The West After 10 Games – by C. Scott Holland 

Of the three GOJHL conferences, the competition in the West may be the most intense among its nine members. The standings often do not reflect that aspect accurately and this season is one where the West has a more defined field of entries. Some early indications hint that despite having a couple of weaker teams, those teams near the bottom are capable of winning any particular game. Parity is not as evident as previous seasons yet other than a couple of the more powerful teams, the west is fairly balanced.

The St. Marys Lincolns stumbled out of the starting gate. After last season’s late improvement it is almost like they have taken a step backward this year. Their biggest loss was that of defensive coach Mark Bell. Head coach Scott Thompson has a group of players which include about 10 vets. He has a  good nucleus on which to build but goaltending and defensive woes may be all that keeps them from moving up. After last season’s mid-pack finish, much more was expected of this team. The offense has sputtered while vet goalie Tristan Lewis, while keeping his team in many games hasn’t been getting the support needed to win games. Perhaps a shakeup of some kind could ignite this team or even a sudden break or two that injects some optimism into this club. Otherwise any upward movement looks slim.

The Komoka Kings had big dreams of breaking out of the doldrums of finishing last or second last when they moved to their new location southwest of London. Head coach Brian Dobbin has gotten a better talent pool from which to select players and it has helped marginally. Along with the addition of former NHLer Jason Williams as an a/coach, one would think this team is built for making a mid-pack finish. However with approximately 10 vets on board, and a new venue in which to play, the Kings find themselves in relatively the same position as they are every season. They sit eighth but have many positives. They are a young team and vet Wes Dobbin leads with six goals scored with four of those coming on the powerplay. They also have in captain Andrew Kim a veteran GOJHL player who has 15 points. While this team could be very powerful offensively, slight improvement with passing shows they are better than in past seasons. Like St. Marys, they require a solid goaltender. Avery Hartwick who came over from the GHS needs to improve in order to win some of the closer contests. There is no reason why the Kings’ talent couldn’t lift this squad to a higher level but it appears that the new Komoka franchise is going to remain near the bottom – at least for their inaugural season.

Things are not going well in the Maple City. The Chatham Maroons have lost players to overrage and Jr. C  while retaining a small core of vets who make up about one third of the lineup. With a slew of rookies including goalie Ryan Wagner head coach Ron Horvat has a challenge ahead of him. Bright spots in the lineup are forwards Grant Spence (12 pts.) and Noah Bushnell (11 pts.) who pace the offense. Horvat has former St. Thomas Stars player Dane Johnston as well yet Johnston’s play has hinted at small signs of putting up big numbers. The team has an offense that is capable of competing with the top teams as witnessed in their 5-3 early season victory over Leamington but it is not an overpowering one. Goaltending and defensive woes have hurt them the most. Having surrendered 44 goals to the opposition, it is the most by any team in the West. That should be a major concern. Lots of work to be done. It is going to be a rather dismal season of rebuilding.

Speaking of rebuilding, the Stratroy Rockets have been stuck rebuilding the ship for the about the last six years. The rudder has broken several times and this franchise has been on the same course during that entire time. A first glance at this year’s edition, one might think that they are making progress. But this is a rather small team compared to many of the others who are ahead of them. Small can pay dividends and head coach and GM Mike Bondy has indicated that this team was assembled to compete on big ice surfaces as well as small ones, too. So far, this team has only played two of the top three teams (London and Leamington). All their points have been generated from teams around them or below them. Despite those facts there are some signs of how well the Rockets can play. Recently, they lost 3-1 to Leamington. To hold the first-place squad to only three goals is an accomplishment. Much of the Rockets’ success has come with goalie Zach Weir who has played eight games and is 4-4. Diminutive back-up Josh Diamond has yet to see much action. The team’s offense has scored the third least number of goals in the West (30) so offensive concerns are primary – and moreso since they have scored only four powerplay goals. The team’s competitiveness is evident – eight of their contests have been decided by one or two goals. TJ Harris with 12 points (eight goals) and Spencer Allen have provided the bulk of the offense. Some improvement is evident and a pair of skilled London Knight underage draft picks in Liam Whittaker and Emmet Pierce have helped the cause and added excitement.  With perhaps an offensive catalyst this team should allow themselves to remain mid-pack.

The Sarnia Legionnaires are in a year of change. A handful of vets remain. Most are sophomores. Head coach Mark Davis and GM Bob Williamson have picked up some young players to fill the gaps. Jake Vince showed signs that he might emerge as a consistent scorer, but that was only for a  couple of contests. The main offensive drive for the Legionnaires centers around Joel Pavey who has set up a dozen tallies and Jon Sanderson who has notched six. Sarnia is hotly contesting St. Thomas and Strathroy for that coveted fourth spot and they may well have the best shot at grabbing it. Only their defensive work and goaltending are keeping them out of the top four. Will Barber from Milton (OJHL) while Blair Coffin who came over from Welland and is 2-2 are the goalies. Both need to be more consistent  This team is capable of finishing fourth or fifth.

