By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The Timmins Rock have won five of their past six games, a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League.
Rock players claimed two of the NOJHL’s Eastlink TV 3 Stars of the Week awards after sweeping a pair of contests during a two-game trek through Rayside-Balfour and Elliot Lake that produced the maximum four points.
In addition, a member of the Rock was recognized as the Gongshow Gear Rookie of the Month for December, while a pair of his teammates earned honourable mention in two other categories.
Forward Aaron Kerr (7, 7-4-11, 2) is the week’s first star after he notched four goals to help the Rock beat the Canadians 6-3 Saturday night and the Wildcats 5-2 Sunday night.
Since returning home to Timmins in early December, the 19-year-old has scored seven times in as many outings for the Rock and also doled out four assists.
He enters play this week riding a five-game point streak.
Scoring is just part of what the 5-9, 180-pound forward has brought to the Rock roster, however.
“Aaron does not just bring offence to the team,” said Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“The last three games he has played, he has been really good on the face-offs. He has been good penalty killing and on the power play.
“His compete level has also been high. He is such a beautiful skater and sometimes he is even the third guy coming back to make it a three-on-three. He back-checks and he is committed defensively.
“He has made some incredible plays back-checking because of his speed.
“He is the overall package for us, not just a goal scorer. He is not a one-dimensional player. He brings lots to the team.”
While Kerr is appreciative of the honour, he made it clear prior to practice on Tuesday his play is not motivated by winning awards.
“I just like to play hockey,” he said.
“I really don’t worry too much about what kind of awards I am getting. I hadn’t even realized I was the first star of the week and when I did find out it wasn’t really a big deal.”
Kerr’s focus is on how many games the Rock are winning as opposed to how many goals he is scoring or any individual accomplishments.
“You can go out there an score three goals, but it really isn’t a big deal unless you are helping the team win,” he said.
Kerr does pride himself on being a complete hockey player.
“Obviously, playing Major Junior ‘A’ hockey, you learn to play both sides of the puck, so defensively it is just a matter of knowing where you are supposed to be and taking your guy, finishing checks and back checking,” he said.
“It is not just a matter of scoring goals and getting assists.”
Kerr has been playing on a line with Devin Panzeca and Ryan Theriault.
“Theriault is good on the wall and he gets me the puck in the middle,” he said.
“He is good down low, as well. He is a big body and Panzeca works hard and can strip guys of the puck, make passes out front and stuff like that.
“When they make that pass and I have some speed, I can got with it.”
Kerr likes the way the Rock are playing hockey.
“I am really confident in our team right now,” he said.
“All the guys are really stepping up. We have two or three solid lines that can put up some points and we have got the goaltending. Everything is going good right now.
Forward Zachary Kercz (36, 18-41-59, 60), who leads the Rock in scoring and is third in the NOJHL scoring race, is the second star.
He picked up five points during the Rock’s two weekend victories.
The 20-year-old from Aurora, Ont., leads the NOJHL in assists, with 41.
“He has been consistent all year,” Gagne said.
“He really competes and I am not just talking about points. He has the most hits of any player on our team. He always finishes his check and he is always provoking players on other teams.
“Sometimes he is so intense he gets himself in little verbal arguments with the referees and it has cost him 10-minute misconducts here and there.”
At 5-9 and 175 pounds, Kercz is far from the biggest player on the Rock roster but that has not kept him from working in the corners or getting to the dirty parts of the ice in front of opponents’ nets.
“We moved him to a line with (Jordan) Rendle and (Bain) Cunningham, two players who have so much structure and who play within our program,” Gagne said.
“All the set plays, all the little things that we introduced to the players, all the assignments and stuff, Kercz has improved a lot playing with those two guys. He is being more patient and isn’t trying to do everything in one shift.
“His compete level has always been high, but with these two players, we have a good combination.”
Cochrane Crunch rookie forward Tyler Minoletti (30, 13-13-26, 39) is the third star of the week.
Minoletti scored three goals to help lead the Crunch to a 9-3 win over the Iroquois Falls Eskis Saturday night at the Tim Horton Event Centre.
