The Newfoundland Senior Hockey League moved a little closer to truly earning the mantle of a semi-pro league over the off-season.
But it was more than the quality of local players coming home and better, more valuable import players — several with pro experience as high as the NHL level — joining rosters that further solidified the league as a semi-professional circuit. Teams were busy wheeling and dealing players rights as they stockpiled for the upcoming season.
The defending champ Conception Bay North Eastlink CeeBee Stars, regular season champion Grand Falls-Windsor Cataracts and Herder Memorial Tophy and Allan Cup finalists Clarenville Caribous revamped their rosters, with some big names leaving town and, in some cases, bigger names coming back in return.
“We had certain holes to fill,” says CeeBees coach Ian Moores. “Fortunately for us, we were able to do that with trades that were made.”
Caribous general manager Derek MacPhee admits last year’s sweep by the CeeBees in the best-of-seven Telegram Herder Memorial Championship Series was a sobering experience, and the moves made were done so in an effort to avoid a similar fate.
“We were aggressive with trades, as much as you can be in a six-team league with a limited pool,” MacPhee says, adding the organization is confident drafted players and territorial picks will only help.
The Mount Pearl H.J. Bartlett Electric Blades, back in the circuit following a one-year hiatus, were a busy bunch with only a handful of the 2011-12 club returning.
“We met with every player from the previous team and any player who didn’t want to stay, we told them we would do everything we could to possibly move them back to where they were or wanted to be,” says Blades GM Jim Hare, adding that they “weren’t going to give players away for nothing and some players realized that and our situation.”
Still, the Blades were able to get a solid return and have pieced together a roster that, on paper at least, looks to be as capable as contending as any other team.
“I expect everyone’s going to figure we’re going to be the weaker sister and hopefully we’re going to surprise a lot teams.”
In Deer Lake, the Western Royals’ executive felt the team’s only weakness last season was on the blue line, a downfall that ultimately cost them in a first-round playoff series against the offensively explosive Caribous.
“We just weren’t solid in our own zone,” says bench boss Ed Kearsey. “Last year we had a few imports in forwards. This year I thought we should bolster our defence.”
The Gander Flyers remain largely unchanged from their 2012-13 expansion season. And that was entirely on purpose, according to GM Gary White.
“We started with a young team. They committed to us and didn’t owe anything to the Gander Flyers,” says White.
“This year, we decided to pay back the commitment. We know we have a young team, we want to grow and see how much that team is going to gel together and move into the future.”
With the Blades returning, it brings the league up to an even six teams for the first time. As such, the league was split into an East division, consisting of the Blades, CeeBees and Caribous, and a West division featuring the Cataracts, Flyers and Royals. Each team will play six games against their divisional counterparts and four against each of the teams in the opposing division for a total 24-game schedule.
“We’re super-excited that to have a six-team league,” says president Neil Norcott.
And rather than have one team in each division on the outside looking in come playoff time, the league is going with a double-robin format for the first round. Under this type of schedule, each team will play six games in the first-round of the playoffs within their division, with the top two teams meeting in a best-of-seven semifinal. The winners of the divisional semifinals advance to play in the Herder Memorial Trophy finals.
The import allowances didn’t change any since last season. The Royals are permitted four, the Flyers and Cats three apiece, while the East division clubs are permitted two each.
The season kicked off last night in Mount Pearl with the Blades hosting the CeeBees. Results were not available before the Telegram’s deadline.
There are three games on tap tonight, all getting underway at 7:30 p.m. The Caribous host the Flyers, the Royals make the trip up the TCH to Grand Falls-Windsor and the Blades are in Harbour Grace for an opening-night rematch against the CeeBees.
Meanwhile, here’s a look at how the clubs stack up:
C.B.N. CeeBee Stars
Home opener: Tonight, 7:30 vs. Mount Pearl
Home ice: S.W. Moores Memorial Stadium, Harbour Grace
2012-13 record: 7-15-1 (4th place, Herder champions)
Head coach: Ian Moores
Assistant: Peter George
On Facebook: search “Eastlink CeeBee Stars”
Who’s back: Returning fowards from the team’s championship run are brothers Jordan and Colin Escott, Daniel Sparkes, centreman Chris Sparkes, Ray Dalton, veteran Terry Ryan, as well as Steve Greeley and Colin Feehan. On the back end Jamie Tobin and Fred Earle will be joined by Doug O’Brien, Nick Theriault and Donnie Gosse, all three of whom will be in and out of the lineup due to work commitments. Freddy Diamond is back between the pipes.
