When they left the ice at the GFL Memorial Gardens on March 11, 2020, the Soo Greyhounds players didn’t know exactly when they would be returning to the ice.
On Friday night, the team will return for the first time since that night to play an Ontario Hockey League regular season game and to say the players are excited to take the ice against the North Bay Battalion would be an understatement.
“This is the most excited I’ve been in a long time for a game,” said Greyhounds forward Rory Kerins.
“It’s definitely been a long time coming, especially with the core group we have here,” Kerins said. “I’m excited to see what we’re going to be able to do this season.”
As excited as he is to get the regular season underway, Greyhounds coach John Dean said Thursday evening he’s excited “mostly for the players in the room.”
“They’ve been waiting a long time to get the boots back on and have some fun on the ice,” Dean added.”
Speaking after practice on Thursday, Dean said there was a nervousness among the younger players on the roster but called it a positive.
“There was great energy,” Dean said. “We have some first-year players and you could see there was some nervousness there, but that’s a positive thing. You want that good, solid nervous energy before that first game.”
Dean added that the veterans in the group helped lead the way in the final practice before Friday’s opener.
“We’ve got some great veteran experience as well who set the tone for practice,” Dean said.
Dean said the leadership of the 2021-22 Greyhounds is the biggest strength of the team.
“That’s the easiest answer I could ever give,” Dean said. “The quality of the leadership of the Soo Greyhounds this year is second to none in my opinion. I have a group that is highly passionate, understands what it takes to be a Soo Greyhound and understands what it takes to win. Also, they’re not shy to hold each other accountable, which is very important.”
Kerins echoed the sentiments of his coach.
“We have a really strong leadership group,” Kerins said. “That’s a big part of junior hockey. If you have a good leadership group, you’re going to have a competitive team, no matter who you have around you.
Dean said the message for the players heading into the game doesn’t change much from many other opening days.
“The only thing that might change is (telling them), ‘Don’t try to do too much,’” Dean said. ‘When you haven’t played in a long time, there might be a tendency to try to be exciting, do something different or go outside the box or feel like you have to make a big play. We’ll stress this season the foundational habits of our group are extremely important and if we make mistakes, it’s okay. Don’t be scared to make a mistake as long as we always default back to our foundational habits.”
Discussing the goaltending situation heading into the weekend, Dean said although it’s been discussed as a staff, the team hasn’t committed to exactly how it will play out as far as playing time for rookie netminders Samuel Ivanov and Charlie Schenkel.
“I’ve always been less planned out with my approach to goaltending and more play it by ear,” Dean said, adding that a number of factors go into the decision.
With eight defencemen on the roster after Russian-blueliner Kirill Kudryavtsev joined the team ahead of its final pre-season game against Sudbury, Raftis confirmed Thursday that 16-year-old defenceman Andrew Gibson has been sent to the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League’s Soo Thunderbirds.
“Up the middle and on D, that’s where most general managers tell you that’s how they want to build their team and that’s where we’re strongest in our leadership and in our experience as a group,” Dean said. “That’s a huge benefit of our group. I’m not saying it solves the world’s problems, but it’s a great place for us to start and we’re going to lean on those guys to help speed up the learning curve for our first year players. It’s exciting that we’re deep on the back end.”
“Our defence core is really good and down the middle at the centre position, we’re really deep,” Kerins added. “Those are two really important positions that you need to have a winning team along with leadership and we check the boxes on those really well.”
Like much of the league, the Greyhounds will enter regular season play with a significant number of rookies on the roster.
After reporting to camp, Kerins spent time away at NHL camp with the Calgary Flames and the 19-year-old was impressed with what he saw upon his return to Sault Ste. Marie.
“When I left for NHL camp and came back, I really noticed a huge difference in the young guys and the way they practiced and the way they came to the rink everyday and prepared,” Kerins said. “I was really happy with that, coming back to see how they’ve grown as pros in that couple weeks.”
“They work extremely hard,” Kerins also said. “I’ve never been a part of a team where I’ve seen the young guys try really hard to emulate what the leadership is doing or what the coaches want from them. They’re really trying to get better in that sense. They’re all willing to accept roles to help the team win and that’s huge to have a winning team is to have young guys that are willing to learn and willing to do their part to help the team win.”
For Kerins, the hopes are high for the Greyhounds this season.
“There are a lot of things we don’t really know with other teams, but I’ve been around great teams before in minor hockey and in my first year (with the Greyhounds) and I have the same feeling with this team,” Kerins said. “Obviously, not everyone knows what teams are going to be looking like with young players, but I believe in the core group, and I believe in the young guys. I have really high hopes for this year, and I think we’re going to be a top team in the west.”
The team will enter the opening weekend of the season with five overage players on the roster in forwards Tye Kartye, Alex Johnston, Joe Carroll, and Cole MacKay along with defenceman Robert Calisti.
Raftis said “it’s tough to put a timeline” on when movement will happen with regards to the group.
“We were hoping to be down to smaller numbers at this point, but we’re hopeful that we can get something sorted out with that shortly,” Raftis said. “We’ve got a ton of respect [for the players]. They were all drafted by us and been a part of some good teams and been a part of the organization since the start. We want to get them into good situations to extend their junior careers, but it’s been a little slower than we had hoped.”
Asked about the market for overage players, Raftis spoke of teams potentially being “apprehensive to make a move” because they want to see where some rookies are at in their development to start the year.
“The interesting part is that a lot of teams are carrying a lot of players and it might not be older players,” Raftis said.
“Nobody wants to push them too far down the lineup before they know what they have,” Raftis added. “That’s probably impacting things the most.”