Young pups of the Great North

September 12, 2023

It was a powerhouse Soo Jr. Greyhounds squad that raced to a 2022-2023 regular season record of 26-2-0 to finish first in the eight-team Great North Under 18 Hockey League by a wide margin only to somehow lose to the North Bay Trappers in the title tilt of the playoff championship tournament. And while a breath of fresh air has enveloped the 2023-2024 edition of the Jr. Hounds of the Great North, there are only three players who remain from the ’22-23 team.

The ’23-24 Jr. Hounds represent a new beginning for 85 per cent of the roster, not to mention an incoming coaching staff that is a clear break and a welcome change from the past — an over and done with bygone that many in the Sault Ste. Marie hockey community are happy and relieved to have bid adieu to.

Sean Gagnon is the new head coach of the U18 AAA level Jr. Greyhounds. And the 50-year old Gagnon, who as a player was part of the 1993 Memorial Cup champion Soo Greyhounds — an overachieving defensemen who went on to a lengthy pro career that included time in the National Hockey League that can never be taken away.

After years away from coaching as he worked on aspects of life away from the game, the energetic, focused, superbly-conditioned Gagnon has been going non stop at his new hockey gig over the course of the off season months. There have been frequent practice and team building sessions. There has been major commitment to off-ice conditioning. And players old and new seem to be whole-heartedly embracing Gagnon and his team-first approach to the game.

As for Gagnon as a coach, he may have been born during the night. But it was a September night of some 50 years ago. And he is hockey smart enough to know that the rebuild of the Jr. Hounds of the Great North will not happen over night.

The Jr. Hounds do not begin ’23-24 regular season play in the Great North until October 20. But they have plenty of high end game action ahead of that with matches against the cross-border Soo Indians of the USA Under 18 Tier 1 Hockey Federation League as well as scheduled participation the Toronto Titans Tournament and the Detroit Hockeytown Tournament.

“It will be interesting, our intense pre-season slate of games. I can’t wait to see how the kids look,” Gagnon relayed to Hockey News North.

Coulson Bell has signed up to play for coach Sean Gagnon and the Jr. Hounds of the Great North

“I will be honest,” Gagnon continued. “They have been introduced to a lot of different things over the past few weeks as far as systems and totally different concepts go. We are trying to get everybody caught up and it will definitely take some time. But all in all, I am pretty impressed with what I have been seeing.”

The Jr. Hounds are more than set between the pipes with two local lads — A.J. Borrelli and Nick Marson — who played in the Great North in ’22-23 with the Sudbury Nickel Capitals program and who are now home. But the Jr. Hounds are young on defense with only one holdover from a year ago, Samuel Gravel. And there are just three forwards with experience in the Great North — holdovers Lucas DiBerardino and Griffen Albert as well as another local kid who had to leave home to play in Sudbury last season, namely the gritty, grimy Coulson Bell.

And while Gagnon likes his corps of defensemen and the overall speed of his forwards, he knows that there is so much to work on ahead of the series of games with the aforementioned Soo Indians, the upcoming tournaments — and regular season play.

“Our recent assignments are based on thinking of getting goals and generating a lot of shots,” Gagnon relayed. “I am pretty happy with the tempo that we have been showing at practices. I know that we are going to get good goaltending. And I know that we are going to be fast. But you can’t win a game unless you get goals on the board.”

With just the six players with Great North experience, the Jr. Hounds will be heavy with 2007 and 2008 birth year defensemen and forwards who lack the participation and awareness of activity at the AAA U18 level. The young ’08 group does include some players of particular promise including blue liners Brady Real, Cole Wreggit, Liam Watson and Cameron Kontulainen and forwards Danny MacDonald and Nathan Dupuis.

And there are players who have more than paid their dues at the AA levels of the Sault Major Hockey Association who will have the right set of circumstances to take their game to the Great North and become key contributors to the fortunes of the AAA U18 Jr. Hounds program. The list includes 2006 birth year forward Sebastien dos Reis and 2007 birth year forward Sammy Caruso.

A.J. Borrelli

To be sure, a lot will be expected from the six who played in the Great North in ’22-23 — Gravel, DiBerardino and Albert with the Jr. Hounds and Borrelli, Marson and Bell, who all developed in Sudbury. All six will get golden opportunities from Gagnon and his coaching staff to really step up as veteran leaders on a Jr. Hounds team that will be out to try to overachieve and perhaps surprise onlookers, supporters and critics alike in the season ahead.

And as a bonus, the Jr. Hounds have in Gagnon as a head coach a person whose knowledge, passion and excitement for the game is clearly evident. And he says he is more than ready for what is ahead.

“As I have told you before this is a daunting task for sure,” said Gagnon. “But we have stayed true to our off season workouts … a lot of our guys are in the gym working out five days a week. Again, as I told you before, we do need some of our players to get stronger in order to be able to handle the grind and the pace and the physicality of the (upcoming season).”

Following is the Jr. Hounds player roster as it currently stands.

GOALIES: A.J. Borrelli and Nick Marson.

SKATERS: Griffen Albert, Coulson Bell, Jacob Briffett, Sammy Caruso, Lucas DiBerardino, Sebastian dos Reis, Nathan Dupuis, Espen Escasa, Sam Gravel, Kadin Johnston, Cameron Kontulainen, Wyatt Leblanc, Danny Macdonald, Brady Real, Stosh Schultz, Liam Watson and Cole Wreggitt.


The fact that Sean Gagnon even made it to the Ontario Hockey League as a player let alone forged a pro career that included time in the National Hockey League is simply astounding. 

For starters, the Sault Ste. Marie product was bypassed at the entire 1990 OHL priority selections draft, which went 24 — yes, 24 — rounds that year. A year later, at the 1991 OHL draft, Gagnon was picked — and as an 18-year old no less — in the 16th round by the Sudbury Wolves. Someone tipped off the Wolves about Gagnon who, during the 1990-1991 season, had 21 goals, 26 assists, 47 points and 218 penalty minutes in 46 games while playing defense at the house league level for the Soo Elks.

Somehow, the 18-year old Gagnon made the Wolves as a 16th round draft pick. He played most of the 1991-1992 season in the OHL with the Wolves, while also suiting up for the Sudbury Cubs of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League. Gagnon then began the 1992-1993 season with the Wolves before being traded to the Ottawa 67’s and then shipped to his hometown Soo Greyhounds, where he became part of the ’93 Memorial Cup championship team.

Gagnon then concluded his OHL career as an overage defenseman with the Greyhounds in 1993-1994. In all, Gagnon played in 183 games over three OHL seasons and had 14 goals, 36 assists, 50 points and 433 minutes in penalties.

Not to be denied making a living from the game, Gagnon would then embark on a long and winding pro career that began in the East Coast Hockey League with the Dayton Bombers in 1994-1995. Literally fighting his way to stay in the league, Gagnon racked up 408 minutes in penalties in 76 games while finding the time to score nine goals, 26 assists, 35 points.

Another season in Dayton was followed by time in the International Hockey League and the American Hockey League before realizing the dream of all hockey dreams by playing in the NHL for both the Arizona Coyotes and Ottawa Senators. The never-say-die Gagnon then ventured to Russia and Germany to continue a pro odyssey that finally ended in 2006. Not bad for a kid who was a 16th round pick to the OHL as an 18-year old and who eventually made it to the NHL as an un-drafted free agent.

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