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All home openers stir the same emotions, regardless of the era
2021-10-09

The pre-game butterflies will be there as they always have been. The nervous jitters will not be a whole lot different than those encountered in the five decades before them.

The “I can’t wait for the opening drop of the puck to get this thing going” will be the same in 2021 as it has been on 48 previous occasions.

Yes, the pandemic contributed to a double cohort of young hockey prospects experiencing their first OHL game Friday night at Sudbury Arena, but the experience will be every bit as unique and memorable as it has been for every Sudbury Wolves' rookie who came before them.

Then again, maybe not so memorable.

“I don’t know if I remember that home opener – that’s a long time ago,” laughed Wolves head coach Craig Duncanson. For the record, on September 23rd (1983), Duncanson and the Wolves dropped a 4-1 decision to the Ottawa 67’s – the mention of which sparked a handful of interesting memories.

“Our overage goalie that year was Danny Longe and our rookie goalie was Sean Evoy,” noted the future NHL first round draft pick. “Both of those guys and myself played our minor hockey in Walden, so that was kind of a neat thing – that and playing in front of friends and family.”

Ironically, Duncanson did recall with ease that his very first exhibition game was actually played in his hometown rink in Lively, battling it out with the North Bay Centennials. “I remember playing with Ken Minello and Mike Savage back then. Eddie Smith (father of current Wolves forward Ryan Smith) and myself and Brian Verbeek were the young guys.”

Truth is, there was no lack of local ties in those days.

“I got to play that year with a guy that I had rivaled with all through minor hockey in Glenn Greenough (from Rayside-Balfour),” said Duncanson. “He had been a long-time nemesis up to that point, and then we had a chance to play together.”

More than anything, it’s often the individual teammates that seem to linger in the minds of those who enjoyed these moments, far more so than game results and the like.

“I remember we played a few exhibition games with the Sault,” suggested NOJHL commissioner Rob Mazzuca, who made his debut with the Wolves in the fall of 1979. Reminded of a 5-2 triumph over the Brantford Alexanders on September 21st of that year, the Capreol native and smooth-skating defenceman noted that Sudbury success that year started at the very back end.

“We had Donnie Beaupre in net and he was magic,” said Mazzuca. Truth be told, the future team captain did not even expect to be in the lineup for game one of the 79-80 campaign.

“I was the seventh defenceman but because we had injuries, I was suddenly moved up from seventh to fifth. I thought I would slide in from time to time and suddenly, I’m playing a regular shift. It was nerve-wracking, but exciting.”

If his mind was going a mile a minute, then Mazzuca, like most first year juniors, would not be complicating matters with any extra thoughts. “Don’t get caught, move the puck as quick as you can, and keep it simple, stupid,” he said. “That was embedded in our heads.”

Of course, that might be easier said than done, especially when your first OHL stop happens to be right in your own backyard. “You have your entire family there: mom, dad, uncles,” said Mazzuca. “Even my uncle Frank was there, and he almost never went to a hockey game. There were about 30 or 40 of them in all.”

And while a regular season game will almost always constitute the ice-breaker for most Wolves alumni, it was the 1980 post-season appearance when Mazzuca really noticed what pre-game jitters are all about. “There were 6,666 people in the rink – for warm-ups,” he stated, recalling the second round series against the Peterborough Petes.

“You want to talk about excitement and being pumped. We were the only team to beat Peterborough that year in the playoffs until they lost to Cornwall in overtime for the Memorial Cup.”

By the time he was in his second year with the team, current Wolves associate Zack Stortini would be named team captain. Suiting up for 247 games in Sudbury between 2001 and 2005, the rugged 6’4” winger who would amass 725 PIMs in 257 NHL games embodied the hometown spirit better than almost anyone, quickly becoming a fan favourite.

“You’re always excited going into your first training camp with the Wolves,” said the 36 year-old constantly pleasant bench boss. “Growing up here in Sudbury, I had always followed the team; I was always a big fan. Finally having the honour to wear the jersey is incredible.”

“Just seeing the excitement around the arena, with the fans, my teammates, everyone so happy to be a part of the tradition – it was special. I feel very lucky, very privileged to have been able to play my first home opener in my home town.”

Though he wished he could have been able to name all those who were at his side that September, there were a couple of teammates who particularly shone through. “I was fortunate to have a great leadership group here in Sudbury in my first year,” said Stortini. “I was really thankful for the guys that would lead the way.”

“Captain Josh Legge; veteran Jerry Connell; sitting beside him in the dressing room, he was able to guide me along.”

Still, just as he will likely remind the troops on Friday, remembering the task at hand is the number one priority, in spite of the emotion of it all.

“You’ve got to focus pretty quickly,” added Stortini. “There are tough competitors on the other side. After the anthems are sung, you try and settle in pretty quickly.”

And with a little luck, you might even try and set aside the thoughts of that moment for posterity.

“Just do what you have always done,” said coach Duncanson of the advice that he expects to hand out tonight. “Do what you do best - and enjoy the experience.”

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