The Fort Frances Lakers are hoping an influx of local talent can help turn the Junior 'A' franchise around.
Head coach and general manager Wayne Strachan announced the first wave of local player signings at a press conference last Wednesday afternoon at the Ice For Kids Arena boardroom.
Among those was Nick Hahkala, whose older brother, Brett, was acquired in a trade by the Lakers from the Powassan Voodoos (NOJHL) for a player development fee.
Both played hockey outside of Fort Frances the last few years, with Nick suiting up for 'AAA' Midget Trappers in North Bay this past season, but the siblings are excited to finally play alongside each other.
“I think it'll be a pretty easy transition coming back," said Brett. ”I grew up playing minor hockey in Fort and it's just a great town.
“It will also be the first time we've ever played on the same team together so it'll be pretty interesting,” he chuckled.
“It should be a good year, I'm looking forward to it," echoed Nick. ”I've never played with him before so it should be fun.
“Obviously, he's gonna bug me a little bit but there's nothing wrong with that,” he grinned.
Brett played in 83 games over two seasons for the Voodoos, racking up 26 goals and 28 assists.
The 19-year-old forward also added four goals and four helpers in 15 playoff games.
He also suited up in five games for the OHL's North Bay Battalion, netting a goal during that stint.
“Brett is homegrown talent that has played away the last four seasons,” noted Strachan.
"He has OHL experience, has won a NOJHL championship, played in a Dudley-Hewitt Cup, and we are hoping is excited to bring that experience back home.
“He is a player that fits our philosophy of speed [and] skill, and he should add to our offensive game and bring an added addition to our power play,” Strachan added.
Nick Hahkala, meanwhile, tallied 10 goals and three assists in 33 games with the Trappers last season, along with 64 penalty minutes.
Then in six playoff games, he notched a goal and one helper.
“Nick comes home after playing the last two years in Thunder Bay with the Minor Midget Kings and last year with the 'AAA' Midget Trappers in North Bay,” said Strachan.
“He will bring speed and is a player that can be a 200-foot guy, add some secondary scoring, and be key guy on the penalty-kill.”
Fellow newcomer Cole Allan got a taste of Junior 'A' hockey at the end of last season, joining the Lakers after the Muskies' season had concluded.
He appeared in five games, tallying a goal and an assist. He then chipped in with a helper in nine playoff games.
“We are happy to have Cole join us full-time this year," enthused Strachan. ”In the games he played for us last year, he grew as a player in a short amount of time.
"As his confidence grew, you could see what he can bring.
“Primarily used as a defenceman growing up, his transition to a forward has made him a solid 200-foot player,” he added.
“He is big, plays strong in his own end, reads the ice well to make plays, and has a physical side to him.”
Returning to the Lakers are local forward Noah Loveday and defenceman Colton Bodnar.
Loveday was an ironman for the squad last season, appearing in all 56 games while recording 11 goals and 27 assists.
The 19-year-old also played multiple roles and helped set the tone out on the ice.
“Noah can play many roles for our hockey team," Strachan remarked. ”He grinds and is physical [and] he gets under his opponents' skin.
“He can play with our top guys and contribute, he has a high IQ, and was key last year on our special teams.”
Bodnar played in 21 games for the Lakers last season, contributing three goals and an assist. The 18-year-old then added a marker and two helpers in nine playoff games.
“Colton is a smart player that uses his body and positioning well,” lauded Strachan.
“After now playing with us and playing in our last two playoffs, we will look for Colton to elevate his game and play some key minutes for a young guy,” he noted.
Lakers' president Milt Strachan said it always has been the franchise's goal to give local players the opportunity to play for the team, and he expects these signings will resonate well with fans.
“Sometimes there's gaps in between when there's players willing to stay home or who are talented enough to play at this level, because it's not a given,” he conceded.
"In our earlier years, we were fortunate enough to have a half-dozen kids or so from town on those teams, and I think it was a big asset to us and this is fantastic.
“These guys are all good hockey players," Milt Strachan added. ”They are all going to help us and makes this year a lot more exciting than the last couple.
“Not just because we've had a couple of tough years, but because I think we have a pretty good group of local kids to build the team around and that puts a little bit of jump into our step, too.”
“This is a good start to our signing process,” noted Wayne Strachan, who anticipates adding four-five more local players after the Lakers' annual prospect camp set for July 6-8 at the Lake of the Woods Arena in Baudette, Mn.