“We’re prepared for the fact that after the 10th game, our season is over”
Heading into the final 10 games of their junior careers, the graduating veterans of the Timmins Rock are not only focused on winning games but also cherishing every moment they have left together as a group.
Wednesday night’s game in Cochrane — which was subsequently cancelled due to freezing rain and icy roads — was set to mark the beginning of a 10-game set between the Rock and the rival Crunch, which will bring some closure to an NOJHL hockey season decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent restrictions.
The Rock haven’t played a game since Dec. 22, when they defeated the Hearst Lumberjacks 3-2 at the McIntyre Arena.
For the last few weeks, the team has been on the ice practising, and the players are very eager for puck drop.
“Everything has been good. It took a couple of days to get back in there, after 50 something days off, but everyone is looking good and back up to speed now, and I think we’re really excited going into Wednesday,” said goaltender Tyler Masternak, now in his fourth season with the club.
“Refreshing everything, all the systems, getting our legs back underneath us after that two month break. We’re cranking it up in practice here this week,” said forward Josh Dickson.
The team is also still adjusting to the departure of head coach Corey Beer, who resigned from the team on Feb. 17 to pursue an opportunity closer to his hometown of Oshawa with the Okanagan Hockey Group. He and his girlfriend are expecting their first child in May, and both of their families live in the area.
Long-time assistant coaches Marc Bisson and James Daschuk, as well as Sean Lee will guide the Rock for the remainder of the season. Bisson will handle head coaching duties on an interim basis.
“It’s been pretty different in the absence of Beersie. Beezer is stepping up as head coach,” said team captain Derek Seguin.
The familiarity of the coaching staff is a big help for the players, as they are preaching essentially the same message as Beer did.
“We haven’t really changed much. I mean, no point in fixing what isn’t broken. We’ve got a pretty good team here. Everyone knows what we’ve got to do on our end, we know how to play the systems and all that, so we’re just going to keep doing our thing and show everybody that we’ve still got it,” said Masternak.
These 10 games over the next 20 days will mark the end of an era in Rock history, as mainstays Masternak, Dickson, as well as homegrown forwards Seguin and Riley Robitaille will be moving on after the season.
“It’s funny, because when I played my first year here, and listened to all the 20-year-olds who basically preached the message of ‘just enjoy it, it goes by quick, soak in every moment’ and now here I am, understanding what they meant by it,” said Robitaille, who is in his fourth season with the Rock, and actually suited up in seven games for the former incarnation of the club, the Iroquois Falls Eskis, way back in the 2016-2017 NOJHL season.
“That’s all I will be doing. Enjoying every practice, every bag skate, every little moment, and have fun with it. It’s all you can really do when there’s no playoffs. There’s nothing really on the line, so just enjoy it.”
Although there is yet to be official word from the NOJHL regarding the possibility of any further game action this season, all signs point to these 10 games being the last.
“We’re prepared for the fact that after the 10th game, our season is over. We’re ready,” said Seguin, whose competitive fire still burns.
“To be completely honest, I want to win 10 games. We’re going to play our best hockey and ride it out.”
Masternak reflected on how fast the last four years seem to have gone by.
“Time just slips away from you. Everyone is just having fun, living in the moment, and then a few months down the road, everyone is playing their last couple of games together,” he said.
“Being a 20 year old, it’s just trying to have as much fun with it as I can. It’s been a tough season. Obviously it hasn’t gone as we expected at all, but it’s just really finding a way to enjoy ourselves the last 10 games and make the most of it.”
Dickson, a Port Perry native with 129 games played in a Rock uniform, including playoffs, said he will have very fond memories of his time with the club.
“I wouldn’t give it up for anything. I wouldn’t choose to play anywhere else. It was the best three years of my life so far.”
Masternak, the NOJHL’s all-time leader in shutouts, has one specific moment that he would call the highlight of his Rock tenure.
