, Aug. 17.
The Rock will play four exhibition games in preparation for the 2015-16 season.
They will travel to Kirkland Lake for a game against the Gold Miners on Friday, Aug. 21, starting at 7:30 p.m., and will then return to Timmins to host the Dudley Hewitt Cup hosts at the McIntyre Arena on Saturday, Aug. 22, also starting at 7:30 p.m.
Then on Friday, Aug. 28, the Rock will host the Rayside-Balfour Canadians at the McIntyre Arena, starting at 7:30 p.m., before travelling to Rayside-Balfour for a return engagement on Saturday, Aug. 29, starting at 7:15 p.m.
In addition to confirming the return of four veterans, the Rock have announced the release of two Iroquois Falls natives who suited up for the team last season.
Defenceman Joshua DeJulio (regular season: 49, 2-19-21, 19; playoffs: 6, 0-2-2, 2) and forward Kezmin Madden (regular season: 46, 4-11-15, 8; playoffs: 5, 0-2-2, 0) will be joining the new Eskimos franchise (formerly the Mattawa Blackhawks).
As first reported by Randy Russon, of hockeynewsnorth.com, DeJulio and Madden are expected to sign with their hometown Eskimos.
Given that the paperwork on those transactions had not cleared the NOJHL offices yet, Allan Donnan, president and CEO of TPA Sports, owners of the Eskimos as well as the French River Rapids NOJHL franchise, could not confirm either of those transactions on the record.
He was also reluctant to talk about any commitments from returning players at this point, either.
“We have some of both (returning players and new signings), but we generally like to release that information in the community first,” he said.
“We have not done that. Our focus has been on the renovations that are going on inside the arena. And we have been doing sponsor meetings, obviously, and a season-ticket drive.
“I would hope over the next week to 10 days, we will have somewhere between eight and 12 players to announce.
“The other thing about commitments is that while they sound really good, until the kid actually signs a player card, you virtually have nothing.
“We will be out (recruiting) this weekend and we know we have kids coming back from last year’s Mattawa team, but we have not had a chance to get them signed to their player cards.”
While he couldn‘t get into specifics, Donnan did indicate he is pleased with how things have been going.
“I am really happy with who we have been sitting down with, who we have talked to and who we are looking to sign starting this weekend,” he said.
“To say the least, I am sure it is going to be a very competitive division with what Paul is doing in Timmins, what Lenny (Crunch coach and general manager Ryan Leonard) is doing in Cochrane and the guys in Kirkland Lake are always going to be strong.
“I think it is going to be a pleasantly nasty division. There is going to be some intense rivalries. Everybody I have talked to is looking forward to playing in the four corners.”
The Eskimos have not yet named a general manager, although Donnan indicated that could happen very shortly.
“I had been hoping to have the selection of a general manager done by today (Wednesday), but unfortunately there are a couple of family health issues,” he said.
“I would say that people are going to be extremely happy with who we are going to announce, if we can do it, but family comes first.”
During the announcement in Iroquois Falls that the Blackhawks were moving from Mattawa to become the Eskimos, Donnan indicated that he expected Taurean White would be returning to coach the team.
That might not be the case, however.
“In traditional hockey fashion, once you bring in a general manager it is really his job to announce the coach,” Donnan said.
“So, in my mind the key steps are to finish the deal with the guy I want to be our GM and then let him make his own announcement.
“Bringing in a general manager and then strapping him with a coach would not necessarily be the fairest thing to do.”
Donnan confirmed the Eskimos have added Herve Leroux to their training staff.
Leroux has operated a summer camp to get area players ready for the hockey season for a number of years and his disciples have included Ryan Kujawinski, who recently signed a three-year entry level contract with the New Jersey Devils; Brody Silk, of the Sudbury Wolves; Jordan Delaurier, of the Kitchener Dutchmen; DeJulio; Olivier Chabot, of the Kemptville 73s; Brenden Locke, of the Timmins Rock; and Dillan Bruce, of the Timmins Majors.
“We are super, super excited to have Herve join our staff,” Donnan said.
Meanwhile, the Crunch announced on Facebook they will have eight familiar faces back in the lineup for the 2015-16 season.
