It is a good thing that Jason Rapcewicz prides himself in being an organized planner of time management. As the owner and general manager of the Espanola Express, Rapcewicz has been spending his days off during the summer months formulating — and carrying out — the game plan for his team ahead of the next Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League season.
Meanwhile, away from hockey, the planning and organizational skills of the 43-year old Rapcewicz are also put to the test in that he commutes from his Espanola home to his full-time job in Sault Ste. Marie, where he works as a crane operator at Algoma Steel.
Which is no short jaunt, considering that Espanola is about 150 miles from the Sault — an almost three-hour drive along the rugged highways of the north.
But Rapcewicz, who maintains a home in Espanola with his wife and their children and boards with family in the Sault during his four-day, twelve-hour work week shifts at Algoma Steel, takes it all in stride.
“Espanola is where home is for the family … and the Sault is where work is for me,” he relayed in a matter of fact fashion.
As for taking over sole ownership of the Express just over a year ago — he was a part owner while helping out as an assistant coach for a few seasons prior — Rapcewicz said it is a labour of love.
“Hockey is in my blood … I played the game (at the junior and minor pro level) and I have always wanted to stay involved and this, being the owner of the Espanola Express, allows me to stay in the game that I grew up around.
“Espanola is where my family and I live and to be an owner of a junior hockey team is something that is a passion for me,” Rapcewicz added.
“It is certainly not a money maker,” he laughed. “And we may never win a league championship as a small market franchise that has challenges to make ends meet just to break even financially. At the same time, we want the Espanola Express to be competitive and a hard-working team for our fans and supporters.
“Winning is great … but our ultimate goal will always be being a part of developing and promoting players and trying to help them get to another level,” Rapcewicz proudly stated.
“We will always try to provide an opportunity for a player who is trying to achieve his goals. Our goal is to train, develop and advance,” he added.
In particular, Rapcewicz noted that he takes particular pride in having as many capable northern Ontario players on the Express as he can.
Among the first to commit to board the Express for the 2020-2021 NOJHL season were three returning players with northern roots — forwards Cole Delarosbil and Brennen Martel and goalie Carson Boutin.
“We try to make it a priority to have us many northern kids as we can,” Rapcewicz told me. “If there is a kid from the north who can play, who is a good fit and — just as importantly — makes the commitment to play in Espanola, we will always have room for him.
Which is why Rapcewicz was happy to welcome the anticipated return of the northern trio of Delarosbil (Sault Ste. Marie), Martel (Timmins) and Boutin (Iroquois Falls) to Espanola ahead of the 2020-2021 season.
“They are three northern kids of good character who helped us in different ways last season … and we are very happy that they have committed to us again for the upcoming season,” said Rapcewicz.
“We want players who are committed and who want to play in Espanola and the fact that they (Delarosbil, Martel and Boutin) are from the north is an added bonus,” Rapcewicz added.
To be sure, it can be said that the hockey train is slowly but surely starting to chug along the Express tracks in the Spanish River town of Espanola, which is located just off the junction of Highway 17 and Highway 6 and is home to less than 5,000 residents.
For starters, the Express had a turnaround term under Rapcewicz and second-year head coach Dave Clancy in 2019-2020 and made the playoffs in the NOJHL for the first time since the 2015-2016 campaign.
As for the initial group of players who have said they plan on returning to Espanola for the 2020-2021 season, Delarosbil stands in at 6-foot-1, 190 pounds while Martel is 5-foot-8, 150 pounds — and both have have 2001 birth dates. The 6-foot, 185 pound Boutin, meanwhile, was born in 2002.
Of note, all three are graduates of the Great North Midget Hockey League.
Delarosbil played for the Soo Jr. Greyhounds, Martel suited up for the Timmins Majors and Boutin tended twine for both the Sudbury Minor Wolves and Kapuskasing Flyers
Delarosbil, whose initial season on the Express was derailed by a broken ankle that he suffered in January, came through with six goals, three assists, nine points in just 27 outings as an NOJHL rookie.
Martel, meanwhile, got into 37 of Espanola’s 56 regular season games as a first-year NOJHLer in 2019-2020 and contributed three goals, three assists, six points.
As for Boutin, the young goalie joined the Express from the Komoka Kings of the Greater Ontario Jr. Hockey League via the Cochrane Crunch of the NOJHL during the 2019-2020 season.
Boutin had a 4-7-3 record with a 4.32 goals against average and .895 save percentage after joining the Express in December of last year.
After Delarosbil, Martel and Boutin committed to return to Espanola for the upcoming season, four others — defensemen Jackson Legro, Robert Brisson and William Whelton and forward Josh Boucher — followed up.
Legro, who has a 2000 birth date and is from the American state of New Hampshire, netted two goals, 11 assists, 13 points in 35 games for Espanola in 2019-2020 after being obtained from the Blind River Beavers. He has a future commitment to play at Lebanon Valley College — a Division 3, National Collegiate Athletic Association school — for the 2021-2022 season.
Brisson, an Eastern Ontario product who has a 2002 birth date, got into 26 games for Espanola in 2019-2020 and had three goals, seven assists, 10 points from his blue line position.
Whelton, a youngster with a 2003 birth date, played in 53 games as a 16-year old rookie for the Express this past season and managed a goal, five assists, six points. He is from Whitby, Ontario.
And Boucher, who hails from the Greater Sudbury town of Lively, came through with 10 goals, 16 assists, 26 points in 55 games for the Express in 2019-2020. He has a 2001 birth date.
Meantime, two incoming rookies have been recruited by Rapcewicz to move to Espanola and join the Express. They are goalie Connor Lemieux and forward Colton Wiacek and both have 2002 birth dates.
Lemieux tended goal for the major midget Thunder Bay Kings of Hockey Northwestern Ontario during the 2019-2020 season and is poised to form a net tandem with the aforementioned Boutin in Espanola for the 2020-2021 campaign.
Wiacek, meanwhile, spent the 2019-2020 season with the St. Thomas Stars of the Greater Ontario Jr. Hockey League.
The signings of Lemieux and Wiacek followed a recent trade that Espanola made with the French River Rapids in which the Express acquired James Eng for Jayden Parnell in an exchange of 2001 birth year forwards.
COACHING THE EXPRESS
It remains to be seen if the aforementioned Dave Clancy will return for a third season as head coach of the Express for the 2020-2021 campaign.
Rapcewicz told me that he and Clancy have discussed the coach’s return for next season but have not come to a contract agreement.
“It has to make financial sense,” Rapcewicz said evenly. “I like Dave … but at the end of the day I have to balance the books.”
With Clancy at the helm, the Express had 10-43-3 record in 2018-2019 and a 17-34-5 mark in 2019-2020.