After two straight runs to the SJHL finals and two straight defeats, this year’s Bombers hope the third time is the charm. The team’s training camp officially opened Sept. 1 and preseason is now underway.
Four goalies, 17 defencemen and 35 forwards came to the Whitney Forum last weekend in the hopes of making up next year’s edition of the Flin Flon Bombers. Some have since been cut, but with spots on the roster available, competition to get on the season-opening roster is still fierce.
“We had a pre-camp and we got to see a lot of guys we have strong expectations for. I think it’s a good start, but then again, you never finish with what you start. We’re always looking to improve and there’s some new faces here that we’ve got to get familiar with,” said head coach and general manager Mike Reagan.
The team will see turnover, with all four of their top scorers from last season now either aged out or gone to different programs. Four of the team’s defencemen from last year have also aged out of junior hockey, sending Flin Flon into a familiar spot - looking for a new crop of stars to replace the old ones.
“We think we’re going to be a dangerous team, a tough team to handle up front. I think it’s going to be a work in progress - we’ve still got some guys in the Western league that we hope to see at some point, but you never know,” said Reagan.
Part of that includes a desire to bring more size to the Bomber roster, in hopes of warding off the kind of injuries that burned the Bombers down the stretch last season. Late in the season and into playoffs, several key players were hit with a perfect storm of injuries, forcing other players to play out of position to cover. Some Bombers came back in the playoffs despite injuries, but it wasn’t enough to fend off a sweep by Battlefords.
“There’s been a conscious effort to bring in some bigger bodies, especially on the back end. We’ve got three defencemen over 6-foot-3, with the potential of a couple more. Up front, we have Bailey Ewonus, a 6-foot-4 forward.”
Up front, the biggest story for the Bombers is the return of a local boy for camp. Justin Lies, who played four seasons of WHL hockey after playing at Bomber camp as a 14-year-old, is back in maroon-and-white, at least for now. The team has not yet announced whether he's signed for the coming season, but the young forward played the intrasquad tournament with the team over the weekend and in the Bombers' maroon and white game.
Another player with major junior experience is Riley Niven, a Wawota, Sask. product who played with Lies at Winnipeg’s Rink Hockey Academy. Niven suited up for the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors last year, but only played 17 games due to injuries - Niven is in Flin Flon for camp but did not take part in the intrasquad games as a player due to those injuries, which are likely to keep him out of action for at least the first month of the season. Instead, Niven took on the referee’s whistle for the games, including for Sunday’s maroon and white games, while taking part in practices wearing the Bombers’ no-contact jersey - a red sweater with a white ambulance cross on the front and the word “BANDAID” on the back shoulders.
“It’s just going to take time. We want to make sure he’s 100 per cent before he plays. It’s a long season and we have high expectations for us to be in a good position - when it really counts, we need him healthy,” said Reagan.
Any newcomers will join a group of 10 players who played at least one game for the Bombers up front last season. The crew is headlined by Alexi Sylvestre and Jacob Vockler, the Bombers’ top playoff scorers from last year’s run to the SJHL finals. Sylvestre scored nine goals in the Bombers’ 16 playoff games as a rookie, including a hat-trick in the final Game 4 against Battlefords. Vockler stuck it out through an injury to end the playoff run with 10 assists. Both players chose to stay in Flin Flon this year despite overtures from other leagues - at least two BCHL teams showed interest in having Sylvestre play for them this year, while Vockler, who has a college commitment to Merrimack, chose to push his NCAA debut back one year to come back and compete for a title.
The Bombers are also bringing in rookie Koen Senft, a former first round pick for the club in the SJHL’s bantam draft in 2022. Senft spent most of last year with the Regina Pat Canadians U18 AAA squad, but came to Flin Flon for playoffs and even played a game for the Bombers, the fifth game in the Humboldt series where Flin Flon knocked out the Broncos.
“Signing him was huge for us. A high draft pick for us a year ago, he put up really good numbers last year and he was with the team pretty much throughout the playoffs last year. We think he grew a lot,” Reagan said.
