Above the entrance to the Flin Flon Bombers’ dressing room, there’s a four word message for any players or visitors - “Let the Tradition Continue”. That tradition has begun for another season, as the team officially kicked off training camp August 29.
On the first day of skates, 30 forwards, 16 defenders and six goalies are vying for spots on the team’s main roster this season.
The architect of this year’s team, much like the club’s last 12 seasons, is head coach and general manager Mike Reagan. Following a flurry of signings and deals in the offseason, the team’s opening night roster is starting to take shape.
That roster will include some big turnover from last year’s squad - and not just with players aging out of junior hockey.
Out of the team’s top 10 scorers from last year, only two remain - Donavan Houle-Villeneuve and Caleb Franklin. Captain Nate Hooper, sniper Brandson Hein, the energetic Daylan Marchi and Caleb Moretz and a plethora of other scoring forwards are gone from the program, along with five regular defencemen.
In replacing the skill from years past, Reagan said the team’s style will likely change for this season. Out goes the extreme speed and skill – in goes a focus on “crash and bang” hockey.
“If you look at our team last year, our firepower up front was pretty scary, very skilled,” said Reagan, shortly before the sessions began August 29.
“We’ve taken the approach this year that we want to be a tougher team to play against. I think we won’t be as flashy, but we’ll be as effective, more efficient.”
That change doesn’t mean a return to old Flin Flon hockey stereotypes, of goons, brawls and gongshows - instead, it means a return to being plain old hard to play against.
“We know what this community is all about, as far as the style of hockey that they appreciate, the type of players they appreciate. I think we’ve assembled a team that is maybe more to the tradition of a typical Flin Flon Bomber team, but in saying that, we have some skilled guys like Donavan Houle-Villeneuve who are also physical. We have guys who can play a skilled game, but are a little rough around the edges in some aspects.”
One of the team’s most intriguing new faces comes from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). Twenty-year-old forward Cole Rafuse comes to Bomber camp from the Acadie-Bathurst Titan, less than two years removed from winning a Memorial Cup with the team and mere months away from serving as the team’s captain.
Rafuse, a one-time major junior teammate of former Bomber Gabriel Waked, played four seasons in the QMJHL. In 66 games last year with the Titan, the Kentville, N.S. product tallied 16 goals and 31 points, enough to lead the rebuilding club in goals and come second in points.
“He’ll be playing with us this year,” said Reagan.
“He’s got four years in Quebec major junior, he was the captain of his team last year. We’re pretty excited about that.”
Other names of note at camp include a smattering of young Flin Flon-born players, including defender Jordan Pfoh and goalie Rylan Potkonjak, as well as 20-year-old forward Peter White, the grandson of Bomber legend Bobby Clarke. White spent last year in the Central Canada Hockey League (CCHL) in Ontario, tallying 16 points in 55 games.
The main storylines heading into camp for the roster aren’t as much about who’s playing - they’re about who’s not.
Forwards Chrystopher Collin and Alec Cokley are both eligible to return, but neither appear likely to play for the Bombers this year. Cokley will suit up this year with the North American Hockey League (NAHL)’s Minnesota Wilderness. The Wilderness’ coaching staff includes now-former Bomber scout Brendan Phelps, Cokley’s midget coach.
As for Collin, who has committed to play at Bowling Green University next season, he will try to find a foothold in the United States Hockey League (USHL). It will be the second year in a row Collin will miss the Bombers’ camp to pursue opportunities elsewhere. Last season, Collin tried out for the Acadie-Bathurst Titan, but didn’t make the cut and joined the Bombers once the season had already started.
“Now that can go one of two ways - he could be there the entire season, he could end up joining us later. We’ll see with that one,” said Reagan.
“I think there are five or six [players] that were eligible to return that are going to be playing somewhere else.”
Other changes include the departure of playoff MVP Waked, who was dealt to the BCHL’s Trail Smoke Eaters, and Vincent Nardone, who was also traded to the BCHL’s Penticton Vees. Nardone led all Bomber rookies with 39 points in 56 games.
Waked’s deal out of town leaves a spot in the crease open for one of five goaltending hopefuls, aside from returning goalie Jacob Delorme. Delorme, who won his spot with the team last year after a last-man-standing duel with six other goalies, will have five goalies auditioning in a similar showdown to back him up, including Flin Flon product Potkonjak and ex-Shattuck St. Mary’s goalie J.P. Mella.
The Bombers aren’t just undergoing changes on the ice. Long-time assistant coach and assistant general manager Garry Childerhose is out, taking over the head coach and GM role for the Kindersley Klippers.
A number of the team’s scouts have changed, with former Bomber Dwayne Rhinehart joining the team’s scouting group along with a handful of other help. The only returning scout for the team is head scout Jon Klassen.
Regardless of the personnel or players, Reagan’s goal heading into camp each year is the same - to win an SJHL title. This year marks 26 years since the Bombers last won a league championship and Reagan is conscious of the drought. While Reagan is now the longest-tenured coach in Bomber franchise history, the streak has not been snapped on his watch.
“Unfortunately, we haven’t fulfilled those goals and expectations from the beginning of the year - but we like our team,” he said.
“I think once we get everybody here from the WHL, the potential to be extremely good is there. We’ve got a lot of irons in the fire, where if this guy comes back or this guy, it’s exciting. Either way, we feel we have a deep roster. Some of the guys who signed early on are going to have to fight for positions on the team.”