The boys of winter are back.
Training camp opened up for the Flin Flon Bombers last week, bringing in a long list of players eager to don the famed maroon and white.
Out of the team’s 50-player list, 47 players came to camp - injured Cole Vardy, recent bantam draft pick Jack Bechard and Adam Victorino, who is unable to enter Canada due to the national border closure, didn’t attend.
“This has been the most listed players that we’ve had at a camp during my time coaching here,” said Bombers head coach and general manager Mike Reagan.
This year’s camp was different due in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic. There were no halfway measures. Members of the public weren’t allowed into the Whitney Forum during camp - only team staff and a small number of arena workers, media and family members could be seen off-ice. Mask use inside the rink was mandatory for those in the stands and outside dressing rooms. Players from eastern provinces - namely, goalie Cal Schell and forward prospect Nathan Gagne - each self-isolated in Saskatoon for weeks before coming north. Inside the dressing rooms, social distancing was enforced. Every player underwent a temperature screening when entering the rink.
While the on-ice sessions continued, the structure was changed. A three-team tournament with smaller groups took the place of some typical camp fare, with those three teams smaller than similar groups have been before.
Despite the changes, everyone appears to have taken things in stride.
“I’ll be honest with you, this is going a lot better than I thought it was going to go,” said Reagan.
“Maybe it’s kids these days, they’re just relentless and understanding that this is just the way it is. I thought I’d have a problem with making sure guys are wearing their masks and I haven’t. Guys have been great at it. They’ve been better than I have been, to be honest.”
On the door of his office, Reagan has a list of traits coaches don’t like seeing in players - laziness, selfishness or being overly concerned with their own stats among them.
This year’s class of future Bombers, Reagan believes, don’t tick those suspect boxes.
The coming crew of Bombers will include an almost completely new defence out of camp. Only one returning defenceman, Ryder Richmond, will be ready to go to start the season. Other possible returnees including Jack Michell and Jaxon White have left the organization and Victorino can’t travel to Flin Flon.
One key player, Vardy, is injured and will likely be out of the lineup until the new year. On top of that, the Nova Scotia native would likely need to self-isolate for two weeks before being able to play.
“It's not a quick recovery,” said Reagan of the sophomore defender’s injury.
“I really feel bad for Cole. He had a tremendous season as a rookie last year and we were extremely excited about what he could do this year, in a much more prominent role. He played in our top four at the end of last year and he was going to be a top two defenceman for us, maybe our number one.”
That leaves the door open to a new group of D recruits, including highly touted Saskatchewan prospects Noah Kuntz and Marek Schneider, Richmond’s younger brother Reece, Flin Flonner Jordan Pfoh, B.C. imports Colin Jennings and Ayden Lane and Manitoba products Lucas Fry and Ethan McColm.
“We're extremely excited about the young guys that we have. We think there's a lot of talent there. There's going to definitely be some ups and downs, there's going to be some rocky moments, but those rocky moments are going to be great for the overall development of those players,” Reagan said.
Through the lineup, this year’s Bombers club has been hurt by the departures of several possible returnees. Forward Tristan Lemyre, a likely frontrunner for the league’s most valuable player if he returns, seems poised to stay with an American junior club. Goalie Jacob Delorme, still eligible to return for a third season in the Flon, will play USports hockey with Concordia. Only two of the team’s top eight scorers from last year - the Haygarth twins - are likely to come back.
“Up front, there’s going to be a dogfight to be in the lineup. That’s what the exhibitions are all about, that’s what the first 10 games are all about. I really like the depth of our forward group. There are some guys who are not going to be in the lineup every night who deserve to be, but we’ve always had the philosophy that if you want to be part of a championship calibre team, there’s sacrifices you need to make,” said Reagan.
“We’re looking for guys who are winners and who want to be winners. In order to do that, there’s sacrifice. Winners believe in the good of the team. We’re looking for those types of players.”
For Bomber fans skittish about the changes, Reagan's message can be summed up thus -
‘why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?’
“I’ve been doing this a long time and we haven’t had too many poor teams,” he said.
To offset the outgoing players, Reagan and the team’s scouting dragnet have pulled up some interesting catches - ex-WHL forward Zach Huber, for example, will play with the Bombers this season. A strong offseason recruiting class includes Gagne, Saskatchewan snipers Mackenzie Carson and Cole Duperreault, Manitoba product Drayden Kurbatoff and others joining nine returnees from last season. Other players, including local product Justin Lies, joined the team knowing they will not play for the Bombers - Lies, for instance, will not play due to a ruling that players under deals with WHL teams, such as Lies, cannot play junior A games while waiting for the WHL season to start.
“We’re missing Tristan Lemyre. That’s a huge loss for anybody, but we’ve gained Zach Huber. I’m not saying that he’s going to outscore Lemyre, but we’ve seen the impact Cole Rafuse had on our team last year and we’re expecting the same impact from him,” Reagan said.
There are plenty of questions left unanswered heading into camp, most of which can’t be answered by the Bombers themselves.
One that can be answered is whether more new faces will come north. Reagan is no stranger to bringing in new talent mid-camp - for instance, acquiring future Sherwood division player of the year Alec Malo last season. When asked if he had any surprises in store, Reagan played coy.
“I don’t know if I should reveal my surprises,” he said.
“Let’s just say that we’re not done making adjustments to this team.”
The SJHL still does not have a firm date for when the season may begin, even though almost every team has started training camp. Preseason games for the Bombers have not been completely confirmed - while games with Nipawin and La Ronge are likely, the Bombers are unable to confirm the dates. Possible exhibition games against the OCN Blizzard are also up in the air. No confirmation for those games will come before the league announces a firm start date.
Reagan said the league had held meetings last week - while he didn’t let the cat out of the bag as to what exactly was mentioned, he said he was hopeful.
“I got to be careful with what I say because there’s some confidentiality… I’ll say there’s a lot of positive information that, in the next couple weeks, we should be in a good position,” said the coach.