Unexpectedly, the St. Thomas Stars have rebounded from a roller coaster start to hang on to fourth at the moment. They have become far too dependent on vets Kevin Hu, Adam Keyes, Curtis Ferreira  and Jake Desando to supply the offense. Over half the Stars’  have less than four points and one of the team’s biggest disappointments is Lucas Mastroianni who has managed just three points all season. Defense and goaltending have to be major concerns for head coach Darren Kelly. Goalie Anthony Hutubise has yet to show the GOJHL that he is a quality goaltender and his 4.68 gaa is more a reminder of his years with Lambton. The surprise though is Kode Oude-Vashaar who languished in Buffalo last season then got shipped to St. Catharines. He has been in net for most of the Stars’ wins but both goalies were shell-shocked after facing Leamington last week. The Stars will be lucky if they hang on to fourth or fifth, but they do have enough talent to end the season anywhere between fourth and sixth.

It is a much different look to the LaSalle Vipers this season, yet other than a change in management and coaching the Vipers aren’t altered greatly. John Nelson took over in late July after former GM-head coach Bill Bowler moved into a head office position with the OHL Windsor Spitfires. GM-head coach Nelson has had his work cut out for him after being away from the GOJHL for a half dozen years. But he has some seasoned vets and talented youngsters in the mix to form another highly competitive team. Among the returnees are vets Manny Silverio (14 assists) and Tyler Russell while Brett Vorshuk and Broden Meloche came to the Vipers via a trade with Leamington (for Dalton Langlois and Maddux Rychel). Some of the rookies have had limited Jr. B playing time prior to this season. The most difficult adjustment has been that goalie Dershahn Stewart who saw very little action last season and is now seeing plenty more while rookie James Walker is the backup. The Vipers have the second best team gaa with only Leamington ahead of them. However their offense has not been as powerful as it could be. The offense may generate more as the forwards become accustomed to each other. This is definitely a top three team and at the moment they are sitting third and that is precisely where they may end up.

It has not been unusual for the London Nationals to have an off-week or two at the start of the season. This year is no different than the last. But the Nats suffered the loss of both goaltenders from last season and finding good replacements in that department are difficult at any time of year. Not long after the 2017/18 season began the Nats had netminder Jukka Schotter recalled by Niagara (OHL) and inserted Zach Springer as the number one goalie. Springer has responded magnificently and is 5-1 with a 2.85 gaa. But since then head coach and GM Pat Powers has gotten his veteran-laden team going. Brandon Glover has been a big reason the offense is clicking; he has supplied 14 assists. Two other vet additions help make this group a top contender. Brett Primeau came to London from LaSalle and defenseman Jordan Di Cicco has rejoined the club after a year in the OJHL with the National champion Cobourg Cougars. Many had thought this team would finish first, but as it has been in recent seasons, the Nats find themselves in a dogfight with Leamington. The difference between the top two clubs is minimal and so far it has boiled down to goaltending. London often saves their best hockey for late in the season as they built momentum heading into the postseason.  It doesn’t matter whether the Nats finish first or second, they will be a tough playoff competitor.

After losing a number of players to school and overage, the Leamington Flyers would have been happy to just finish in the top four. Instead they currently sit in first and GM Kevin Hopper and head coach Tony Piroski have pieced together what may be the best edition of the Flyers in recent years. Thus far, they have scored the most goals in the West (54) and allowed the fewest (28). They have 12 veteran players including their two returning goalies Noah Hedrick and Connor Meyerink. The two have shared netminding duties and have only one loss in 10 games. Along with newcomers Maddux Rychel and Dalton Langlois, one of the key acquisitions was that of former Strathroy Rocket Cody Schneider who,led his last year in goal scoring. There is solid leadership supplied by captain Zach Guilbeault and Griffin Robinson is having a great start to his sophomore season. He is on a hot scoring pace which includes four goals vs the St. Marys Lincolns recently. He has nine goals so far. Cody Schneider’s often electrifying moves are worth the price of admission and has anchored the Flyers’ offense. The defensive corps is solid with three vets – Parker Jacques, Kade McKibbin and Jaydon Fetter. Both McKibbin and Fetter have shown many reasons why they may be All-Stars. The Flyers sit where they are due to a combination of hard work, skill and friendship. Should they continue as they are, going wire to wire is very likely but even if they fall a few times, they will finish no further than second.

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 writes occasional articles for the Southpoint Sun and the Strathroy Age Dispatch. 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, Mid-West and Golden Horseshoe Conference and GOJHL Record Books and Playoff Record Books  He has been a member of he Leamington Jr. Flyers hockey club for the last 28 years and has served many years as a board member, statistician, in the press box as an 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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