It sure doesn’t feel like hockey weather out there – but as even the most casual NHL fan can attest, that doesn’t stop the league from throwing Free Agent Frenzy right into the mix of early July national holidays.
With that in mind, far be it for the Sudbury U18 AAA Wolves not to jump into the mix with both feet as well.
With media signings hosted on back to back evenings this week at the Gerry McCrory Countryside Sports Complex, coach Brian Dickinson and his staff firmed up roughly a third of his 2023-2024 roster, in addition to welcoming a new goalie coach (and team alumnus) to the fold.
Monday was focused on local content as forwards Benoit Hogue and Carter Drigo, both of whom spent some if not all of last year with the team confirmed their intentions to return. Signed as an affiliate with the Nickel City U18 AA Jr Sons to start the season last September, Hogue became a fixture in the AAA roster after Christmas, suiting up in 11 games and racking up four goals and a pair of assists.
“It’s nice to know that I have a place to play – and it gives me the advantage of knowing the speed of the game,” said the 16 year old grade 12 student at CND (Collège Notre Dame). “I’m already kind of used to it now, so I know how to play with this speed, how the play develops. I don’t have to go through that whole learning process again.”
Though not tall in stature, Hogue does counter that there some benefits that can be drawn from the athlete that he is as he steps on the ice. “I have a bit more of a heavier build so I really rely on my core, my low centre of gravity. When I get hit, I can use that to avoid being knocked down.”
Stretching the measuring tape comfortably above six feet, Carter Drigo is a tougher teammate to topple over. In his first year in the GNU18L, the towering right winger amassed 11 points in 27 games (4G-7A), but is hoping that some exposure to the technology that AAA teams will utilize might help him improve upon those numbers this winter.
“I need to work on my self-awareness, reading the play faster,” stated the 16 year old grade 11 student at St Benedict CSS. “I think you can watch a lot of video of your games and learn from that. The first time I watched it, it seemed a little slower than when you are playing. When you are out there, you have to think really fast.”
“When you are watching it on TV, you can really see what is going on.”
With the only two double digit scorers with the team from last year having moved on (Caden Dubreuil, Dominic Morris), others will need to step in and pick up the slack – a task that Drigo believes is well within his skill-set.
“Another thing I would like to work on is getting my shot off faster,” he said. “I know that I have a secretly good shot but I didn’t use it much last year. I am working on getting a quicker release.”
Like both Hogue and Drigo, new goalie coach Alex Vendette is also a returnee to the team, though his last year on the ice with the AAA lads came in 2017-2018 as a member of the squad that played host to the Telus Cup.
And as so many coaches have come to realize, being able to communicate key habits that may have come naturally as a player is not necessarily a given, especially when dealing with teenage boys.
“I have to make sure that when I am explaining something, I am explaining it in a way that doesn’t only make sense to me,” said the former Sudbury Wolves’ draft pick who went on to play junior hockey in Welland and Georgetown.
While still quite new to the coaching process, Vendette already has a solid concept of how he wants to balance teaching fundamentals that he believes in versus working with a given goalie’s natural athletic strengths and weaknesses.
“In my opinion, goaltending is 90% mental,” he said. “If a goalie is doing something that they don’t believe is right in their head, that will be the biggest issue. It’s important that you and the goalie are on the same page and that the goalie feels comfortable with what they are doing.”
“You want to build them up, not turn them into something that you want them to be.”
Vendette will definitely be working with two new faces as Dickinson looked to North Bay (Jackson Curran) and Sault Ste Marie (Carter Nadon) to fill his netminding void. The tandem represented half of the out of town contingent who put pen to paper on playing cards on Tuesday, joining North Bay blueliner Jackson Culin and forward Ryan Daze, who jumped from the U15 AAA Trappers in 2021-2022 to the Mississauga U16 AAA Senators last winter.
Though a familiar face in northern Ontario AAA circles throughout his minor hockey career, Curran knows that adapting to a new blue line corps (Jackson Culin – the exception) is going to be a primary focus once the team hits the ice in mid to late August.
“It’s going to be key to connect with them early on in the year,” said the 16 year old second year U18 puckstopper who will continue to attend St Joseph Scollard Hall in North Bay. “I will probably watch some of last year’s games and see what their first thoughts are coming out of the zone, try and understand some of the plays they are thinking of.”