There are players who won’t be arriving back in Flin Flon this winter, though - the biggest of which is Jeremi Tremblay. The offensive dynamo has headed to the U.S., where he will play for the NAHL’s Maryland Black Bears. Bomber unsung hero award winner Brent Gulenchyn is also gone, having headed way north to join another NAHL team, the Fairbanks Ice Dogs.
Goalies and defence
This year’s Bomber squad will bring back both goalies from last season, Harmon Laser-Hume and Kenny Marquart - prospect Ryan Bain and Cranberry Portage’s Logan Grenier joined the one-two punch in net at camp, but the two returnees have the crease locked down for this year.
“Our goaltending is going to be extremely strong with both guys back and a year older, with Kenny ready to take on more starts. I think that Laser’s experience and how much he grew last year as a number one goalie, being able to get us to the league finals… we feel very confident with that,” said Reagan.
Things are more open on defence, where the Bombers had four returnees from last year’s squad, including just two who played more than 20 games. Noah Houle and Cole Tanchuk became key pieces for a Bomber blueline that featured four 20-year-old players last season, while Aiden Chow played both defence and forward when the injury bug arrived in Flin Flon. Cheechoo Lathlin, who suffered a season-ending injury in the team’s first game last year, is back on the ice and is looking for a bigger role on the team. Rylan Pearce, who came to the Bombers from the WHL last season, has not yet appeared at camp, having gone to Washington state to attend camp with the Everett Silvertips.
“We lost four veteran defencemen last year, so there’s some holes to fill there. Cheechoo is healthy and we’ve got Chow, Tanchuk and Houle - that’s four defencemen who were a part of last year. Cheechoo only got in half a game, but we all know what he’s capable of and we have high expectations for him,” said the coach.
The Bombers boast a group of hopefuls for the remaining spots on defence - the hulking Pierce Yakimchuk, a 6-foot-4, 203-pound side of Alberta beef whose long reach and physical game are his calling cards; Fabian Bourgeois, the Quebec-born heavy hitter who delivered some of the biggest checks at camp; Luke Lepper, the small but speedy puckmover from Brandon who de-committed from a BCHL team to come up north; John Baird, the Arizona product who at 6-foot-5 is the biggest player at camp. There are plenty of options for this year’s D-core.
“We’ve got Lepper on the back end who was the captain for the Brandon AAA Wheat Kings. He’s a really good skater and we’re excited about him. There’s Yakimchuk, a big monster on the backend who really impressed us in spring camp and pre-camp as well - we’re expecting big things out of him. Those are some of the guys we have high expectations for,” Reagan said.
The Bombers played their first preseason game Sept. 5 against the OCN Blizzard, with the Blizzard getting a late lead and beating Flin Flon 4-3.
The Blizzard - who, since moving the team's games to the Roy H. Johnson Arena in The Pas, have officially removed the locator from the team's name, becoming simply "the Blizzard" -
Flin Flon iced a roster made almost entirely up of rookies, with two exceptions - goalie Kenny Marquart and defenceman Cheechoo Lathlin, who hails from Opaskwayak Cree Nation and would be playing in front of family and friends.
The Bombers got out to an early lead, courtesy of a goal two minutes in by Jack Bechard, then added another goal midway through the first from Koen Senft. The Blizzard, whose lineup included several returning players, tied things up late in the second - first, getting a goal from former Norman Northstar Brady Krentz, then getting a powerplay goal from Lucas de la Salle.
Entering the third tied at two, another Norman Northstar player, Isaac Tomchak, scored for the Blizzard five minutes in, giving them their first lead of the night. Creighton native Ryder Mucha popped one home past Blizzard netminder Loic Morin to tie things up a few moments later, but the Blizzard would get a goal with just 34 seconds to go from Emilien Charron, giving them the late lead.
Marquart stopped all 12 shots he faced for the Bombers - rookie goalie Ryan Bain made 10 saves on 14 shots, playing the second half of the night for the Bombers.
The two teams play again at the Whitney Forum Friday night.