It is mid-September, 2019 and another Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League season looms for the Notre Dame Hounds Junior ‘A’, much the same as it has for over 30 years.
That being so, few groups have held the same level of anticipation and optimism as this one, as second-year head coach and general manager, Phil Roy is expecting to ice 11 returnees and a very strong collection of incoming recruits.
“First and foremost I’m excited about the returning guys,” he said.
“That continuity is huge in terms of culture, team identity, and in practices where we feel like we are lightyears ahead of where we were a year ago at this time. We have some core guys coming back that will play important minutes for us, and then the name of the game was to surround them with good players, who either played in other junior programs or are moving up, making sure we addressed the areas we were hoping and needing to improve on.”
One of those areas Phil prioritized was finding a fulltime assistant coach, bringing in Calgary-native Brett Pilkington, who had been coaching with the Okotoks Oilers Midget AAAs in Alberta.
He joins returners Travis Young and Jerrid Riegel, who both do a tremendous, but are also committed elsewhere to professions outside the game.
“[The work this off-season] started on the bench with the coaching staff,” Roy said.
“Brett has an extensive resume as a player and as a coach, and he has a background where he has professional experience away from hockey as well, which we expect will be immense for our players and their development.”
The task of replacing departed Marshall Wilton, Nolan Renwick, Jakob Breault, and Conor MacLean was likely the most pressing as far as player-personnel went this off-season, but the returning talent has all taken steps forward in their respective development.
Jared Hamm and Curtis Wiebe enter their third seasons on the Hounds Junior A, while second-year men Sho Takai, Jarrett Penner, Qaritaq Kusugak, and Cole Stevenson also compose a group of returning forwards who look fresh, focussed, and ready to lead heading into the new campaign.
As far as recruitment was concerned, Roy’s direction appeared to be pretty clear.
“I watch the NHL of course, like everyone else,” Roy said, “and watching the [Stanley Cup champion] St. Louis Blues, I saw what they did, with the size of their team, mixed with a group that can skate. You get beat up physically in this league too, so I decided I would recruit a little bit like they did; that’s the blueprint I kind of went by.”
Led upfront in the size department by monster winger Nolan Corrado out of the Beaver Valley Nighthawks Junior B in British Columbia, the crop of new forwards also includes Notre Dame high school alumni Jayce Nikbakht and Jake Dale; the former being a well-built 6-foot-2 and 185 pound power forward, and the latter owning the strength and experience of featuring for the Hounds rugby club to go with one Telus Cup, and two Saskatchewan midget championships in the game of hockey.
Current ND high schooler Kenzie MacKinnon, who was part of the same Hounds Midget AAA club as Nikbakht and Dale, will also add his energy and skill to the mix.
The back end was considered a big strength even before Roy put a pen to any recruitment papers this off-season, returning an impressive, mobile, and character group of four that includes Kyle Robinson, Hardy Wagner, Cody Lehner, and Joe Santalucia.
To replace the key minutes and leadership of assistant captains Charles Martin and Tim Gould, Phil elected to go in a generally similar direction to the forward corps, prioritizing size while not sacrificing skating ability.
“We are very lucky and unique in the SJHL that we have an Olympic-size sheet here,” he said, “so I made the decision that we needed to be mobile on the back end.”
“Hockey sense, of course, is very important, but the SJ is an older, big, tough league, so you have to be able to be strong enough to survive the regular season and deep in the playoffs. I put a plan in place to get guys that would fit our needs, but of course, you need every type of player to win hockey games.”
Just like upfront, it was important for Phil to find a quality recruit from the Notre Dame high school ranks, and in former Hounds midget Olivier Lépine, he feels like has found a potential star at the Junior A level.
The size on the back end will appear to come from 20-year-old Gabriel Leblanc, a 6-foot-3, 205-pounder out of the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League, and Bryce Fetzer, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound giant and 2001 birth-year from Washington State.
Riley Kohonick, also a Notre Dame grad, burst on to the SJHL scene last year after winning the Telus Cup with his Hounds Midget AAAs in 2018; he looks to continue that development arc as the No. 1 heading into this year.
The White City, SK native had a goals-against-average under three, and a save percentage over .915 most of the season last year, and was magnificent at the 2019 Regina SJHL/MJHL All-Star Showcase, delivering a player-of-the-game, 37-stop performance to lead the SJHL stars to a win in his start.
He is expected by many around the province to be among the best in the league this year.
Fellow ND high school graduate Ruben Cooper was excellent in backstopping the Notre Dame Argos Midget AAA last season as well and impressed on and off the ice throughout training camp and pre-season. He is expected to back up Kohonick on opening day.
For Roy and his staff, the expectations of winning for this season, as always, will remain secondary in importance to the growth of the players as men.
“As a coaching staff we view our job is that we need to develop these young men,” he said, “not just on the ice, but off as well.”
“They all have goals they want to reach, either through major junior or college, then pro or Canadian university. So, that’s why we’re here: to make sure these young men reach their goals. Sometimes that’s not comfortable or warm, but I feel like we have to develop these guys however long it takes. It’s all about patience and allowing them to learn from their mistakes.”