Who’s gone: The CeeBees were hit hard by the unavoidable departures of goaltender Mark Yetman and Robert Slaney, the latter to the University of New Brunswick’s varsity team. Grant Kenny’s rights belonged to the Blades, Matthew Thomey was dealt to the Western Royals so he could be closer to his west coast teaching position, import Chris Hulit is playing on the mainland, and Jason Hedges is taking a year off. But the biggest change is the absence of brothers Keith and Ryan Delaney, traded to the Clarenville Caribous in a shocking mid-summer swap.
Who’s new: Coming back in the Delaney deal with the ‘Bous were Matt and Mitch Bragg, Chad Earle comes over from Western in the Thomey deal, and Bay Roberts native Cody Roach was acquired in a deal with the Cataracts.
“To be honest, I think he’s a little bit anxious and nervous to don the hometown jersey,” Moores says of Roach, a first-through-third line forward. “We’re lucky to have him and we’re going to give him every opportunity to show what he can do.”
The CeeBees made arguably the biggest splash in the import pool by signing former St. John’s Maple Leafs forward and pro-hockey journeyman David Ling. The 38-year-old, with 93 NHL games to his credit, most recently played in the British Elite League, leading the Nottingham Panthers with 95 points in 57 games.
“Only time will tell if we’ve won the import sweepstakes with David Ling, but he’s a great overall player and from what I’ve been told, he’s going to be one of the best players in our league for some time.”
Knowing O’Brien and Gosse would miss parts of the season, the CeeBees targeted former Gander Flyers’ defenceman Tyler Gale, who went back to the Blades as their property.
“His type of defenceman is not easy to find in guys who are born and raised here. We’re very fortunate we were able to get him.”
The CeeBees also added Maritime Junior A Hockey League grads Kevin Reid and Dylan Brake, and former junior A puckstop Joey Yetman of Shea Heights.
Home opener: Tonight, 7:30 vs. Gander
Home ice: Clarenville Events Centre
Head coach: Ivan Hapgood
Assistants: Steve Gosse, Todd Brett, Ryan Power
Facebook: search “Clarenville Caribous”
Who’s back: The high scoring Caribous have lost little of their potency with the return of forwards Dustin Russell, import Ryan Desrosier, Dale Sullivan and Andrew Sweetland, who led the league in points last year. Also returning are Brad Crann, Steve Oates, Mitch Oake and, once recovered from a nagging shoulder injury, Jon Pardy.
Jeremy Kavanagh, David Victory and Brandon Roach are back, with the goalie tandem of Jason Churchill and Roger Kennedy sharing blue-ice duties.
“I wouldn’t call (Kennedy) a backup goalie,” insists GM Derek MacPhee. “Right now he’s part of a one-two punch. Roger is very determined to be a starter. I wouldn’t give any ground to anybody in that race.”
Who’s gone: Matt and Mitch Bragg, Andrew Hill and Brandon Street all left town in the Delaney deal, and Steve Yetman was shipped to Mount Pearl where he’s joined by former Caribous teammates Mark and Paul Roebothan. Import defenceman Jordon Smith is teaching on the mainland and won’t be available.
Who’s new: ‘Bouville welcomes a host of players this season, the most notable being Keith and Ryan Delaney.
“Keith is a superstar and Ryan is a very talented young man,” says MacPhee. “We’re really happy have to have them with us.”
Mike Halitzki, Jeremy Barron and Kenny Mahoney make the move from the Avalon East and Scott McCarthy was the team’s territorial pick. The defence corps will benefit from the acquisition of import Martin Lapointe from the Cats, territorial pick Cody McNamara and Nick Croft, who coming off three years of AUS hockey with the Dalhousie Tigers.
MOUNT PEARL BLADES
Home opener: Last night vs. C.B.N.
Home ice: The Glacier
Head coach: Brian Cranford
Assistants: Scott Gordon, Tom Moret
Facebook: search “Mount Pearl Blades”
Who’s back: Only eight of the Blades from the 2011-12 team are back this year. They include forwards Steve Tilley, Steve Bailey, Mark and Paul Roebothan, Cory Blackmore and Trevor Thorne, most of whom spent last season with the now-defunct Mount Pearl Samurai of the Avalon East Senior Hockey League. On the blueline, Mike Lee and Grant Kenny return to play for their hometown club.
