Canadians to open season in Lac Seul
It’s game on this weekend for the Fort Frances Midget ‘AA’ Canadians.
The local squad will get to trade shots, bodychecks, and perhaps the odd harsh word or two with three other teams at their season-opening tournament in the new arena on Lac Seul First Nation.
“From Day 1 [of training camp] to right now, it’s unbelievable how much the guys have improved,” lauded interim Canadians’ head coach Nick Wreggitt, who will lead the team for at least the first part of the season in the absence of Dave Egan (family commitments).
“There’s a lot of inexperience on the team and not a lot of guys with ‘AA’ experience,” Wreggitt noted.
“But I believe once we get them into games to see what this level of hockey is all about, we’ll be all right.”
The Canadians’ coaching staff might want to research the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome ahead of time, as there’s a serious possibility they’ll be knocking on wood repeatedly this season.
With the lack of a Midget house league division in the Fort Frances Minor Hockey Association, the Canadians must face the reality they won’t have any affiliate players to add to their current roster of 19 players in case of injury.
That reality already is becoming apparent, with forward Cam Gushulak out until late November after breaking his wrist during tryouts with the Muskie boys’ hockey team.
“We’re all excited to get Cam back on the ice as he has the ability to jump right into one of our top-six forward slots and help take some of the load off of our other forwards offensively,” said Wreggitt.
He also hopes centre Ben Whitburn will be able to play despite a nagging ankle injury suffered during his quarterbacking duties with the Muskie football squad.
Gushulak and Whitburn are two of 12 forwards on the roster, with Wreggitt pointing to captain Brody McPherson and Scott Williams as key contributors up front for the Canadians.
“Brody’s in his third year with us and is going to carry a big load for our forwards,” the bench boss said.
“The past two seasons, he’s been up around 30 goals a year and we believe he will be there again.
“Scott is from Atikokan and played Bantam ‘AA’ in Fort Frances last year,” added Wreggitt. “From the start of camp, he’s stood out as one of those players who has been progressing well enough to be looked at as a big production guy for us.”
On the back end, third-year player Kole Pitkanen will be counted on to spearhead the defence.
“I can’t say enough about how his level of play has improved from the start of camp two years ago to now,” praised Wreggitt.
“He’s going to play a lot of big minutes for us.
“He’s a presence on the ice and in the locker-room,” Wreggitt added. “He can be a real leader for us.”
Wreggitt wasn’t concerned about only carrying five defencemen throughout the season.
“We had one more player, a 15-year-old, who was right there in terms of making the team,” he noted.
“But we felt he was a little too small for this year when considering what we are going to see size-wise with teams when we go down to the U.S.
“Injury-wise, we fared well last year with just five defencemen, so we’re going to go that route again this year,” he said.
Between the pipes, returnees Tyson Pitkanen and Joey Onichuk have been put on notice the starter’s job is up for grabs.
“They split most of the time last year,” Wreggitt recalled. “And I don’t want to say they struggled, but we’re pressing one of them to step up and take control of the net.
“Both of them won some big games for us last year,” he added. “How far they carry us is going to dictate how far we go as a team.”
Wreggitt described this season’s edition of the Canadians as “fairly small” on average, but said steps have been taken in the pre-season to counteract their physical disadvantage.
“Our assistant coach, Kirk Petrin, has put them through a few gruelling dryland training sessions,” he noted.
“We want to situate ourselves as a team that can take control in the third period when the other teams are tired.
“Stamina and conditioning is a big priority for us,” he stressed.
Wreggitt is uncertain what to expect in Lac Seul as far as this weekend’s opponents are concerned.
“We’ve never played against Red Lake and it’s been a couple of years since we’ve played Sioux Lookout, although I hear they have some big, nasty competitors that are going to put our boys’ physical presence to the test,” he remarked.
“And, like [Muskie boys’ head coach] Jamie Davis said in the [Times’] article last week, Dryden is always right in the mix in NorWOSSA.”
The Canadians, meanwhile, will try to host their home tournament Nov. 29-Dec. 1 after it was cancelled last year due to a lack of teams.
“A lot of the teams that come usually from the U.S. have a lot of players who are just getting done playing football in late fall,” explained Wreggitt.
“So we’re hopeful we can get the home tournament back on this year.”
The highlight event of the season, though, will come March 7-9 when the Canadians host the 2014 Midget ‘AA’ Tournament of Champions, which will serve as the branch Midget ‘AA’ championship for Hockey Northwestern Ontario.
“I don’t know much about the tournament but it’s going to be pretty exciting, for sure,” Wreggitt enthused.
“It’s a good opportunity for our guys to see what the other district teams look like,” he added.
“We’re really looking forward to it.”