By Darren Lum
It’s been a few years, but local boys Ryan Hall and Joe Boice are looking forward to playing a full season together for the first time since winning the OMHA championship while playing for the Highland Storm as peewees in 2015.
The pair are excited about being able to live and play at home where friends and family will be able to watch and cheer for them while playing for the Ontario Junior Hockey League’s Haliburton County Huskies at the S.G. Nesbitt Memorial Arena in Minden.
Hall said the opportunity to play in the Highlands was an exciting prospect after being away for all of his junior hockey career, which brought him to the Whitby Fury – who will be rebranded as the Huskies – via trade last season.
The Haliburton player with two years of experience in the OJHL, having played for the Lindsay Muskies and the Trenton Golden Hawks, listed several advantages of playing for the Huskies.
“Just living at home. Just kind of playing in front of a hometown crowd for once. Just being close to the rink and not having to billet anywhere,” he said. “It just felt good because I’d been away a long time playing hockey every year. It’s been a while since I played here and lived here in the winter.”
He loves hockey and always wanted to play major junior hockey and make it to the NHL, but he has accepted this could be his final year of playing and he appreciates getting to finish at home and having the opportunity to mentor younger players.
“I guess playing in front of people that I know. Even like younger kids that are inspired to be at the level that me and all the other people that are on the team some day … inspiring little kids. Just helping out in the community is nice too because every other team I’ve been on we’ve done a lot of stuff. It’s nice to help out and give back and go into the schools. Or go on the ice with the younger kids and staff. I always thought that would be nice,” he said.
Hall remembers how hockey fandom here can reach a feverish pitch, particularly during a championship run.
“When I played high school hockey there was always a lot of fans and when I was in [peewee] we won the all-Ontario [championship] with the Storm. It was crazy. Minden and Haliburton arena were both packed every game. It was really amazing,” he said.
That was the last full season he played with his friend, Boice.
“We haven’t got to play since that time together when we won the championship. It’s nice to have hometown guys. Guys that know the area. Knows the experience of Haliburton … show Haliburton County experience to everybody and show what Haliburton County is about,” he said.
Boice, who signed with the team as a free agent last season, played seven games [regular and playoffs] due to a shortened season because of COVID-19. He left an impression on the coach and his teammates for his imposing size at well over 6-feet tall and his physicality, but also his sense of humour.
“He likes to play that physicality game, which is nice. He’ll stick up for any teammate and he’ll start that learning process of being a junior A hockey player … he obviously had a taste. We check in with him all the time. He’s working out with Owen Flood in his home gym right now and is putting in the time needed to be ready for training camp come August,” Hall said.
Off and on the ice Boice has exhibited a strong work ethic, he adds.
Boice has shown to get along with the other players, making everyone smile.
“Joe’s a funny kid. He keeps spirits flowing and happy. He is a character kid for sure. All the older guys thought he was pretty funny last year when he came in,” he said.
The team’s head coach and GM Ryan Ramsay said this season presents a unique opportunity for the two local players to not just play a high level of hockey, but also to do it at home.
“At their home centre I don’t think they would really have imagined it a year ago, or six months ago. I’m sure they are excited getting to play in front of their hometown crowd,” he said.
Boice said “It’s a dream come true playing for your home team.”
The 18-year-old from West Guilford, who played a season for the Red Hawks has aspirations to take his skills to college level hockey.
After his short stint with the Fury (now Huskies), he said there was a level of comfort that he reached in his rookie year and will be able to carry forward to this season.
He hopes with a junior team in the Highlands it will inspire younger players to work towards playing in the league.
“I just want to see kids in the community playing good hockey,” he said.
His role-models growing up were current NHL player Matt Duchene and retired NHL player Bernie Nicholls.
Team owner Paul Wilson said adding the local players to the roster was important for the fan connection, but was also related to the character they both possessed, which fit with the team culture.
“We want these kids to be gentlemen. We want them to be educated because a lot of them are playing for us when they could play in the OHL, but they want scholarships to US universities. I think the community is going to find that these guys are all gentleman. They’re serious. They’re not out there partying. They’re wrapped up in the hockey 100 per cent,” he said.
Ramsay said the two local players were chosen for their skills on the ice and their character off of it.
Ramsay called Hall a “great kid” that works hard, possesses a strong skill set, and displays strong hockey IQ.
