Just over two weeks out from the Provincial Junior Hockey League’s fluid start date projection of Dec. 1; it’s becoming less and less likely the Napanee Raiders will be kicking off their regular season anytime soon.
That’s not to say the Raiders are ready to throw in the towel just yet. In fact the team has been anything but idle, holding regular skates since Labour Day. Granted, those skates have been anything but typical as COVID-19 guidelines limit the amount of skaters on the ice at a time to 22-that includes goalies and coaching staff.
“The guys have really stayed patient with the idea of just practice for just now,” said second-year Raiders head coach Ben Hagerman. “But again it’s been two months so I think the competitive edge is shining through on some guys and starting to wonder when we’re going to play a game is definitely becoming a thought process.”
Not wanting that competitive spark to fizzle, the Raiders are exploring options for potential exhibition games.
“We do know that Dec. 1 would be an outside shot as of this point,” Hagerman said of a regular season start date. “There hasn’t been a schedule made yet. We haven’t gotten permission to play from the OHF (Ontario Hockey Federation) in a regular setting yet. Travelling from town to town isn’t really permitted yet. But what we can do is create a 50-person bubble with another team in our league. We are exploring options with localized teams that are from either the same or neighbouring Health Units and we would be allowed to play, with modified rules, an exhibition game with no fans.”
The Amherstview Jets and Picton Pirates are two teams who would fit that description.
Hagerman says their club will be paying close attention to Junior A teams who got underway with bubble exhibition type games this week.
“As it gets more likely that we’re going to get to exhibition bubble games, we will start instilling team concepts and practicing things like the power-play.” Said Hagerman. “I think we’re inching closer and closer. (Thursday) we skated and myself and (Raiders GM) Adam Bramburger had a really good conversation exploring that next step with another team.”
Still the reigning Schmalz Cup champions from their win in 2019, the Raiders are going to have their share of new faces in the lineup when a season does finally get underway,
“It doesn’t take an expert to figure out we were an older team,” said Hagerman. “It’s been a much 19-21-year old kind of team.”
The team graduated four overagers following last year’s playoffs, which were cut short in March due to the initial COVID-19 outbreak across the globe. At the time the Raiders were closing in on a second straight league title.
“Some of our 20-year-olds have moved on in life and are tackling work and school opportunities and probably weren’t going to be back in a normal year anyway,” said Hagerman. “That left us with about eight to 10 veterans that are coming back, two of which are goalies which is huge in Bailey Maracle and Mitch Bown. We’re very comfortable with those two coming back. Then what we’ve done is we’ve gone out and re-tooled through connections we have with some of our veteran players, a guy like Cam Sheehy has a younger brother coming into Queen’s named Matt Sheehy so we were able to pick him up. He’s a very good player and he had a couple of friends that we were able to go out so we’ve kind of re-tooled through a couple connections there.”
Former Ontario Hockey League draft pick and Kingston native Beckett Palmer-Stephen is another player brought in to replace some of the outgoing offense. The Raiders used their 16-year-old slot on Marlbank’s Isaac Brown, who grew up in the Quinte AAA system.
Those additions will be coupled with returning overagers Devon King, Matt Panetta and Curtis Marrison.
“We’re going to be a lot younger but we’re going to be fast with a very high hockey IQ and it doesn’t take me a lot of time to repeat what I need to say to get the message across to adapt what we want to do. We’re pretty excited about the group that we’ve put together,” added Hagerman.
The team made a conscious effort to sign players born in 2002 or sooner to ensure the core would be eligible to return for multiple seasons.
“Even if this year’s not a year where we play out a playoff run or have a 40 game season, we can still bring them in, get them comfortable with the program and hit the ground running a year from now,” said Hagerman. “In a normal year I think we would still be very competitive. We may not have run away with the league maybe like teams have done the last couple of years because Picton’s going to be strong, Amherstview’s going to be very strong. Campbellford’s come a long way, but we would be very competitive in every game and have a chance at the division for sure.”
Though there’s still no date for an exhibition game, much less a regular season, Hagerman says he’s not complaining. He knows the Raiders’ situation is no different than any other team in Ontario. Instead he says he plans to just roll with the punches and have the team ready to go whenever the call to lineup for that opening face-off is made.