Nestled on the Spanish River, about 35 miles west of Sudbury and 145 miles east of Sault Ste. Marie — and just south of the junction of Highway 6 and Highway 17 — lies the little junior A hockey town of Espanola.
As the town is home to just under 5,000 residents, it also houses the Espanola Express of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League. And quite notably, the Express has become a route of choice for no less than nine Ontario Hockey League priority selection draft picks ranging in age from 16 to 18.
Having nine OHL draft picks on one small market team is not only a credit to the NOJHL as a development league but it speaks volumes about the Express program with 44-year old owner Jason Rapcewicz at the helm as general manager and 38-year old Brent Hughes behind the bench as head coach.
In fact, Hughes has his own major junior background on what is an impressive hockey resume.
Not only did Hughes skate in 76 OHL games as a forward with both the Peterborough Petes and Brampton (now North Bay) Battalion before going on to a 10-year pro career that included stops in the Central Hockey League as well as overseas in Scotland, he has the recent experience of three straight winning seasons as an assistant coach with the Cape Breton Eagles of the Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League.
A close friend of John Dean, who is the head coach of the OHL’s Soo Greyhounds, Hughes is in his first season as the bench boss in Espanola.
And besides trying to enforce a reputable NOJHL program in Espanola with the aforementioned Jason Rapcewicz as GM and local resident Shawn Dubois as the assistant coach, Hughes is being entrusted with the development of the nine OHL draft picks on the Express, all of whom were selected in either 2020, 2019, or 2018.
From youngest to oldest of the OHL draft picks in Espanola, two players have 2004 birth dates, five were born in 2003 and two others have 2002 birth dates.
Niagara IceDogs have three of their priority selection draft prospects playing in Espanola — 2004 birth year defenseman Lucas Littlejohn, 2003 birth year forward Bradley Brunet and 2002 birth year defenseman A.J. Favot
The six other OHL draft picks who are developing on the Express lane are 2004 birth year forward Luke Bibby (Owen Sound Attack), 2003 birth year defensemen Josh Kavanagh (Peterborough Petes) and Wade Bolton (Mississauga Steelheads), 2003 birth year forwards Devon Savignac (North Bay Battalion) and Cameron Walker (Kingston Frontenacs) and 2002 birth year goalie Owen Willis (London Knights.)
Walker, Brunet, Savignac and Bibby represent four of the five leading scorers for Espanola through the first 10 games of the 2020-2021 NOJHL regular season.
Notably, Bibby (who was born on October 29, 2004) and Littlejohn (who was born on December 6, 2004) are two of the youngest players in all of junior hockey in Canada.
Besides representing seven different OHL teams as draft picks, the nine players are from all over Ontario.
Favot, Brunet, Kavanagh, Savignac and Walker all hail from the Greater Sudbury area. Meanwhile, Littlejohn is from Courtice, Bibby is from Brantford, Bolton calls Gores Landing home and Willis is a Toronto product.
With the NOJHL hopeful of a return to play in February — should the province-wide lock down and Ontario government stay at home order be lifted on schedule on the 11th of the month — Espanola has made an impact as the youngest team in the league with a record of 4-4-2 through 10 games that were played between mid November and just before Christmas in December.
And Hughes, as the head coach, is anxious to return to the ice in Espanola — where there are no cases of COVID-19 — and continue to teach, mentor and develop every single player on the Express.
Just as importantly, Hughes told Hockey News North, he wants his players to have fun upon a hopeful return to the game.
“These are challenging and frustrating times and right now we are all just looking at that (February 11) date and hopefully a return to team camaraderie and seeing smiles on the kids faces.
“When we hopefully return to the ice there will be corrections and accountability but I just want to make sure the kids are having fun. We all want things to be as normal as possible … we all want to get our lives back, whether it is hockey or small business or anything else that has been affected by shutdowns and lock downs,” summed up the thoughtful, down to earth coach of the Express.
It can also be said that the Express is on a good track with the assistance of the husband-wife team of long-time Espanola residents Shawn Dubois and Virginia Dubois.
As Shawn is a first-year assistant under Express head coach Brent Hughes, Virginia helps the Express as its billet coordinator and administrative associate to team owner and general manager Jason Rapcewicz.
The Dubois family has also, for a number years, served as a billet home for out of town players on the Express, with this season being no exception.