Deseronto Bulldogs Blue took on Deseronto Bulldogs Red at Napanee’s Strathcona Paper Centre on Tuesday night as the local Eastern Ontario Senior Hockey League team opened its training camp.
The two sides, differentiated by blue and red jerseys, took part in a scrimmage while the coaching staff; all wearing masks, watched from the Home Hardware Rink bleachers and took notes. The teams were kept to 10 skaters a side while a second wave of players waited their turn outside the arena.
Such is life for a senior hockey team in 2020.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the start the EOSHL, the Bulldogs are making the most of it as they prepare for their second season.
“We’re kind of in the same boat as everyone else. There’s a lot of uncertainty but I mean, as it stands right now, we’re moving forward as planned with training camp,” said Landon Punchard, president and owner of the Bulldogs. “Right now we’re just working on getting our roster selected. We were able to sign 30 guys and we got over 40 guys that are coming to camp total, probably closer to 50. Space for camp has been limited because of the COVID restrictions. We’re only allowed to have 22 guys on the ice at once, typically we would like to have 40 guys on the ice at once which would mean we’d be able to get a look at 80 guys because we have had over 80 guys reach out with interest in playing. We’ve had to carefully select which guys we’re bringing to camp.”
The EOSHL is yet to announce a start date for the 2020-21 season, but for now teams are encouraged to finalize their rosters and be ready to go when they are given the all clear to drop the puck.
“We’re intending on starting in October, that may get pushed back, we’re expecting it likely will,” said Punchard. “We are optimistic that we’re going to get a season in, whether that’s October or as late as January, that’s something we’re definitely we’re going to try to do. We’re just waiting to see when we get into Stage 4, what that’s going to consist of. For us to operate with our league obviously we need to be able to have fans in attendance. We’re not a league that can operate without fans.”
Limits on the amount of players they can have on the ice at a given time have prompted the coaching staff to be extremely selective with who they brought into camp. Those that did get the call have played at a high level, ranging from ex-pro, NCAA, college and the Ontario Hockey League.
“We have quite a few returning guys, the majority of the guys on our 30 man roster are going to be returning guys,” said Graeme Gemmill, who serves as both the team’s GM and goalie. “We do have some new faces that are coming in but that’s always a good thing to push those returning guys, because at the end of the day just because you sign at the beginning of the season doesn’t mean you have your spot the entire year or as long as you want. It just keeps everybody working hard and lighting a fire under their butt and makes them push themselves to another level.”
Among those new recruits is Liam Hunter, who played a handful of games at the NCAA level with Utica last year, as well as having previously skated for the Wellington Dukes.
Earlier in the offseason they acquired Cameron Brown and Patrick Gilmour via trades made ahead of the league’s draft.
They used their draft picks to select Brody Morris, Cody Smith and Brodie Maracle, as well as Hunter. They also committed Kenny Murduff and Brad Edwards to the team.
As for the returning players, they’re mostly made up of a core of players who have previously played for the Napanee Raiders, Kingston Voyageurs, Dukes, Trenton Golden Hawks and Deseronto Storm.
When the season does get underway, the Bulldogs will be looking to take the next step forward after finishing third in the league with a 5-12-1 record.
In the playoffs they pushed the second place Cornwall Prowlers to the limit, losing a winner-take-all Game 3.
“My hope for this year is that we take it,” said Bulldogs head coach Steve Durnan. “I truly believe we could have taken it last year. We had illness going through our team so we missed a big part of our core defense for that last game. I truly believe we had a really good chance of earning it last year. This year I do believe our guys are going to do it this year for Deseronto. Our goal is nothing less than winning the championship.”
Assistant coach Brandon Tucker agrees.
“We got a good core group of guys that are coming back as well as some key additions,” said Tucker. “It benefits us being on the ice early like this to get new additions that are going to help us out there. Our goal this year is to end up on top and nothing short of that.”
This offseason saw the league expand ahead of its second season, welcoming the Glengarry Pipers, Frontenac Phantoms and Smiths Falls Rideaus to the league.
The senior hockey league is open to all players who have aged out of traditional junior hockey leagues. Last year marked the return to competitive hockey for the town of Deseronto, who were left without a team when the Junior C Storm folded in 2015. The Bulldogs play their home games out of the Deseronto Community Rec Centre.
“The support we had last year from the Deseronto community was amazing,” said Punchard. “Being our first year in the league and the history Deseronto hockey had in the past, the town was ultimately taking a risk and taking a chance on allowing us to bring a team there and it couldn’t have been any more successful as far as we’re concerned. We averaged anywhere from 300-500 fans per home game last year and we expected in our second year that our attendance is only going to grow.”
Updates on when the season might get underway will be posted to the team’s Facebook page.