Bulldogs open season Saturday

Section: 
Sports

By Josh Howald

What better way is there to kick off the season than a rematch of last year's league championship final - at home?

The Kincardine Bulldogs celebrate Dalton Hnatko's overtime goal in Game 7 of the last year's league finals in Walkerton. (Independent file photo/Howald)

 

There isn't a better way, and that's the way the season will begin Saturday night for the Nicol Insurance Kincardine Bulldogs.

The Western Junior C League has a new name - the Pollock Division of the Provincial Junior Hockey League (named after Kincardine natives Clarke and Kevin) - but the teams are the same and Kincardine is the defending league champion. Last season the Bulldogs knocked off Walkerton in dramatic fashion, coming back from a 3-1 series deficit and 3-0 hole in Game 7 of the league finals to win an overtime thriller in Walkerton.

Many of the players who played in that seventh game have moved on, either too old or to another level of hockey. But there are still enough players on both teams who played in that game, and this rivalry is alive and well.

Bulldogs head coach Shawn Burrows said he finalized his roster following an exhibition game Monday in Dorchester. The Bulldogs lost that preseason contest 8-3 to the Dolphins but came home with a few new players on roster.

Malcolm Young, a goaltender from Orangeville, signed with the team. He last played for the Delisle Junior B Chiefs of the Prairie Junior Hockey League in Saskatchewan in 2014-15. He and Craig Luinstra will guard the Kincardine net this season.

"Both are capable of being number ones," said Burrows. "They are going to push each other all year. I feel we have two very good goaltenders."

He said he hadn't yet decided who will start Saturday night's game, but signs point towards Luinstra getting the first start of the season.

Another big pick-up for Kincardine was the acquisition of Jesse Gunn. Kincardine had a fourth overage card available, but no returning player to use it on. Kincardine used OA cards on Dalton Hnatko, Tyler Fregona and KMHA grad Mike Osadca. The Erin Shamrocks of the Georgian Bay Mid-Ontario League applied for, and were granted, a one-year leave of absence from operations. Gunn was to be an overage player for the Shamrocks and was permitted by the PJHL to sign with the Bulldogs. He registered 32 points in 33 games last year.

"We're looking for him to provide us with some more offence," said Burrows. "He scored 21 goals last year in Erin. We had an OA spot available so we picked him up - he signed with us and played Monday in Dorchester."

Prior to Monday's game, the 'Dogs had a dozen players carded. That included several returning players like Kincardine's Derrick Bernath, Keegan McLelland and Brett Burrows. Luinstra and Grant Stevens, who both played for the midgets last season, have also been signed. Robert White, Brady Richards, Keegan Angel, Hunter Robbins-Gibbons, Zach Freiburger and Jordan Van Haelemeesch are all back with the club. New additions include Logan Swanton, Tyler Sutter and Mike Fiegehen.

Monday's loss to the Dolphins left the Bulldogs with a 2-4 record in preseason exhibition play.

Walkerton, meanwhile, went 3-0 in the preseason. That includes two wins in Kincardine at the Bulldogs exhibition tournament. The Hawks waxed the Exeter Hawks 8-0 on Friday in their final preseason tune-up. League scoring champion Lauchlin Elder is back for another season with Walkerton and will be looking to improve upon his league-best 63 points in 36 games last year. Once again, the Hawks line-up is heavily infused with Owen Sound area skaters. Walkerton officially opens the regular season on Friday night at home against the Hanover Barons.

Overall, the PJHL's Pollock Division should be one of parity again this year. The Mitchell Hawks are likely to be the most improved team in the league. Mitchell made some key acquisitions in the off-season after a disappointing 2014-15 campaign. Mount Forest, Wingham and the Hanover Barons should all once again have strong teams so things are essentially wide open at this point - though Goderich will once again occupy the basement. The teams will again play a 36-game regular season schedule.

There are two other Saturday night games this weekend. Mount Forest will be in Goderich and Wingham will travel to Hanover. On Sunday, the Wingham Ironmen will head to Mitchell for an evening game.