WESTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW

How The West Will Be Won – by C. Scott Holland

In all the years the West Conference and former Western Jr. B have been in existence, never has so much occurred in an off season. There have always been new rules, new players and new coaches but not like this year.

First the new 20 year-old rule will affect some teams but not every one. Seldom have West team teams stocked up with more than ten 20 year-olds and after a mass exodus of veteran and older players to other leagues last spring, the West will be predominantly young. That in itself is a good sign that the conference is developing “tomorrow’s players.”

Chatham, Lambton Shores, St. Marys and Strathroy all have new coaches. How those new coaches fare with the franchises is yet to be seen but each of those franchises hope that the new coach can inject some competitiveness and new life into their respective teams. For the vets on three of those clubs it means adjusting to new systems and methods. If the managements of these clubs have done their homework well, a new attitude may be seen.

Looking to the teams themselves, firstly the West has been a highly competitive conference for nearly a decade. The top half and bottom half are usually known by Christmas break and often there are a number of battles for positioning lasting until the season’s end.

This season will be no different than the past.

London ahs retained a good core of vets led by defenseman Derek Di Iorio, and forwards Max Vinogradov and Brendan Trottier. Last season they were predicted to win both regular season and playoffs but only succeeded in winning the Weir Cup. Goaltending will be a key position for every club and while London looks to have two rookie netminders again that doesn’t mean they won’t upgrade at this position sometime or make adjustments. This season the club looks strong and with coach Pat Powers assuming the GM`s position, you can be sure the Nats will be in a position to acquire the players needed to win another title. Look for them to finish atop the heap.

The Leamington Flyers are in a rebuilding year. They have lost quite a few players from last season but still retain eight vets including defensemen Zak Parlette, Nicolas Mainella, Thomas Virban and Micthell Crebatin along with forwards Zach Guilbeault, Liam Hogan, Cale Phibbs and Scott Florence. Even with the high turnover the Flyers’ defense looks to be as solid as ever. In the off-season they signed some of the best young players around.

Coach Tony Piroski has also lost two of his staff. New goalie coach Matt Anthony is no stranger to Western Jr. B play. He is a grad of the Flyers and Vipers and until last season had an extensive semi-pro career as a goaltender. Also joining the staff is Jacob McGhee who graduated from the Flyers last year. McGhee is young and ready. As a player he was a steady, capable defenseman. His youth will help the Flyers’ defensive corps learn their roles quickly. Despite the lack of experience, Piroski has a high rate of success with his teams and there is little doubt that he will be able to steer the club back into a top four position with strong defense and goaltending.

Among the newcomers are highly praised Griffin Robinson, Brett Vorshuk, Josh Pope-Ferguson and goaltender Noah Hedrick. Hedrik a top Great Lakes Jr. C netminder last season had been called up a few times by the London Nationals. His presence between the pipes may be a blessing for the Flyers and should help them vie for second or third but if all falls into place early, they could have a shot at first place again.

Another strong LaSalle Vipers’ team looks to be in the works under coach and GM Bill Bowler. This club has produced some top notch talent in recent years and sent namy players to the OHL. Goaltending and defense will once again be primary concerns for the Vipers. The offense has plenty of veteran names including Daniel Beaudoin and Liam MacDougall who was a virtual sniping machine last season. Look for the Vipers to be a serious challenger this season. They will once again be a top four team and most likely finish second.

The Chatham Maroons lost some valuable talent but have also retained some of its core, key players. Unfortunately, management seems to be the biggest detractor for this club and with the pre-season crap that has already hit, it’s like the circus never left town. Much of the attention has been focused on media access to the arena and team members (coaches and players). It’s an unfortunate situation because the 20 or so players who are suiting up for this team have enough on their plate already without any unnecessary diversions. New coach Ryan Verbeek replaces Tyler Roeszler who appeared to be getting comfortable as a Jr. B head coach. Steve Beenackers and Austin Thompson return to the offense but Chatham will have to curtail some of their penalty minutes and get some excellent goaltending from vet Brendan Johnston in order to have a shot at a top four spot. Buying players hasn’t worked out for this club in recent years and it may be time for them to reply on developing talent from their own system. The Maroons could finish anywhere from 7th to 4th but will probably be slotted in at fifth or sixth when it ends.

The St. Thomas Stars looked liked a contender last season until they lost forwards Ryan Valentini and Eric Henderson in trades made by their parent OHL club, the London Knights. This year they will rely heavily on the experience of goalie Dan Black and returning vets like Carson Brookshaw, Adam Truax and Ethan Nother. Jake Reed, who was expected to help anchor the Stars defense, has been traded to the Chatham Maroons. Reed is a Chatham native. One bright spot for the Stars is the addition of Kevin Hu, a highly touted Jr. C star. The Stars should be able to knock on the door of the top four but will have to get consistent goaltending and goal scoring. Coach Darren Kelly will have a 50-50 mix of vets and rookies and that may translate to a fourth or fifth finish. Conversely this team could stumble and finish sixth or seventh. But more than anything this club needs to win more on home ice to be a true competitor.

