This year’s SJHL season is going to be a talent arms race - and the Flin Flon Bombers are preparing to load up.
Competition has been fierce as the Bombers kick off their training camp and exhibition season, starting the camp Sept. 2 and continuing the exhibition season until later this month. As of press time, the Bombers have already played one exhibition game - a 2-0 loss to La Ronge, icing a lineup made almost entirely of rookies and prospects. The rest of the preseason won’t be any easier, with another game against La Ronge, three against the Bombers’ other northern rivals - the OCN Blizzard - and another game in Prince Albert against Kindersley.
Many spots on the Bombers’ roster are already spoken for, with a large returning contingent of 2001- and 2002-born players. Head coach and general manager Mike Reagan said the team has a few open spots on the roster, but not many.
“I think we’ve always had the mindset of having two spots up front and one or two spots on the back end. Decisions on the final roster of this team aren't made at main camp - they’re made throughout the exhibition season,” he said.
“We have a good idea of the guys that are going to be carried through to exhibition, and then from there, it's up to them to step up their game and prove that they're capable of being an everyday guy for us.”
This year, at least one SJHL team is guaranteed a spot in the Centennial Cup, the national junior A championship. That team is the Estevan Bruins, who will be hosting the tournament this year. In order to make it to the tournament, any other SJHL team would have to win the league title, then go on to win the ANAVET Cup series against the champs from Manitoba.
It’s the second option that, as always, is Reagan’s preseason goal. The Bombers haven’t been in the national tournament since 2001 (when they hosted) and haven’t been in the ANAVET Cup since 1993, when they won it. It’s that goal - to “get in through the front door” on merit and winning, not “through the back door” by default as hosts - that is paramount for Reagan.
“We’re trying to build a team that’s going to make life difficult for Estevan to get into the national championship the right way, through the front door, not the back,” he said.
Reagan doesn’t want to go all in for that bid while putting the team’s future in jeopardy. Most of the players who began the team’s main camp are in their mid-teens. Few players that young have ever played their way onto the roster, but Reagan sees having the youngest players around as an investment in the future.
“I think that that's the difference. There's going to be a lot of guys that are competing in main camp that are one or two years away from playing junior hockey,” he said.
“They should look good at main camp - the real test is in exhibition.”
In the meantime, the Bombers are hoping to overcome all obstacles and weaknesses that have plagued the team in the past. Low-scoring slugfests against defensive teams like Melfort and Nipawin, high-score shootouts with teams like La Ronge and Battlefords, goalie duels, special teams duels - there’s a gameplan for all of it. Even COVID-19 has been addressed - Reagan said all the team’s players are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, making a suspension due to the disease less likely - even before the SJHL mandated that all players and staff be vaccinated.
In order to get to the top, you need the right team. Reagan thinks he’s got a good group but when asked, he said he was expecting at least two new players to become Bombers - one through a trade and one signing.
“We do expect there to be two or three new players on our team that won’t be at main camp,” Reagan said.
“We’ve got a roster that has the potential to get there. It’s going to be a work in progress, we know there’s some areas we’ve got to upgrade, but we also want to be patient with our young guys because we feel like we have two very strong recruiting classes.”
In the days after speaking with The Reminder, both players’ additions were confirmed. First, the Bombers grabbed Nick Magis, a 2001-born centre, from the Sherwood Park Crusaders of the AJHL. The trade was confirmed Sept. 3.
Magis played the last two seasons with the Crusaders, putting up 18 points in 56 games in 2019-20 on one of Canada’s top junior A squads. Last year, Magis put up six points in 14 games before the AJHL called off the season. Magis also brings an element of toughness, adding 34 penalty minutes in those 14 games.
Magis didn’t come cheap - the cost was a player development fee (amount undisclosed) and the junior A playing rights to 2001-born defenceman Rhett Rhinehart. Rhinehart, who plays for the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades, played in both the Bombers’ games last season on loan before heading back to the Blades, where he’ll likely play an integral role this year. Rhinehart will be attending training camp with the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche.
The other player would end up being Quebecois defender Xavier Lapointe, who has played the last two seasons with the NAHL’s Janesville Jets, based in Wisconsin. Last season, Lapointe had 15 points in 39 regular season games and was arguably the team’s top defenceman. The Bombers have not announced Lapointe’s signing as of press time, but the player does show up on the team’s preseason roster on the SJHL website.
Lapointe comes in with a pretty good primer for Flin Flon and for Bomber fans. Lapointe played his minor and bantam hockey with the Nord Selects program in Saint-Jerome - where former Bombers Tristan Lemyre and Vincent Nardone and current Bomber Nathan Gagne all played - and played hockey at the now-defunct Newbridge Academy private school in Halifax, along with Lemyre and Gagne. Next season, he’s slated to go to the NCAA’s Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) Tigers. Meeting him there will be yet more former Bombers - namely, defender Calvon Boots and forward Caleb Moretz.
Other acquisitions include offseason signings like cerebral Quebecois forward Jeremi Tremblay, a smattering of Manitoba-made rookies like Dean Gorchynski, Cabrel LaBossiere and Matt Egan, as well as and a slew of Saskatchewan prospects.
A pair of American players have also turned heads at camp - Gabe Shipper and Jacob Vockler. Shipper, a diminutive 2001-born forward from California, impressed with his skating skill and nose for the net, putting in a hat-trick in his first intrasquad game and adding a goal in the shootout. Speaking of shootouts, Vockler, who hails from South Dakota, went viral for a Pavel Datsyuk-like shootout dangle and goal on the first day of camp, earning praise from hockey personality Pavel Barber - a video of the goal tweeted by Barber gathered almost 100,000 views on Twitter as of press time.
It isn’t flash and dash that Reagan’s mostly looking for, though - it’s the ability to perform under pressure.
“We’re looking for guys to be able to perform come playoff time. We fully expect us to be a playoff team. I think it would be a huge disappointment if we weren’t a playoff team, based on our expectations for the guys we’ve got here,” he said.
“Our hope is that we can be one of those teams that are in contention this year.”
While the kids are alright, the vets are just as good - eight forwards are returning from last season’s main roster, along with six defencemen and two goalies. All the returnees from last year were likely to return, with exception of WHL loanees, Ashton Ferster and Marek Schneider - both of whom are preparing for WHL camps.
A strong contingent of mostly Saskatchewan players will make up the team’s forward core, while the defence takes on a distinctly Manitoba flavour. Four of the eight returning forwards - Mackenzie Carson, Cole Duperreault, Jaxon Martens and Jaeden Mercier - are Saskatchewan products, with Gagne, Mason Kaspick, Drayden Kurbatoff and Matt Raymond currently making up the rest of the group.
Meanwhile, four defencemen are from Manitoba, led by local boy Jordan Pfoh, Lucas Fry, Ethan McColm and Reece Richmond (though McColm has left Bomber camp to join the Saskatoon Blades’ camp). Noah Kuntz and Cole Vardy - the team’s sole 20-year-old defender - make up the rest. Cal Schell has returned for his third year in maroon and white, while Jared Thompson will tag along once again as the backup.
A few of those returning players will likely have a letter on their chest as captain or assistant captain, but Reagan has not made up his mind on who will bear those beats.
“We want to be patient to see who are truly the leadership group, so we've decided that we're going to hold off right now. Obviously our 20-year-olds are expected to do a majority of the leading right now, but we haven’t decided,” said Reagan.