By Josh Howald
The ‘Dogs are turning 20, and all they want is a Western Junior C Hockey League crown.
Keegan McLelland of the Nicol Insurance Kincardine Bulldogs is pokechecked during a shootout with Dorchester Saturday during a preseason exhibition tournament in Kincardine.
Kincardine’s Junior C franchise is no longer a teenager, and would like something a little more than an anniversary to celebrate. Kincardine won back-to-back league titles in 2007 and 2008 – but Walkerton upset them in 2009, and hasn’t looked back. Walkerton will be seeking a seventh straight Western Junior C League championship this year (which isn’t’ even a record, surprisingly enough. The Hanover Barons won nine straight titles beginning in 1984).
Don’t be shocked if the Bulldogs end up with a few surprise “birthday gifts” in the form of players as this season progresses. Make no mistake, having a winning team this year is a priority for the Nicol Insurance Kincardine Bulldogs.
“We want to win,” said captain Brett Catto. “And we’re going to build the team to do it.”
Catto is just a couple of years removed from the Ontario Hockey League, and the Kincardine native led these ‘Dogs in a jump from fifth place to second place in his first season of Junior C hockey. Wooed away from Elmira of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League, Catto finished third in league scoring with 32 goals and 40 assists in just 32 games. He had a team-best five game winning goals, and added 88 minutes in penalties. Although he is best with his mean streak on display, head coach Jeff Alcombrack will be pleading with Catto, and the rest of his troops, to stay out of the penalty box. The Bulldogs must find a way to stay on the ice – they had 905 PIMS last year – way more than any team, excluding the now defunct Goderich Sailors.
Cody Britton, left, and Brett Catto both return to the line-up. (Independent file photo)
Catto will be joined by his linemate Cody Britton. Britton had 27 goals and 51 points in his first season in Kincardine, including a team-best eight on the man advantage. Kincardine will be more than a one-line team however, as the Lucknow trio of Tanner Simpson (17-32-49), Joel Alton (16-17-33) and Jamie Miller (10-19-29) returns for the 2013-14 campaign.
“We made major improvements last year, and we’ve done the same this year,” said Catto. “We’re an exciting, fast paced, hard hitting hockey team, and we’ll do anything and everything to win.”
Also returning from last year’s team is Port Elgin’s Dave Mercer and Colin Whitfield, Mike Sharpe, Ayton’s Mike Smailes, Teeswater’s Paul Lamont, Ripley’s Shawn Stewart and Kincardine centreman Gerrit Satosek. Luke Czuczman, picked up at the deadline from Walkerton, will join the blue line, as will Kincardine’s Matt Baker. Baker played for Wingham last season on a one-year release. Kincardine has also affiliated defencemen Carter Strachan and Spencer Harris of Ripley, as well as Kincardine forward Keegan McLelland.
The biggest change will be between the pipes. Gatlin Burt is done with junior, and his absence will be noticed. Burt was easily the best goaltender in the West over the past couple seasons, but his penchant for being suspended was unparalleled. Kincardine acquired Mitch Campbell (9-13-1-1) from Hanover, with help from Kincardine’s new head scout, Brad Watson. Watson had been the acting GM of the Barons, who could be in for a long season.
Coming off a 12-22-2 regular season where they finished behind Mount Forest for the first time in more than a decade, the Barons have no (0) overage players returning. It should get interesting to see if Hanover can continue to be tough at home if nobody is there to watch. The Barons were 2-15 on the road last year, and there are no guaranteed wins this year – Goderich is gone.
The Sailors were 1-34-1, easily the worst Junior C time in the province. The franchise has taken a one-year leave of absence, which usually spells doom for any club. Mount Forest made a huge leap in the standings last year, beating each of the big boys once and finishing with a .500 record. The Pats will continue to improve. However, this year’s wild West is likely to be a three-team race – four if the Mitchell Hawks stock up on Stratford Cullitons looking for an extra season of junior.
The hockey was good last year, with great parity among the teams. The Bulldogs finished eight points back of Walkerton, while just one point separated Wingham and Mitchell in second and third place. They, along with Kincardine, will be trying to catch the Hawks, who are seeking a sixth straight league championship and are coming off a 28-5-3 regular season. Watch for Walkerton to add 6’4” Brett Coulson this week. The Port Elgin native played for the Burlington Tier II Junior A Cougars of the Ontario Junior Hockey League last season.
OHA Player of the Year Aaron Armstrong had 124 points in 35 games last year, a new Western Junior C record. (Independent file photo)
You can’t count out Wingham. Aaron Armstrong – OHA Junior C Player of the Year – is back for his final season of Western League hockey. It will be pretty tough to cap last year (50 goals, 74 assists for 124 points in 35 games, a new league record), but he will try. Kincardine native Keegan Woodman will watch the Ironmen’s net, while Ripley defenceman Greg Scott rejoins the Wingham defence corps. Scott, of course, is coming off a nasty shattered kneecap after being hit with a Garrett Simmons wrister last season.
The fun all begins Friday night at the Davidson Centre in Kincardine. The 20th annual home opener begins at 7:30 p.m. and has the ‘Dogs attached to play the Mount Forest Patriots, who some think will contend for a top-three spot this year.
“We’re looking forward to playing in front of our crowd Friday,” said Catto. “We have great hometown support.
Elsewhere Friday night, the Mitchell Hawks will travel to Hanover while the Ironmen will kick the season off in Walkerton against the Hawks. Those games start at 8 p.m. and 8:20 p.m., respectively.
Saturday night, Walkerton visits Hanover and Wingham is in Mount Forest. Kincardine’s next game after the home opener is Friday, Sept. 20 at home against Mitchell.