One of the most mystifying clubs in recent years has been the Sarnia Legionnaires. The talent in general has been there but their biggest problem has been playing in one of the league’s smallest ice surfaces.  It is great for Sarnia’s home record but when it comes to competing on larger ice surfaces like Leamington or London, the Legionnaires don’t fare near as well. Some of that may be attributed to conditioning. In recent years Sarnia’s stellar goaltending has been absent despite having some good netminders. The Legionnaires have some talented returnees like Brett Storr and Sam McCormack, Alec DeKonning and Jarrett Marks. GM Bob Williamson has coach Mark Davis looking after Player Development now and this club does work closely with Sarnia’s minor hockey system and the OHL Sarnia Sting. Biggest problems have been the defense and goaltending in recent years. Despite the influx of youth, this club appears to have lost some of their offensive thrust and struggle to score at times. Can’t see them dropping any lower than seventh, nor rising any more than fifth and no matter how they fare Mark Davis will develop what talent is there.

One of the most enviable teams in the West could be the Strathroy Rockets. They have a wealth of experience returning with upwards of 13 players coming back but the Rockets’ vets are learning new systems under new head coach Jason Glover. Glover is no stranger to Jr. B hockey and played some of his career in Strathroy. He was a former Strathroy Blade along with Rocket GM Mike Bondy.  The two also played pro together.  He knows the WMMC well and no doubt will have his team ready to win every game they can on the West’s smallest ice. Dan Davies has looked sharp in pre-season and could be their number one goalie while Max Ewart, Wes Kelly, Dalton Good, Jeff Williams, Evan Hogg, Lucas Latina, Steve Griggs, Dillon Saunders, Matthew Stevens and T.J. Harris are all returnees. Latina`s high penalty minutes may be a bit of a concern, he led the entire GOJHL last season in Pims, but Latina showed promise late last season as he began taking less trips to the “sin bin”.  Tristan Sedlak ìs an up and coming player and may be one to watch. He was impressive last season as a call-up.  With the improvement and strengths they have shown in pre-season it is conceivable this club could make a huge move to become a contender. Much of it will depend on how strong their defense and goaltending is. They could finish anywhere from seventh to fourth but most likely will finish a respectable fifth or sixth.  If last year’s scoring leader, underager Shane Bulitka, sticks with the club and not the OHL Sudbury Wolves, this could potentially be a team very difficult to handle by anyone.  Looking for a dark horse?  These are the guys to keep your eyes on.

The Lambton Shores Predators also have a new head coach. Brian Dobbin takes over and has a good group of vets in the lineup. Included among the returnees are the Treppas – Derrek and Vaughn, as well as last year`s West scoring leader Ethan Sarfati and vet Andrew Kim. Much of Lambton`s inability has stemmed from poor defense and goaltending. It looks like they have two new goaltenders this season – Charles Grimard and Riley Collins. Grimard has played well in exhibition and if he can maintain a fairly low goals against average it may give Lambton more chances to win. Like Strathroy, St. Marys and Chatham, learning new systems will be a part of the team’s experience. Unfortunately even with what talent is back, Lambton somehow seems to find a way to implode whether it’s trading their players or just falling apart. Perhaps this season will be different. Once again they will battle it out for last, 8th or perhaps even 7th.

The St. Marys Lincolns may have been hit hard in the off season. They have lost some of their talented vets like Graham Brulotte who went to Stratford and Brent House who left for the OJHL. Of the small number of vets who are returning, new head coach Scott Thompson has a capable goaltender in Kyle Morning. Morning should see the bulk of action and showed promise last season as a call-up on numerous occasions. Colin Capstick and Josh Zlatinsky are back on defense while Brody Smith and Dan Cloutier are offensive returnees. This club has needed everything the last couple of years. This season is no different. Without a larger veteran base from which to work, it’s just another rebuilding year in Stonetown. This club is not going to flounder as badly as those from the last few seasons – they will be slightly better, but still need lots of offensive, defensive and goaltending help in order to be anything but eighth or ninth.

Look for another exciting season of games among the teams in the West. May every team have success in developing their young talent

Scott Holland is an accomplished author, a former Western Jr. B Hockey League statistician and is recognized as the West Conference’s and GOJHL’s historian. A lifelong resident of Leamington Scott was a journalist for the now defunct Leamington Post for 26 years and currently writes for the Southpoint Sun. Among the books he has authored are:  75 Years: A History of the Leamington and Erie Shores Golf Course; A Century In The Making – History of Heinz Canada 1909-2009; Leamington Flyers 1992/93-2011/12 Platinum Anniversary Special Program; the Western Jr. B Record Book 2003/04 and 2005/05 editions; as well as updates of both the West Conference and GOJHL Record Books. He was been a member of he Leamington Jr. Flyers hockey club for the last 27 years and served many years as a board member, statistician, press box announcer, and scorekeeper among other duties. He has been named the West Conference Volunteer of Year and a Windsor-Essex Sportsperson of Year award. He resides in Leamington.

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