“Definitely my first year here, my 17-year-old year.”
Masternak began that season (2017-2018) with the Powassan Voodoos, the top team in the league. The club was very deep at every position, and they envisioned a serious run at not only the NOJHL title, but the Dudley Hewitt Cup as well. The Voodoos ended up using seven different goalies that season.
Masternak, as well as a 16-year old forward named Tyler Gilberds, were acquired by the Rock during the course of that season. Corey Beer was in his first season as head coach. The Rock and Voodoos squared off in a second-round playoff series. On paper, it was a clear mismatch, as Timmins had a very up-and-down rebuilding type of season, and the Voodoos cruised to the top of the league, winning 45 of 56 regular season games.
However that scrappy young Rock club, which included 17-year-olds Seguin and Robitaille, stunned the league by winning three of the series’ first five contests. It set up a chance for the Rock to take the series on home ice.
On March 25, 2018, in front of 1,600 fans, they did just that. Masternak was brilliant, stopping 42 of the 43 shots he faced, and Gilberds provided the dagger with a series-clinching snipe 15 minutes into overtime.
“He scored the overtime winner in Game 6, and I couldn’t even believe it. I think they were ranked fourth in the country or something. We weren’t even in the Top 100. Nobody ever thought we were going to do that,” said Masternak.
“When that puck went in, man, the whole building was shaking. It was crazy.”
The power of the collective is real, which is something that has been noticeably absent for the players this season playing with either none or very few spectators.
“Its different in a lot of ways. The fans for sure is a big one. You can’t draw energy from the crowd, you kind of have to create it within the team, and rely on each other to boost morale,” said Seguin.
“At times it has been tough, because our fan base has been really good, since I’ve been here, at pumping up the guys. When you’re down a couple, and you make a nice play and the crowd starts cheering, it feeds your legs. Not having that, has been different, it kind of brings you back to minor hockey.”
Dickson added “It’s not as fun as coming to The Mac on a Friday night with 1,000 fans cheering you on, but we’ve adjusted. All the guys in the room have come together. We’ve always had the motto ‘ignore the noise’ don’t worry about what other people think. Everyone in our room needs to be on the same page. We’ve stuck to that this year, and its been working out in our favour.”
Robitaille said, “With the no fans aspect, it sucks because Timmins is a big fanbase, and you tell the out of town guys when you play for Timmins, it’s an experience that you envision having as a little kid, playing in front of a big crowd, and now that its not there, it’s a lot different.”
Masternak added, “It shows you that you really can’t take anything for granted. You play these games now with no fans, and it’s dead quiet in there. You play in front of 1,000 fans, you just get used to that every night. It’s something you really miss.”
He said the current NOJHL rules, which includes no intentional contact, have also been a big adjustment.
“The rules have been a bit different. With no contact, I feel like the game comes to you a lot faster than it normally would. For example entries, your D aren’t stepping up and making hits and taking the guy out and whatnot. There’s a lot more high-paced action end-to-end.”
Current protocols have also altered how the team prepares for games, as they are not permitted into the arena until 30 minutes before warmups.
“It gives you just enough time to get undressed, and maybe do a quick stretch, get dressed, then you’re on the ice. Whereas before, we’d be at the rink two or two and a half hours before the game. Stickhandle, shower, ride the bike, whatever your pre-game ritual was, you’d have time to do it and mentally prepare. Now, there’s not much time to flip that switch,” said Seguin.
Off the ice and throughout the pandemic, the players have been keeping themselves busy.
“I’ve been working a lot. I’ve been working at the Golden Manor as a front desk screener for the staff and the essential caregivers that come in for the residents. Making sure everything runs smoothly before they come in. Checking when their most recent tests were. Making sure they have no symptoms of COVID and all that. The pool just opened up a week and a half ago, so me and Zach Smith are back there working as lifeguards,” said Dickson.
Seguin has begun his post-secondary studies in psychology with the Université de Hearst online.
