Working hard in Espanola

Randy Russon
January 6, 2021
Espanola Express forward Cameron Walker, in NOJHL action against the visiting Soo Thunderbirds. (photo by Chelsea Solomon)

There have been ups and downs as evidenced by an 0-0-2 start through its first two contests to a 3-1-2 mark after six outings to the 4-4-2 record that it has 10 games into the 2020-2021 Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League regular season.

And while the Espanola Express has been somewhat inconsistent as the youngest team in the NOJHL, one constant has stood out to head coach Brent Hughes.

“I really like our work ethic,” Hughes relayed to Hockey News North. “We have worked hard in every game that we have played so far.”

After posting a 3-1-2 record against the French River Rapids in its first six games of cohort competition, Espanola then had a 1-3-0 mark in four matches with the older, more experienced Soo Thunderbirds to close out the 2020 portion of the ’20-21 campaign.

“We are learning how to win and what it takes as it relates to sticking to our structure but for a young team that has had its ups and downs, there is a lot to like,” Hughes added. “We need to understand that the name of the game is possession and we have to be patient and not allow the other team to dictate the flow of the game to us. When we play our game, we can hang with the best of them.”

Hughes noted that in Espanola’s four-game set against the Soo, he thought that the Express allowed the Thunderbirds to decree the direction of play. Still, aside from one blowout win by the Soo, the other three games — of which Espanola won one — all went down to the wire.

And all things considered, Hughes said he likes what he has in the current 23-player roster that has been mainly assembled by Express president and general manager Jason Rapcewicz.

“We have a really good group of kids in our dressing room … I love the make up of our team,” noted the 38-year old Hughes, a demanding coach who pushes his players to give their best at all times, be it at practice or during games.

Three of Espanola’s top players are 2003 birth year forwards who are all from the Sudbury area and who were all Ontario Hockey League priority selection draft picks in 2019 — Cameron Walker (Kingston Frontenacs), Bradley Brunet (Niagara Ice Dogs) and Devon Savignac (North Bay Battalion.)

Brent Hughes

“All three kids have all the tools,” Hughes said of the troika. “They can all go out there and score a big goal to change a game. It is just a matter of them — like all of our players — having the ability to stay patient and stick to our structure.”

Walker, Brunet and Savignac are atop the Espanola scoring short, all having averaged more than a point per game to date.

To be sure, slowly but surely, the culture as it relates to the Espanola franchise seems to be changing in a positive manner.

For example, since entering the NOJHL as an expansion franchise in 2015, the Express has made the playoffs only twice while never posting a winning record over five seasons.

In fact, when Espanola made the playoffs in 2019-2020 with a record of 17-34-5, it was the most wins in a season by the Express since its debut term of 2015-2016 when it posted a 12-39-3 mark.

Meanwhile, from 2016-2017, 2017-2018 and 2018-2019, the Express missed the playoffs all three seasons with respective records of 9-45-2, 2-52-2 and 10-43-3.

Do all the math and in five regular seasons of existence before this one, the Express resembled a track wreck with an overall record of 50-213-15.

That is right folks — only 50 wins in five years from 278 regular season games.

However, and notably, the Express reversal started to go forward last season when the aforementioned, 44-year old Jason Rapcewicz took over sole ownership of the franchise and became its president and general manager.

Under Rapcewicz and second-year head coach Dave Clancy, the Express made it back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2015-2016 season. But Rapcewicz and Clancy parted ways during the past off season when the two could not agree on a new contract.

Enter Hughes — with the recent experience of three straight winning seasons as an assistant coach with the Cape Breton Eagles of the Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League — as the new bench boss in Espanola.

And now, through extended use of video and working closely with his players both one on one and as a team, Hughes has the Express on an even route through its initial 10 games of the 2020-2021 NOJHL season.

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