For hockey fans, it’s like Christmas in August. The Flin Flon Bombers are heading into their 91st season with a Canalta Cup in their sights.
Sixty-one players arrived at the Whitney Forum last week, aiming for a spot on the team’s 23-man roster. The competition is stiff, with more than 11 players coming back from last year’s team, but spots are open in some key areas.
Two of the team’s top players from last season, Brandson Hein and Nate Hooper, will return, along with most of the Bombers’ defence and forward core.
When asked what his goal for this season was, Mike Reagan, Bombers head coach and general manager was blunt.
“Win a championship,” he said.
“We feel that we’re going to be one of the teams that will have a shot. A lot has to happen for sure, but having a lot of the core players develop last year, and having guys like Brandson Hein will be huge. He might be the top player in the league. Him and Hooper could very well be those guys.”
While having two of the team’s most high-powered stars return, the makeup of the team isn’t as clear as it may have been earlier this summer. Multiple players eligible to return from last year’s squad have not made the trip north of 54.
Forwards Dylan Burton and Ethan Daniels, who impressed during their rookie seasons last year, are unlikely to return for this season. Daniels, who battled injuries in the tail end of last season, will attend school this fall, according to Reagan.
Defenseman Alex Lindstrom is also not likely to come back. Reagan said Lindstrom was joining an NCAA Division III school, although no public announcement or confirmation had been made.
The Bombers will maintain the junior A rights of each player for the moment. It’s a strategy that has paid off in the past – when top forward Brett Boehm left the Univ. of Minnesota-Duluth in 2014, he came back to the Bombers and became a key part of the team’s offence.
“Hopefully we can get off to a really good start and he sees the opportunity to be a part of a really good team who’s going to contend this year. We’ve had that happen before – Boehm went out to Minnesota-Duluth and came back halfway through the year, and we’ve had other guys in similar situations who decided the passion to play is still there,” said Reagan.
Perhaps the most curious case is that of Chrystopher Collin. Last season, the Quebecois forward was sensational at times for the Bombers, leading the team in goals as an 18-year-old rookie and being named to several top prospect showcases. Earlier this offseason, Collin announced he was committing to the NCAA’s Bowling Green Falcons for the 2020/21 season and Reagan said Collin would return to Flin Flon earlier this summer.
That plan has now changed.
Collin has since left behind both his scholarship deal and the Bombers, heading instead to the training camp for the Acadie-Bathurst Titan of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). Collin had already taken part in multiple games and scrimmages during the camp, nullifying his NCAA eligibility.
One of the issues at play in Collin’s decision to change course was schooling, said Reagan. Collin, a Francophone, would have to take college-level courses and write an SAT exam in English this year, then attend Bowling Green exclusively in English.
“He just felt it was going to be really difficult for him to get through. He’d have to take some college courses this year and write the SAT – trying to graduate through Bowling Green could be difficult for him. He thought it was a better option for him and to each their own – it’s his hockey career and it’s his life. He’s more than entitled to make that decision for himself,” said Reagan.
“It was tough to swallow. We worked really hard for Chrys and you’d like to think he’d return the favour by putting in the effort, but it’s difficult and we’re not in his shoes. He’s a French speaker and getting through school is tough enough without not knowing the language.”
In addition, Collin had previously been invited to a QMJHL training camp with the Drummondville Voltigeurs in 2016 that may have complicated his scholarship status.
“Chrys would have to jump through some hoops to be eligible to go to Bowling Green, so he decided to take a look at Quebec major junior and was able to land on with a team,” said Reagan.
“We wish him all the best. Being selfish, we’d love to see him back here at some point, but you never know.”
The Bombers will maintain Collin’s junior A rights.
With a likely top-line forward out of the picture for now, a high profile roster spot is now up for grabs. Reagan expects players to fight hard for the position.
“That’s giving them a better opportunity to play more valuable minutes. With that, there’s opportunity. I think they’ve got to be excited about that. There’s going to be some growing pains, but I think they’ll do just fine,” he said.
Forwards Mike Wong and Brody Madarash were traded in separate deals, netting the team forward Jessie Young from the rebuilding Humboldt Broncos and goalie Pierce Diamond from the Lloydminster Bobcats. One other player from last season’s club, Rob Johnson, was confirmed to be not returning back in May. No players are currently expected to join the Bombers after leaving major junior camps.
To fill the voids left by some of the non-returning players, Reagan and the Bombers’ scouting staff have looked for new blood. Reagan believes he’s found some, in the form of some of the team’s 11 offseason signees.
Forwards Vincent Nardone and Alec Cokley, an undersized but talented Quebecois playmaker and a Colorado-based product of the same midget team that produced Bombers Calvon Boots and Caleb Moretz, have earned high praise from Reagan.
“We feel he has the capabilities of hopefully being like Collin was last year. Very skilled, good speed, heavy shot, good compete level,” he said of Nardone.
Reagan also compared Cokley to Moretz. “He’s another guy from the US who’s been a high-end recruit for us. Highly skilled, similar to Caleb Moretz. We’re really high on him.”
Two defensemen, Newfoundlander Paul Norman and Manitoba midget star Ryder Richmond have also caught Reagan’s eye. The coach said Norman “has huge upside,” while adding the group was “excited about” Richmond.
In addition, Reagan voiced his pleasure with new prospects Reid Robertson, Billy Klymchuk and Brady Morrison, as well as forward Matt Flodell, who played for the Bombers in last year’s playoffs as an affiliate player.
The team’s goaltending situation is currently in the wind. A total of nine different goaltenders have entered camp, with no returning netminders from last season coming back for this season. Starter Brenden Newton has aged out of junior hockey and will join Northlands College in Minnesota this season, while returnees Niklas Anderson or Colten Lancaster have not reported to camp.
So far, Reagan said Diamond is most likely to earn the starting position, but said other prospects – including Flin Flonner Jeremy Dutcawich – could also contend for crease time.
Dutcawich played the last two seasons with the Yellowhead Chiefs midget AAA club, suiting up with Richmond last season. No goalie in the Manitoba league won more games, had more shutouts or played more minutes last season than Dutcawich, who finished with 22 wins, four shutouts, and more than 2,285 minutes in the crease – more than 38 hours in total. The 18-year-old has a chance of becoming the first Flin Flon-born goalie to stick with the team longterm in decades.
“It should be an interesting race and competition between nine guys,” said Reagan.
Other netminders at camp include Jacob Delorme, a goalie from Drummondville, Que. who split last season between a high school team in New York and a junior club in Quebec, and Hunter Young, a rookie camp signee who played last season in the Alberta midget AAA ranks.