Special to The Journal
The Sarnia Legionnaires faced what looked like Mission Impossible when training camp opened last August.
The Jr. ‘B’ hockey club’s lineup had been decimated by graduations and departures. No less than 14 players were either too old to return or had left for other leagues.
At the helm of this looming train wreck on ice were two young men, both teachers by profession, who were brand new to their posts. Head coach Derek Di Muzio and general manager Tom Norris were replacing a pair of seasoned pros with decades of experience.
To say they faced an uphill battle would be an understatement.
“We had to replace two goalies, five defencemen and seven forwards,” Di Muzio recalled as the team broke for the Christmas holidays.
But heading into the New Year, Sarnia was one of the hottest teams in the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League, riding a four-game winning streak that had taken their overall record to 16-9-0-4. They sat a respectable fourth in the loop’s nine-team western conference, just one point behind.
“We’ve progressed better than I’d hoped,” Di Muzio admitted.
So how did they do it?
Norris and his scouting staff beat the bushes for players, bringing in a slew of young guns that have more than held their own against the league’s mostly veteran-laden lineups. In a circuit where the maximum allowable age is 20, four Legionnaires started the season as 16-year-olds. Most of the others were 17 or 18.
The team is largely inexperienced and a little on the small side but it is fast, enthusiastic and highly skilled.
Although the Legionnaires have a strong local flavour, management looked far and wide to find some outstanding out-of-town talent. Gaping holes on the blueline, for example, were filled by the Allair brothers – Clark and Ethan – who were brought in from Northern Ontario. Two other rearguards, Max Hartwell from the Port Huron area and Brendan Kennette from Essex County, shored up the back end even further.
The brass hats also looked for character players who would stand up for teammates. As a result, it’s a close-knit club with good chemistry.
Norris said the coaching staff challenged the handful of remaining veterans to provide leadership, which they have done in spades. “The veterans took the team under their lead and all the younger guys started playing (up to their potential).”
The GM said the Legionnaires may add a player or two at the trade deadline. But whatever happens during the rest of the season, Norris believes the team has come a long way. “I don’t think too many people thought we’d be where we are right now,” he said.