Who’s new: Who isn’t? Up front, the Blades acquired Ryan Graham and Wes Welcher from the Cats, they nabbed Mark Tobin from C.B.N. by way of the Western Royals, and former Caribous winger Steve Yetman. The Blades also welcome a host of St. John’s junior league grads in Jeremy Nicholas, Robert Barrett, Andrew Gale and Paul Hutchings.
New to the Blades’ blueline are Tim Greene, acquired from the Cataracts for the rights to Rodi Short and former Caribous defencemen Andrew Hill and Mike Stevens. They’re joined by St. John’s junior B graduate Roger Pender — “the best defenceman the last two years in that league,” says Hare — and Zack Lodge, highly touted from the Central-West junior league.
The Blades used one of their two import cards to add defenceman Clay Thoring, a former CIS defenceman with the University of Regina who learned of the league through former Blades import rearguard Brian Sutherland.
Mount Pearl’s most notable acquisitions are between the pipes, where Ryan Mior and Czech import Marek Benda will share netminding duties. Mior, a QMJHL champ with the Gatineau Olympiques in 2008, last played in the senior in this province with the Deer Lake Red Wings of the former West Coast senior circuit.
Benda, meanwhile, played two seasons in the Q with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles and the Baie-Comeau Drakkar before returning to his homeland where he played in the Czech2 league, the nation’s third-level pro circuit.
“Sure, we’d love to have another import skater, but we weren’t going to give away a goalie who would make another team really strong,” says Hare. “Right now, I think we have two of the No. 1 goalies.”
GRAND FALLS-WINDSOR CATARACTS
Home opener: Tonight, 7:30 vs. Western
Home ice: Joe Byrne Memorial Stadium
2012-13 record: 20-3-1 (1st place)
Head coach: Shane Lukinchuk
Assistants: Paul Glavine, Brian Tremblett
Facebook: search “Grand Falls-Windsor Cataracts”
Who’s back: Andre Gill, who scored a league-best 19 goals last year and finished second in scoring, returns, as do Mike Sibley, Andrew Brennan and Brandon Nicholas. The Cataracts also made it a priority to retain the rights to Andrew Pearcey.
“He’s a special teams guy for us, both penalty kill and power play,” Lukinchuk says, “but the thing I love about Andrew is what people don’t see, what he contributes in the dressing room. He’s very well spoken, very well-respected, a definite leader.”
Behind centre and in front of 2012-13 top goaltender AJ Whiffen, import Luke Gallant is back to lead a blueline unit that includes Mike Brent, Scott Cantwell, Greg Hoffe, Sam Hounsell and Brad Lewis.
Who’s gone: In order to keep Pearcey, the Cats had to part with Ryan Graham, Wes Welcher and former pro Chris Peach. Matt Quinn wasn’t brought back on an import card, Colin Power and Tim Greene’s rights reverted to the Blades, and Danny Evans is not returning. The Cats shocked many earlier this week with news they had traded import defenceman Martin Lapointe to Clarenville, a move, Lukinchuk says was precipitated by the need for more power up front.
“We lost a lot of our scoring and our centremen as well. We had to look outside the box and it wasn’t an easy decision.”
Who’s new: Rodi Short, returning following a three-year pro stint in Germany and France, made the Lapointe trade an easier pill for the Cats to swallow.
“Without Rodi in the mix, it would have been difficult to do,” Lukinchuk says.
With two free import cards, the Cats added centremen Rob Hennigar and Cam Fergus. Hennigar, who has 40 AHL games to his credit and over 100 at the ECHL level, was the Canadian Inter-university Sport player of the year and AUS MVP in 2007-08 while toiling for UNB. Fergus, meanwhile, is an AUS grad from Saint Mary’s coming off a 66-game season with the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers.
The Cats also added MJAHL grads Brandon Bussey and Alex Dalley, St. John’s junior grad Kyle McGuirk, and former Central-West junior league forward Travis Champion. Brandon Street comes to the team in the Cody Roach deal and Trent Pollett will serve as Whiffen’s backup.
Home opener: Saturday, Nov. 9 vs. Mount Pearl
Home ice: Gander Community Centre
2012-13 record: 4-16-3 (5th place)
Head coach: Dennis Laing
Assistants: Scott Young, Todd Baldwin
Facebook: search “Gander Flyers”
Who’s back: As mentioned above, the Flyers opted to reward player loyalty by keeping last year’s roster mostly intact. Last season’s leading point producer Chad Locke is back to lead a contingent of forwards that includes import sharpshooter Tyler Whitehead and 15-goal scorer Sean Wadden. Other returning forwards include Andrew White, David Chubb, Grant Donovan, Luc Dearing, Riley Ricks, Steve Brazil, Steve Pearson and Doug Hardiman.
