The Rock will play 11 of its first 12 games at home in McIntyre Arena
It shouldn’t take long for Timmins Rock fans to get familiar with the 2019-20 edition of their NOJHL squad given that 11 of its first 12 games will be played in the friendly confines of the McIntyre Arena.
The season (and home) opener for the Rock will take place Friday, Sept. 6 against the French River Rapids on the second night of the NOJHL season (French River will play the Cochrane Crunch the night before).
“Opening night, everyone is 0-0-0-0, right?” Rock coach Corey Beer said. “The opening-night jitters will be there for everybody, but we are obviously looking forward to getting things rolling.”
Timmins will receive seven days off before playing its second game, on Saturday, Sept. 14, hosting the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners at the McIntyre Arena in a contest scheduled to start at 7 p.m.
The second half of the two-game weekend series will see the Rock tangle with the Powassan Voodoos at the McIntyre Arena on Sunday, Sept. 15, at 2 p.m.
On Friday, Sept. 20, the Rock will entertain the Elliot Lake Wildcats at the McIntyre Arena, in a contest scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m.
The Rock’s first road game of the 2019-20 NOJHL campaign will come two days later, when they visit the Joe Mavrianc Community Complex in Kirkland Lake for a meeting with the Gold Miners, scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m.
With so many home games to start the campaign, Beer knows the importance of his team taking advantage of the favourable early schedule.
“For some of our guys who are new to Junior ‘A’ or new to our league, there is no more pressure-packed arena than our home rink with close to 1,000 fans a night,” he said. “It will give the guys a chance to get acclimatized to that right off the hop. That should be an added advantage for us.”
Many teams like to go on the road early in the season to give their players an opportunity to bond, but given that the Rock project to have 12 to 14 players from last year’s squad back in the lineup, that isn’t as important this season.
“Plus, we intend to do a bunch of team activities throughout training camp,” Beer said.
The NOJHL’s 12 teams play a 56-game schedule, which includes 27 home games, 27 road games and two at a neutral site as part of the NOJHL’s annual Showcase Tournament. This year’s neutral site is Big Bear Arena in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., with games taking place Oct. 15-16.
There is no change in the NOJHL’s roster of teams this season, with the East Division once again including Timmins, the defending champion Hearst, Powassan, Kirkland Lake, Cochrane and French River, while the West Division includes the Soo Thunderbirds, the Soo Eagles, Rayside-Balfour, Blind River, Elliott Lake and Espanola.
As with most — if not all — Junior ‘A’ leagues, the roster of teams in the NOJHL can change significantly from season to season, so there is no guarantee the Rapids squad that visits the McIntyre Arena on Friday, Sept. 6, will resemble the French River unit that wrapped up the 2018-19 campaign.
“They have a new coach (Corey Bricknell) coming in this year, too, so we fully expect them to have a new style of play,” Beer said. “Last year, they were a good, hungry young team and I think they will be well on their way to icing the same kind of team again this year.
Following their first road game, the Rock will return to the McIntyre Arena for seven-straight home games.
On Tuesday, Sept. 24, the Lumberjacks will make their first visit to Timmins for a contest scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m.
While the Rock have enjoyed passionate rivalries with the Crunch and the Gold Miners over the years, it’s likely that the Rock players and coaches are most looking forward to that first meeting with the Lumberjacks — the team that eliminated them from the 2019 playoffs after Timmins had established a 3-1 lead in the series.
“For a lot of our guys, I don’t know if you want to call it a little bit of unfinished business, or whatever, but we know how tough our side (East Division) was last year and we fully expect it to be that tough again this season,” Beer said.
“We are hoping with the improvements we have made to our roster, it will put us in a better spot.
The Espanola Express will make their lone visit to the McIntyre Arena — assuming they and the Rock do not advance to the NOJHL final — on Saturday, Sept. 28, for a 7 p.m. start.
The following day, the Soo Thunderbirds will land in Timmins for a 2 p.m. start.
On Saturday, Oct. 5, the Lumberjacks will return to the McIntyre Arena, for a 7 p.m. clash with the Rock.
Then, on Sunday, Oct. 6, Timmins will entertain Rayside-Balfour at the McIntyre Arena, for a 2 p.m. start.
The Rock will host the Soo Eagles for their lone visit to the McIntyre Arena on Friday, Oct. 11, at 7 p.m.
Timmins will close out its regular season with a game against Cochrane at the Tim Horton Event Centre on Thursday, Feb. 27, at 7 p.m.
With the start of training camp now just over a month away, the Rock are continuing to bolster their roster and have announced the return of a key forward and the addition of another to the lineup.
One of three 16-year-olds on the Rock roster last season, Cambridge native Keegan McMullen (54, 15-16-31, 34) had a big impact on the Timmins offence — playing mainly left wing on a line with captain Derek Seguin and Riley Robitaille.
This year, however, McMullen is expected to receive some ice time as a centre, too.
“Playing on the Seguin line, he was the beneficiary of playing with arguably one of the best players in the league,” Beer said. “Now, getting him in the middle of the ice and letting his speed take over a bit more … we have so much versatility throughout our lineup where there are going to be certain nights where he will be on the wing, then he will be back in the middle.
Beer said McMullen’s flexibility to be a winger or a centre will be helpful for the team’s depth, given that you can never have too many options to work with. After a year of growth for McMullen, Beer expects him to be comfortable wherever he’s needed on the ice.
“It is never easy for a 16-year-old to step in and play centre ice,” Beer said. “We are not fans of it. We would rather put them on the wing for a year and let them grow, then move them into the middle. By doing so, we should see him take his game to the next level this year.”
McMullen, drafted 300th overall in the 15th round of the 2018 OHL Priority Selection by the Peterborough Petes, followed up a solid rookie regular-season campaign with an even more impressive playoff run (9, 9-6-15, 2).
Joining McMullen up front on the 2019-20 version of the Rock is 2001-birth-year forward Zachary Smith.
Smith, a 5-10, 180 pound Oshawa native, spent the bulk of the 2018-19 season with the ETAHL’s Clarington Midget ‘AAA’ Toros (30, 12-11-23, 70), although he also saw action with the OJHL’s Georgetown Raiders (7, 1-1-2, 0).
“He is a stocky, left-hand shot forward who can play the middle or play the wing,” Beer said.
“He came to us and had a good (performance at prospect) camp and he has played with Wellington (OJHL, 2017-18) and Georgetown as an affiliate player the last two years.
“He got some OJHL experience and he is just a guy who fits what we want to do out there. He has got good speed. He can win battles down low and he has the physical nature and can win battles around the net.”
The return of McMullen and the addition of Smith gives the Rock 14 players up front — including Seguin, Robitaille, Riley Brousseau, Linden Spencer, Josh Dickson, Parnell, Tyler Gilberds, Cameron Kosurko, Rhys Chiddenton, Ryan Twigg, Kain Harrietha and Tyler Schwindt.
In addition, Timmins native Gage Tremblay and Darcy Haupt are eligible to return, but there has yet to be any announcement on either forward’s future.