PHOTO BY ANDREW AUTIO /Andrew Autio/The Daily Press
As the dawn of another NOJHL season approaches, new Timmins Rock head coach and general manager Brandon Perry is excited about his squad as they look to continue the momentum of dominance they displayed over the past two seasons.
“It’s going to be a good year. We’re going to have a very competitive program, and we’re looking forward to it,” he said.
After the COVID-19 pandemic stopped what looked like a championship run in its tracks in March 2020, and a very limited campaign last season, the Rock and its fans unfortunately didn’t get to see the club’s elite group of veterans and tremendous depth players battle their way through a deep playoff run, and to possibly an NOJHL title or two.
They will now need to find ways to replicate the leadership, poise, and all-around game of long-time captain Derek Seguin, the unmatched energy, exuberance, and enthusiasm of speedy winger Josh Dickson, the grit, intimidation, and irritation factor of fan favourite Riley Robitaille, the stalwart penalty killing and stout defensive play of Eric Moreau, and the puck control and consistently outstanding goaltending of Tyler Masternak, to name a few.
Additionally, former head coach Corey Beer and general manager Kevin Peever have both moved on to other hockey programs.
Last week, the Rock held their training camp, and Perry was pleased with what he saw.
“It went well. Our returning guys looked fantastic. At the beginning of the week, we started a little slow, but that’s to be expected with guys being off the ice for so long.”
In addition to the Rock regulars, a large number of local players from the Timmins Majors Under-18 AAA team took part in the week’s itinerary, which Perry, who coached the Majors for the previous four seasons, said was great for their preparation for the upcoming season.
Perry said the Rock’s returning players as well as the new additions got better and better as the week progressed.
Fresh-faced forwards Liam Wells, an 18-year-old from Oshawa, and Eric Barnard, a 16-year-old from Owen Sound, made a particularly strong impression.
“They really surprised me. They’re both really skilled players. Good skaters. They compete well. They were probably the two biggest surprises,” said Perry.
“Just the way it’s kind of been this year with COVID, it was hard to get out and see guys play a lot. You’re just relying on video and word of mouth. Sometimes, those don’t work out the way you wanted it to. But these two guys came in exactly as advertised, and are very good players. We’re really happy.”
PHOTO BY ANDREW AUTIO /Andrew Autio/The Daily Press
The Rock are returning six forwards, two defencemen, and one goalie from last year’s team which finished with an 18-win-and-four-loss record.
“With the returning guys, you kind of know what you’re getting and you know what to expect.”
Still, the vets impressed their new head coach.
“I knew they were all good players, but seeing them live this week and watching the way they worked over the week, in the dry land, in the workouts, in the fitness tests, they all showed really well.”
During the days, the team was at Timmins High & Vocational School doing off-ice activities, while the evenings were spent on the ice at the Whitney Arena in Porcupine.
Monday and Tuesday were primarily fitness focused, while Thursday marked an off-day as the team held its annual fundraiser golf tournament at Hollinger Golf Club featuring Hockey Hall of Famer Marcel Dionne.
“Monday they had to run a two-mile in under 15 minutes, and then Tuesday we ran the beep test and the guys were required to get to Level 10. Wednesday and Friday at the track we just did workouts,” explained Perry.
“It was just off-ice training. Track. A lot of foot speed, and a lot of endurance stuff.”
The roster is nearly set, although Perry said the team is still looking to add another piece or two before opening night.
The clear No. 1 in net is returnee Gavin McCarthy who posted a five-win-and-two loss record with one shutout to his name in seven games last season with the Rock.
The 18-year-old from Athens, Ont., takes the reins from NOJHL legend Tyler Masternak who tended the twine for the past four years, and has now graduated to the NCAA level.
“We have all the confidence in the world in Gavin. He’s been doing a great job being the No. 1 guy here,” said Perry.
McCarthy is away at orientation camp with the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves this week, but is expected to be the Rock’s starter on opening night and receive a heavy workload this season.
“Having Gavin back is huge. The experience he will bring, playing behind Masternak for a year, hopefully he learned some things and is now ready to take that next step and be the number one guy.”
Slotting in behind McCarthy will be rookie Konrad Simard. The 17-year-old from Quebec spent time with Perry and the Majors last season.
“We brought him up last year. He was a Quebec transfer. He looked fantastic during the week too, so we’re happy with our two guys in net.”
Perry said the team will also keep a third goalie on the roster for the time being, local product Joshua Briand.
“He’s another good one. Great goalie and he competes extremely hard. If for whatever reason we need him to slide in there, we’re confident in him.”
The blueline will also have a vastly different look this season as veterans Eric Moreau, Evan Beaudry, Zach Fortin, and Lucas Branch have all moved on.