“That kept me sane, and kept me going through not having much to do, with the hockey breaks. I’ve been working as well, so that helped me get through it. On my time off, I’d go spend it at my cottage and just kind of relax,” he said.
Robitaille is well on his way to the next phase of his life.
“This summer, I worked with the paramedics and helped them out during COVID. Now I’m completing my real estate licence. So once that is completed, that will be my career path for the next little bit hopefully, and see where that takes me,” he said.
Masternak has his sights set on university hockey and has been in contact with several schools.
“It’s a pretty stressful time. I’m trying to figure what I want to get myself into, and trying to make the best choice for me. I’m keeping all of my options open, and hearing everybody out.”
He and Dickson have both recently signed with a player agent, who will assist them in securing opportunities.
“Just trying to keep the hockey career going for as long as I can,” said Dickson.
Seguin said he has also been in contact with some schools in both Canada and the United States, but with the uncertainty of everything right now, he isn’t in a rush to decide his next steps.
“I’ve been looking at playing pro in North America, or going to travel Europe, which is something that would just be a cool experience. Do it while I’m young, and don’t have a full-time job. Just weighing those options now.”
He is in his third season as team captain, which is rare in junior hockey, let alone the privilege to be able to do it in your hometown.
“It’s been really nice. For my minor midget year, I was away and then I made the decision to come back. I met Beersie for the first time, they were getting a new coach, and so I was there at the start of training camp with him, and have gotten to develop a relationship with him throughout these years,” he said.
“The fan base is unreal. I’d walk into the grocery store, and kids would see the Rock jacket, and they’d come talk to us. Even being able to have my family support, my grandparents haven’t missed a home game in four years, and my parents, and my sister, and my friends, so having that kind of support, day-in, day-out, is huge.”
“Not only because it’s my hometown, but I truly believe that this is one of the best towns to play junior hockey in. The support is next to none.”
Dickson has played three years with Masternak, Seguin and Robitaille, and said he learned from all of them.
“Those guys have been nothing but the best. They are absolute pros those three.”
Dickson, who was named the NOJHL’s Most Improved Player last season, said the entire Rock organization puts its players in positions to succeed.
“Going through the list, obviously Beersie is gone, but him being here with me for two and half years, Beezer (Marc Bisson), Dazer (James Daschuk), Lacey (Rigg), Ted (Gooch), Chis (Lefebvre), Peevs (Kevin Peever), Packs (Eric Paquette), all of them. Just an absolute professional organization.”
Playing the same opponent for 10-consecutive games will also be a new experience for everyone involved.
“I’m sure by the second game, we’ll have the rivalry going,” said Robitaille.
“It’s definitely going to get a little bit heated, especially with no contact. But we’ve just got to stay composed. Let the game come to us, don’t go chasing it,” said Masternak.
“We’re going to get fed up with each other pretty quickly I can imagine. Timmins-Cochrane has been a pretty good rivalry for the three years I’ve been here,” added Dickson.
Unlike the 20-year-old players last season, whose junior careers abruptly came to an end last March at the outset of lockdown restrictions, the Rock vets know what is on the horizon.
“The OHL isn’t even playing yet. We’re considered pretty lucky to be able to play. Its not the season we were anticipating, but its a season, so we can’t complain in that sense. I’m excited to get back at it, finish up my last year, and have fun with it,” said Robitaille.
Seguin said it has been a treat to watch his teammates grow not only as hockey players, but as people as well, and knows it will be a very emotional and bittersweet day on March 30 at the McIntyre Arena, this core’s final game together.
Masternak is trying to live in the moment, and love every second of these 10 games.
“Great group of guys. We’ve all had so much success with each other through the years, and have helped each other grow so much along the way. You wish you could play with those guys forever, but you just can’t.”
Andrew Autio is the Local Journalism Initiative reporter for The Daily Press. LJI is a federally funded program.