By Josh Howald
Local players will get a chance to show what they can do at the Junior C level this season, says Steve Stepaniak, who was named head coach of the Nicol Insurance Kincardine Bulldogs last week.
Steve Stepaniak with some hardware in 2012 as head coach of the Miller Insurance midgets. That team won an OMHA All-Ontario title and an International Silver Stick Championship. (Independent file photo/Josh Howald)
"One of my goals is to have more local guys (on the team)," said Stepaniak, who has coached the Miller Insurance Kincardine midgets for the last five seasons. "I'd like to see a lot of those midget players get a chance, and they will. If they can play, they will play. If they can't, well, we'll have to find some players who can."
Stepaniak was approached by General Manager Doug Kennedy last week after Jeff Alcombrack stepped down as head coach of the Western Junior C League hockey team due to work commitments. The Bulldogs were a combined 60-41-6 under Alcombrack, who is now working for Superheat FGH and couldn't promise he would be available to coach each weekend. Last season, Kincardine went 17-16-2 to finish fourth in the West. The Bulldogs swept Mitchell in the opening round before being eliminated by the Walkerton Hawks in the semi-finals in a series that needed all seven games, and included two 8-7 overtime defeats.
After five seasons with the Kincardine midgets, in which the team won three OMHA All-Ontario championships and played in four OMHA championship series, Stepaniak had been planning to take the winter off.
"It all happened pretty quick," said the 6'7" Stepaniak, who was also an assistant coach with the Bulldogs for two seasons prior to his run with the midgets. "If they had asked me the previous night, I probably would have said no. But it's going to be fun and I'm looking forward to it."
Stepaniak isn't inheriting a real deep Bulldogs roster. Kincardine's leadership group from last year has all graduated. Captain Brett Catto and assistants Tanner Simpson and Cody Britton are done with junior hockey - that's three of Kincardine's top four scorers. But last year's overage talent was a good one - other teams will lose star power as well. For example, Wingham's Aaron Armstrong and Walkerton's Drew Davidson are also done with junior hockey. It leaves the Western League wide open, says Stepaniak.
"I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think there was a chance of winning a title," he said. "Guys are going to have to step up. I'm going to be talking to the guys in the next couple of weeks and seeing what kind of role they each see themselves playing on this team.
He said this year's overagers will include goaltender Mitch Campbell, defencemen Mike Smailes and Colin Whitfield and forward Sam Feagan. Campbell had a solid, yet not spectacular season, with Kincardine last year after being lured away from the Hanover Barons last summer. This will be Smailes' fifth season in the league, joined on the back end by the oft-injured Whitfield. Whitfield is still a bit of a mystery, despite playing 22 games last year (1-2-3). Feagan (10-14-24) will be looked upon to carry more of the offensive load this winter. He provided good secondary scoring last year after joining Kincardine when Goderich took its one-year leave of absence. He has no plans to return to Goderich to play for his hometown Fliers, however, and will remain with the 'Dogs.
Rumours have been swirling that the Mount Forest Patriots will take a one-year leave of absence from the Western Junior C League. That would mean a new schedule and playoff format. It's curious timing for the Pats, as after more than a decade of futility, it seemed Mount Forest had finally turned the corner and was becoming a contender. But every team is now a contender, said Kincardine's new coach.
"Back when I played, the league was basically dominated by one or two teams," he said. "Any team can win on any night, and that's the new landscape. I think things are wide open right now."
Stepaniak plans on bringing in his own staff, including former teammate Dustin Catto. Catto has helped Stepaniak with the midgets in three of the last five seasons, and Catto has also coached minor hockey at the AAA level. He replaces his father, Paul Catto, who was an assistant coach to Alcombrack last year. Alcombrack's other assistant coach, Chris Dunlop, will assist the team in other capacities this season. Stepaniak said he hoped to secure another assistant coach in the next couple of weeks.
Training camp begins on Aug. 10. The Bulldogs will play a handful of exhibition contests and again host a preseason tournament at the Davidson Centre in Kincardine prior to the start of the 2014/15 Western Junior C League regular season, which is slated to open on Sept. 10. That, of course, could change if Mount Forest does drop out before the season begins.
"I think last season might have been a bit of a disappointment, and the goal is to get the Bulldogs back on top," said Stepaniak. "I'm looking forward to getting going."
In related news, former Walkerton Hawks coach Cory Hamilton will replace Stepaniak as coach of the Miller Insurance midget rep team.