To mitigate those departures, the team made a big splash in June when it traded for Timmins native Cameron Dutkiewicz from the Soo Thunderbirds. The right-handed shooting Dutkiewicz racked up 19 points in 21 games for the T-Birds last season, and looks poised to be one of the NOJHL’s elite offensive rearguards.
“He played for me in the Majors program. Very skilled player. He’s a 20-year-old defenceman, so not only will he bring that talent, but some experience as well,” said Perry.
Timmins also traded for Riley Dubois, an 18-year-old right-handed shooter from the Wellington Dukes of the OJHL. Dubois has put up some big numbers from the back end throughout his development.
“He showed really well. He’s got all kinds of talent. He looked great.”
The Rock have also added the imposing presence of Tanner Hamilton. The 19-year-old from Maple Ridge, BC, was acquired from the Selkirk Steelers of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League this summer. He stands a sturdy 6-foot-1 and weighs 215 pounds which should make opposing attackers lives miserable in the offensive zone.
Returnees Bode Dunford and Felix Cadieux-Fredette have their coach’s utmost confidence.
“Those two guys are going to be ready for big minutes.”
Chase Longhurst, a 17-year-old Oshawa native, and 16-year-old Aidan Farr round out the D-corps. Longhurst played the last two seasons with Perry and the Majors, and has shown significant improvement during that time. Farr impressed Perry during camp despite his youth.
Up front, the group will be anchored by a trio of returning 20-year-olds in Tyler Gilberds, Tyler Schwindt, and local product Riley Brousseau, who is back after taking last season off.
They will be leaned on to play big minutes, particularly on special teams.
Joining them will be fellow returnees Henry Brock, Nicolas Pigeon, and Tyler Patterson who all showed flashes of brilliance in their rookie campaigns last season, and will be expected to take a big leap forward.
“Hank (Brock) is just a workhorse. He does a lot of the little things right, and takes the puck to the net hard,” said Perry.
Patterson, who won’t turn 17 until October, had a phenomenal camp and is off to Oshawa Generals camp this week. The team is very high on the speedy winger.
“Hopefully we can get him back, but if he makes the big club, that’s great for him and looks good on our program as well.”
The aforementioned Wells and Barnard, along with Majors grads Nolan Ring and Justin Charette will provide Perry with depth pieces who have a big upside.
The team has also recently signed Reid Johnston and Yan Bessette to round out of the forward group.
“They all look good, and they play the way we want to play. Skilled guys with speed, and who want to hang on the puck and play that puck possession style.”
Perry will be joined by returning assistant coaches James Daschuk, Marc Bisson, and Sean Lee. Mitch Knight has been brought on as the goaltending coach, and will work with the Majors as well.
Trainers Lacey Rigg and Chris Lefebvre, along with athletic therapist Melanie Camirand are all back as well.
While the regular season will begin on Friday, Sept. 17 at home at the McIntyre Arena against the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners, the team is still ironing out details for an anticipated two exhibition games taking place likely the weekend prior. One of those games will be at home.
Overall, Perry liked the way his team improved over the course of training camp and sees his squad as one of the stronger in the league.
“We’re extremely happy with the make-up of our forwards, our D and our goalies,” he said.
WILL ‘PACK THE MAC’ BE BACK?
On Monday, the NOJHL announced league-wide spectator protocols for the upcoming season.
The league has implemented a policy in which anyone wishing to gain access to an NOJHL facility will be required to provide proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 before entering. All other posted safety protocols are expected to be followed.
Children under 12 years old will be required to be accompanied and supervised by a fully vaccinated adult.
Players, coaches, team staff, and billets league-wide are all required to be fully vaccinated as well.
As of current provincial regulations, indoor arenas could have up to 50 per cent capacity in the building.
Although exact details aren’t finalized as of yet, McIntyre Arena crowds could be approaching 1,000.
Perry and his team are very excited to have a proper home game once again.
“That’s one of our biggest selling points when we recruit. You’re not going to find a better atmosphere in junior ‘A’ hockey across the country than you will here in Timmins. We get great community support, and our guys are very fortunate to be able to play in front of that many people every night,” he said.
“I hope they’re excited for it.”
Perry is aiming to carry on and build upon the strong momentum the franchise has been collecting in recent years, and get the team closer to their ultimate goal.
“The program has definitely trended in the right direction the last three or four years, and we don’t expect anything to change. Although there are a lot of new faces in the organization, we expect the status quo to remain, and we expect to be competing for a championship in the spring.”
PHOTO BY ANDREW AUTIO /Andrew Autio/The Daily Press