Back on the blueline are Ryan Matheson, Mitch Flynn, Brad Slaney, Adam Ivany and James Keough, while fans in Gander are undoubtedly pleased the popular goaltending tandem of Patty and Devin O’Brien are on board for another season.
Who’s gone: The Flyers were hit hardest on defence with the loss of Tyler Gale, whose rights belonged to Mount Pearl, and import Spencer Corcoran, who decided to stay in his native Prince Edward Island this winter. White also traded away the rights to St. John’s junior grad Jeremy Nicholas to the Blades to bring Devin O’Brien back.
“With both Tyler and Spencer leaving, it left us with a little bit of a void on defence,” White admits. “It’s something we’ll be taking a look at over the first three weekends.”
Who’s new: Joining the sophomore clubs as imports are forwards Peter Campbell and Rob Mignardi. Campbell, 34, has spent the better part of the last decade bouncing around Europe’s pro leagues with stops in Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy and Denmark.
“He’s a very strong two-way player, very calm and collected,” White says of the former Sudbury Wolves winger.
Mignardi, meanwhile, comes to the Flyers through UNB Varsity Reds coach Gardiner Macdougall. The right-winger, who helped lead the Owen Sound Attack to an Ontario Hockey League title two years ago, is coming off his second year as a pro and requires a year off before playing CIS hockey.
“I told Gardiner, ‘You won the national championship last year, so if you’ve got a player you think will fit in your lineup, I’m quite sure we can fit him in ours,’” White says.
The Flyers also added Gambo brothers Darrin and Travis Wilkins as territorial picks. Both are coming off injuries, so it could be a few weeks before they see any action.
Home opener: Friday, Nov. 8 vs. Clarenville
Home ice: Hodder Memorial Recreation Complex, Deer Lake
2012-13 record: 13-11-0 (3rd place)
Head coach: Ed Kearsey
Assistant: Brad Rice
Facebook: search “Western Royals”
Who’s back: The Royals retained their top three scorers in Justin Barbour, Mark Robinson, and the seemingly ageless Darren Langdon.
“Darren’s intensity is unbelievable for a 42-year-old,” says Kearsey. “He has a very strong worth ethic and he’s done that since he’s been a kid playing pro.”
Other forwards back in the mix include west coast stalwarts Scott Doody, Steve North and Brian Barker, and young guns Michael Hynes, Ryan Penney, Mathieu Berube and six-foot-five heavyweight Andrew Smith. Behind them, Western welcomes back import defencemen Nathan Saunders and Brad Woods, Deer Lake native Stephen Simms and import puckstop Bryan Gillis.
Who’s gone: With the team trying to shore up its defensive game, import forwards Brett Morrison and Ryan Sparling were not asked back in order to free up import slots. Chad Earle and Mark Tobin went to the CeeBees in the Thomey deal, Brad Rice moved behind the bench, and Jake Easton was traded to Mount Pearl, where Mike Lee was returned as his rights last belonged to the Blades. Goalie Brad Dyke may join the team later in the season.
Who’s new: Thomey is stepping into a top-line situation with the Royals, who hope he’ll be as good as he was with the CeeBees two years ago. Joining Western after suiting up for Grand Falls-Windsor last year are forwards Colin Power and Chris Peach, who should fit well with the Royals in-your-face style of play.
The Royals’ marquee acquisition, however, was import defenceman Zack Firlotte. The 27-year-old native of Fredericton, N.B., was a steady defenceman with the St. John's Fog Devils for two seasons (2005-2007) during his Quebec Major Junior Hockey League career, which was followed by five years of college hockey with the Acadia and a year of pro in the Central Hockey League. (Firlotte’s father, Kirk, played parts of two seasons with the old provincial league’s Port aux Basques Mariners in the 1980s.)
“We were looking for someone to stay at home and be strong in front of our own net, like Saunders, someone who can move the puck up well,” Kearsey explains, adding that Firlotte will likely see a lot of ice time this season.
Also joining Western is defenceman Dion Brake, a territorial pick who played senior hockey in New Brunswick the last two winters, and rookie netminders Scott Walsh and Daniel McCarthy.