“He’s blossomed into a really good OJHL defenceman,” he said. “He has great character. He’s a quiet kid, but he leads by example on the ice and off the ice, which is obviously a great [characteristic] to have from a coaching perspective.”
This will be Hall’s third year in the league, so the coach said he’ll be looked upon for leadership and to help with the newer players. Being local, Hall will also be expected to educate the visiting players about the culture and what life is like here in the Highlands.
At first glance, the two additional years of experience doesn’t seem like much, but there is a maturation process that occurs, as far as playing and how to cope.
“From minor hockey to junior, it’s a big jump. I think it takes at least 20 games for a player to adapt and then you’re really going to see if he’s junior ready. It’s a big jump to go from. The big thing is offensive players in minor hockey are used to being the big man on campus. When you come up you’re playing against guys that are two to four years older than you that might have 50 or 60 pounds on you, so it’s more of a man’s game, or mature game where – body contact is a big part in our league, puck possession – they just don’t win those battles, really, when they first come up until they can learn to play bigger or play in the grey areas in those corners,” he said.
He adds the greatest jump from minor to junior to overcome is in the defensive zone.
Ramsay said the anticipation of being able to play in front of hundreds of people is exciting.
“It’s everything. When you play in front of a packed crowd obviously emotions run higher. Energy level gets up as well. It’s exciting to play in front [of a crowd]. Coming from Whitby, we obviously didn’t have a crowd. It’s not a good atmosphere to play in. To watch a game with an empty crowd you can hear a pin drop. There’s no atmosphere. There’s no game day experience for the fan coming in,” he said.
He adds a large fan presence can affect how the opposing team plays.
“When we go to Wellington, Trenton. You know when the crowd is loud, and you know, the team is feeding off the fan’s energy, it really plays that sixth man factor … which I’m excited to be part of and get up here and get going on the ice,” he said.
During the season, he adds, its challenging to be up for every game, particularly after a road trip.
The fans can help raise the spirits and create momentum when team energy is low.
Ramsay and Wilson will be facilitating a variety of outreach opportunities for the players to connect with the community, whether it’s to help bag groceries at the local supermarkets, autograph sessions, pickup ball hockey games, or help minor hockey teams any way they can, which can include instruction or just collecting pucks.
These efforts, Ramsay said, can help with encouraging more children to play and can have a mutual benefit for the children, who gain a role-model to look up to and the players, who get a sense of giving back to the community.
As a nine-year-old, he remembers skating with the Wexford Raiders during a warmup before a game.
“I was starstruck. You know mouth open, sitting next to a player getting dressed in the dressroom to go out and skate around the rink and stand on the red line for the national anthem. I’ll never forget that,” he said. “I even remember the guy’s name, which years later I played with in the American Hockey League with a guy that was on that team. He was laughing because I said the name … he said that guy probably only played 10 games that year and then quit hockey. But I thought he was Wayne Gretzky. The guy was nice. He gave me a pat on the butt and talked to me, which I was just starstruck and probably found out maybe 15 years later he wasn’t a good hockey player. Obviously, he was a good person.”
Wilson emphasized this hockey team venture isn’t about making money.
He asks the community to show its support through ticket sales and sponsorships to ensure the team is viable.
“If there is any money left over, we’re going to use it to make the team better the next year. To have a really good team … the older players aren’t going to pay, so we have to work some financial deal with them to get them to come. That’s the only way to have a good team. It’s important for the public to realize that this isn’t a profitable thing for me,” he said.
He adds the projected costs for the dressing room has grown to close to $200,000 because of the requirement to have an engineer and architect for the redesign of the space.
Close to Belleville, the Wellington Dukes are similar to Haliburton County and is being used as a model because of its ability to operate and for the similar market size for success, Wilson said. They will see upwards of 600 people attending their games.
Although the Highlands community can’t match the population of larger centres such as Trenton, this community has shown its ability to punch above its weight.
Within a few days, there were 60 season tickets sold. This is in stark contrast to the team’s past home location of Whitby where there weren’t any sold.
“But the community spirit here is such that I think between the sponsors, the interest in the team and people that will come to the game, I still think it can work, so we’re going to give a shot and see,” he said.
Ramsay said learning about the sale of dozens of season memberships is reason to be optimistic and appreciative for the support.
“We’re really happy that the community is supporting it already. We’re excited to get going and thankful to everyone, who has helped us along way so far,” he said.
For more information about season tickets, merchandise, sponsorship and volunteering see the team website www.huskieshockey.ca.