Meanwhile, Cunningham (35, 19-16-35, 30) earned Gongshow Gear Rookie of the Month honours for December.
Given that Cunningham currently leads the NOJHL in game-winning goals, with seven, his teammates might want to start calling him Mr. Clutch.
“Bain came to us straight out of Midget ‘AAA’ in Barrie and I would say during the first month of the year he was a good skater, but he hardly finished his checks,” Gagne said.
“He was not a confident kid and that’s understandable. He was playing against 20 year olds and trying to learn a new coaching philosophy, but this kid has progressed to the level where he is one of our better players.
“What I really like about him is that he doesn’t even realize it. He goes out there and does his job. He listens to what his assignments are and he does the right things. He goes out there and he is all business every time he is on the ice.
“He is a great student of the game. He is like sponge.”
At 6-3 and 206 pounds, Cunningham brings size to the Rock lineup and is not afraid to crash the net or dig the puck out of the corners.
The Barrie native was all smiles talking about his honour prior to Tuesday’s practice.
“I was very happy, especially being a rookie in this league,” he said.
“I had not really expected much when I came up here but I am having a great time and to get this award is a good accomplishment for me going forward.”
Cunningham is averaging a point a game in his rookie campaign and is one marker short of cracking the 20-goal club, but he is quick to credit his linemates Rendle and Kercz for much of his success.
“We have good chemistry and the points have been coming,” he said.
“It’s been good.”
Even though Cunningham leads the NOJHL in game-winning goals, one of the few offensive categories not dominated by Crunch forward Hunter Atchison, he has no plans to give his rival a hard time when the Rock travel to Cochrane Saturday night.
“It is awesome to have that accomplishment,” he said.
What’s Cunningham’s secret to being such a timely goal scorer?
“I think it is mainly just not getting nervous, focusing on the little things that work for us,” he said.
“The puck has just been going in the net and it’s awesome.”
Aaron Kerr’s older brother, Ryan (30, 5-24-29, 26), earned honourable mention for the Gongshow Gear Defenceman of the Month honours for December award won by Kirkland Lake Gold Miners blue-liner Blake Anderson.
“This is Ryan’s last year of Junior ‘A’ and he has brought leadership to our team,” Gagne said.
“He gets a lot of ice time and we have a lot of confidence in him. Most of the time, he makes a difference on the ice. He controls the play and he moves the puck well … which he has to do a little bit more often.
“Other than that, he has been great on and off the ice. He works hard and he is having fun. That’s the bottom line. You see him smiling.”
The older Kerr, 6-1 and 185 pounds, has also been contributing on the scoresheet, as well, already matching his point total from 2014-15 in 17 fewer games.
“This is his best season offensively with us,” Gagne said.
“It reflects on his ice time. He kills penalties, he plays on the power play and five-on-five. Most nights, he is a shutdown defenceman who plays against the other teams’ best forwards. He has really come through for us.”
Logan Ferrington (1,290, 14-7-1-0, 1, 3.30, .916), of the Rock also earned honourable mention in the race for Gongshow Gear Goalie of the Month honours won by the Soo Thunderbirds Mario Culina, who is currently with the Ontario Hockey League’s Windsor Spitfires.
“Logan has been stellar for us this season,” Gagne said.
“What we like about him is that he comes to play. In practice, the guys get frustrated with him because he works hard and he tries to stop every puck. It doesn’t matter what drill we are doing, he is always there trying hard to keep the puck out.
“His consistency has been incredible. I can only think of one game that he has played where he would like to have had a couple of goals back.
“He is having a great time and he loves it here in Timmins and it shows. At Christmas time, he went home and then came back early because he loves it so much here.”
Gagne is pleased to see so many of his players earn recognition for all of the hard work they have been putting in on the ice.
“It is nice once in a while to see them get a pat on the back, so they can read about themselves,” he said.
“They are confident kids and they work hard. They know what’s at stake. They want to improve and they want the team to improve.”
Gagne knows, as well, that each of the five players — or any of their teammates — would happily exchange any individual accolades for a Dudley Hewitt Cup championship at the end of the playoffs.
“That’s the kind of kids they are,” he said.
“It would be nice to get there and I am confident we have the team to do it.”