Goaltender Brett Young (regular season: 1378:05, 12-12-0, 0, 3.57, .911; playoffs: 868:19, 9-6-0, 0, 3.25, .909), defencemen Connor Lovie (regular season: 41, 3-10-13, 56; playoffs: 2, 0-0-0, 0), Joey Mavrin (regular season: 52, 9-21-30, 32; playoffs: 15, 0-6-6, 10) and Alex Dajia (regular season: 46, 6-13-19, 51; playoffs: 13, 0-2-2, 6), as well as forwards Dustin Cordeiro (regular season: 46, 47-18-65, 42; playoffs: 15, 13-12-25, 22), Ryan Fletcher (regular season: 43, 0-4-4, 32; playoffs: 15, 2-1-3, 4), Joey Biers (regular season: 17, 0-1-1, 26; playoffs: 3, 0-0-0, 0) and Ian Skinner (regular season: 34, 4-6-10, 14; playoffs: 15, 0-1-1, 2) have all committed to return to the franchise that went to the NOJHL finals during its first year in Cochrane.
The Crunch also have full commitments from a pair of affiliate players from the Kapuskasing Flyers, of the Great North Midget League, who saw action during 2014-15.
Forward Tyler Minoletti (regular season: 4, 0-0-0, 2; playoffs: 0, 0-0-0, 0), a Thunder Bay native, and defenceman Kyle Sanford (regular season: 2, 0-0-0, 2; playoffs: 7, 0-0-0, 0), who hails from Kapuskasing, will be back for the 2015-16 campaign.
Leonard was not available for comment on Wednesday, but his earlier Facebook post also stated: “We also have commitments from seven to nine new players from Western Canada who we have on player contracts and their names will be released June 1. We went outside of the box and went recruiting out in B.C./Alberta and were successful. We were looking for big, strong physical players who can skate at this level and finish hits and play a competitive game. We think that we did a good job and are excited for them all to get here in August.”
Like the Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls, there are also renovations underway at the Tim Horton Event Centre in Cochrane designed to increase the building’s seating and standing capacity.
Down Highway 11, in Kirkland Lake, the Gold Miners have traded forward Luc Soares (regular season: 49, 24-28-52, 42; playoffs: 6, 3-2-5, 0) to the Carleton Place Canadians, of the Central Canada Hockey League.
General manager Marc Lafleur indicated it was a straight cash transaction.
“Luc wanted to go somewhere else, so we accommodated him,” he said.
“Luc had a solid campaign with us last year. He improved a lot. He got some chances to display his skills and ultimately he earned the right to play on Team NOJHL. He played very well there, as well, and he had the opportunity to go to the Team Canada East final camp, so he had one hell of a year.”
The Gold Miners have signed a number of players, but Lafleur was not in a position to talk about them on Wednesday because their paperwork had yet to clear the NOJHL offices.
“I am not sure why and I have been trying to call the NOJHL today, as well, because I want to get these names out,” he said.
“We can’t leak out anything until it is processed.”
The Gold Miners do have a number of players from 2014-15 who have committed to returning to the team, but Lafleur stresses they will still have to come into camp and show they belong on a squad that will be hosting the Dudley Hewitt Cup.
“With us hosting this year, and even if we weren’t hosting, if they are going to come in here out of shape, there might have to be some decisions to be made,” he said.
“If guys come back, we expect them to come back with the right frame of mind.
“Guys like Devon Debastos (regular season: 1011:53, 10-6-0, 3, 2.73, .890; playoffs: 88:52, 0-1-0, 0, 2.70, .871), Joel Fortin (regular season: 51, 22-13-35, 6; playoffs: 6, 1-3-4, 2), Jamey Lauzon (43, 5-17-22, 62; playoffs: 6, 2-2-4, 8), Alexi Rivet (regular season: 34, 7-10-17, 12; playoffs: 6, 0-0-0, 2) and Jeremy Dumont (regular season: 50, 26-24-50, 30; playoffs: 6, 1-4-5, 6), are all guys that we expect back and we expect them to come back in shape and to carry a lot of the load this year, if they are back.”
The Gold Miners have a potential of 10 players coming back, but it does not always work out that way.
“You have some guys who want to move on to somewhere else, or maybe they have tryouts and they make it at the next level,” Lafleur said.
“If that happens, we wish them good luck. There are some players who had great seasons for us.”
As host of the Dudley Hewitt Cup, the coach and general manager admits there has been more interest in his squad this season.
“It is generating a little more interest from advisers and players,” Lafleur said.
“We kind of like to think as well that it is partly due to our program having a lot of success the last three years.”
The Gold Miners will be hosting a tryout camp at the Pete Palangio Arena in North Bay from July 10-12.