They are ready to skate into the regular season. And their coach is looking forward to the challenges ahead. With no less than 13 first year players on their roster, the new look Soo Jr. Greyhounds will finally begin 2023-2024 regular season play in the Great North Under 18 Hockey League this weekend when they are slated to head to North Bay for three games against the reigning champion Trappers.
Not that the Jr. Greyhounds have been without some valuable game experience in the interim. There have been exhibition games against the cross-river Soo Indians of the USA Under 18 Tier 1 Hockey Federation League as well as high end tournament action in both Toronto and Detroit to help prep the Jr. Greyhounds for the gruelling grind of the Great North season ahead.
While the Jr. Greyhounds do not resemble the powerhouse edition of the 2022-2023 team that lost only two regular season games in the Great North before being upset by North Bay in the title tilt of the championship playoff tournament, new head coach Sean Gagnon likes the potential for this year’s group and said he is looking forward to the beginning of the regular season schedule this weekend.
“I am really looking forward to the start of the regular season and getting stronger every week,” Gagnon relayed to Hockey News North. “The boys are working hard and I see good progression as well as small details getting fixed weekly. We are on the right track and I am excited to watch as the year progresses.”
And Gagnon has no doubts about the potential of his U18 Jr. Hounds.
“Ahead of the Great North season I see massive growth potential for this team,” Gagnon emphasized. “I know that the future looks bright for these kids. I can feel that. But I also know that we as a team still faces multiple challenges. Maintaining consistency and composure during high-pressure situations is something they will need to work on.
“Being the first time in the Great North for a lot of these kids brings the new challenge of learning to adapt to the high pace of this league,” Gagnon continued. “When these guys figure out what their individual strengths are and bring them to the ice every single game is when we still start to see results.”
Gagnon acknowledges the youth of the ’23-24 Jr. Greyhounds while pointing to his experienced net tandem of A.J. Borrelli and Nick Marson as a positive.
“This whole thing is a process but this young squad continues to impress me both in practice and in our exhibition and tournament games to date with their growth potential and determination to succeed. Bottom line is they have what it takes and at this point I think I believe in their skills more than they do. It is my job as a coach to bring out their confidence and get them to realize how good they can be,” Gagnon emphasized.
As previously noted, the Jr. Hounds are more than set between the pipes with the two aforementioned 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 captain Griffen Albert as well as another local kid who had to leave home to play in Sudbury last season, namely the hard nosed, hard working 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 looming Great North regular season.
“We have a young squad that will need to step up and be ready at the drop of the puck to use their speed because that is their biggest attribute. That being said, goaltending has not been an issue. I am very impressed with the quality of play from both of our goaltenders. They have both taken on numerous odd man rushes as well as breakaways and have held their own in the crease. In my opinion they have had to take on way too much too soon,” Gagnon noted.
“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 our recent practices. I know that we are going to get good goaltending from A.J. and Mars. 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, Nathan Dupuis and Espen Escasa.
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 Sam Caruso.
First regular season home games for the Jr. Hounds are scheduled for October 28 and 29 when they play host to the Kapuskasing Flyers.