For The Journal
Paul Hurtubise is optimistic about his Sarnia Legionnaires as the puck drops on another season of Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League (GOJHL ) action.
“The goal for this season is to be competitive in every game; last season… too many games got out of hand,” the Legionnaires general manager told The Journal ahead of tonight’s season opener. “I would consider the season a success if we ended up in a four or five position and have a four-five match up in the playoffs.”
Following back-to-back seasons with just 11 wins, the Legionnaires enter this season with a new head coach Brian Irwin, who was an assistant coach with the team last season as well as an assistant GM with Hurtubise.
“We are very excited to have Brian” said Hurtubise. “We decided to go a different direction with the head coach, and Brian was the guy we chose to lead the way with this young hockey team this season.”
Irwin, from the Wallaceburg area, played Jr. hockey and lacrosse in the area and just recently returned from coaching AAA hockey in Nova Scotia. After coaching the Lambton U18 Sting, he signed on with the Legionnaires.
“I learned a lot from DiMuzio on how the league operates, and practice planning; he is a fantastic hockey mind,” Irwin said of his time as an assistant coach with Derek DiMuzio. “He was a good mentor. When the opportunity came up for the Legionnaires, I was quick to put my name in.”
He’s hoping those returning can take the lessons learned from the 50-game grind and share them with newer players on the roster.
“It’s not an easy league, it’s a grind. It’s fantastic hockey and preparation is key,” Irwin said. “We will be leaning on the veterans for sure to take leadership roles.
“Some guys are wearing C’s and A’s, but will be leaning on all of them to provide some leadership in the dressing room for the new guys.”
Among those returning leaders are Austin Harper and Ryan Richardson. Harper led the team two seasons ago in points, and spent last season with the Sarnia Sting; while Richardson, who returned from the Rockland Nationals, led the team in points last season.
“What a fantastic weekend for the hockey team; it created a buzz in the dressing room,” he of last weekend’s announcement that both players would be available.
“As soon as Harper got word he wasn’t in the Sting plans, he jumped on board with us, and Richardson drove home six hours on Saturday and was at practice Saturday night.”
The Legionnaires now have 11 returning players, nine of which were present at OHL camps. Hurtibise feels confident with the mix of experience.
“That positions us well…typically teams that do well, have experience in the league, and with 11 guys returning we feel confident we have a good mix of new and returning guys.”
As a developmental league, players with OHL experience tend to make a difference in the lineup – something Irwin acknowledges.
“We had a couple guys from our roster at the Sting camp; we had guys in Flint, guys in London, two in Peterborough. All that experience is good for them as hockey players and it’s really good for our league to have positive relationships with these teams.”
He also noted those who have graduated from the system provide something for the undrafted players to strive for.
“It provides a framework for guys who aren’t drafted and come play with us, that can see the path,” Irwin added, pointing to examples from last year in Josh Glavin and Sean Doherty, who both moved on to the OHL – Glavin in Saginaw and Doherty with the Sting.
As the season is set to open, Irwin believes that creating a positive culture is the biggest benefit, as there are only so many ways to forecheck, defend and structure power-plays.
“I think a lot of it comes down to people management, game management, and culture management. Creating a positive culture for the team, keeping the dressing room positive and making sure the roster from 1 through 25, everyone feels like they are contributing.”
Both Irwin and Hurtubise are hopeful this season’s team will be a hard-nosed squad that will have other teams around the league dreading Thursday nights at the Pat Stapleton Arena, and bring the team back to its storied franchise status.
Moreover, Irwin knows that a large part of Jr. hockey is to create good young men.
“As the hockey doors close, then your career is front of you. You want to build that culture where they can play high-level hockey, and as they’re transitioning to college and university life, turn into 21-year-old men who will be positive in the community. “
Sarnia Legionnaires open the season against the Komoka Kings Thursday at home in the Pat Stapleton Arena. Puck drop is scheduled for 7:10 p.m.