When the Barrie Colts take to the ice with the Niagara IceDogs on Thursday night at Sadlon Arena, it will mark the return to a sense of normalcy.
“I think for hockey in the whole, especially the OHL,” said Marty Williamson, who makes his official return behind the Barrie bench after his initial six-year stint with the Colts from 2004 to 2010.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought an early end to the 2019-20 season before wiping out the entire OHL schedule last year.
It’s been a long road back and the pandemic battle continues with OHL rinks only allowed 50 per cent capacity still, hockey has returned and the games matter now and no one is more excited Williamson said than his players.
“There’ll be jitters early, even from veterans and that,” said Williamson, who credits assistant coaches Chris Dennis and Taylor Carnevale with their work getting the team prepared through these difficult times. “Everyone’s going to be a little bit nervous.
“We play (Niagara) and then go into Hamilton and then everything is going to seem like normal. It turns into Groundhog Day, you practice, and you play.”
The Colts head into this season as one of the favourites along with the Kingston Frontenacs in the Eastern Conference.
The preseason edition of the CHL Top 10 Rankings has the Colts ranked fifth overall, one spot behind Shane Wright and the Frontenacs.
“It’s nice for me just stepping on the ice and seeing the talent we have or the energy we have, but we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us,” Williamson said. “The rankings are nice, but they’re not going to faze me whether we win the first seven games or lose some of the first seven games. We’re going to have a good hockey team here, and it’s just a building process now.
“How quickly things happen, sometimes it takes a little while, sometimes it happens right away. We know this team is going to be fine and going in the right direction.”
Williamson replaces long-time coach Dale Hawerchuk behind the bench after the Hall of Famer died of cancer last August.
While the Colts plan to recognize their former coach before Thursday night’s opener, a bigger celebration is planned for Dec. 16, just before the Christmas break.
“We all loved him, he was a great part of the organization,” Williamson said. “He cared so much about the organization and the community. I get the feeling he’s on my shoulder helping me and it’s going to be a big night.”
Here’s a look at how the Colts will lineup heading into the 2021-22 OHL regular season.
Barrie will head into the season with a trio of goaltenders in overager Tanner Wickware, recently acquired Matthew Sbrocca and rookie Matteo Lalama.
Williamson will look for one of the three to step up and grab the starting role.
“It really is wide open. It is the one area of the team that is unsettled,” he said. “We don’t have a clear picture. We’re going to go 20 games and let these guys play and find out what works best for us.”
Williamson hasn’t ruled out shopping for an experienced goalie if needed.
“It’s no different than anything,” he said. “If we think there’s a weakness to the team, then we have the assets (to make a deal). If we really believe this is a championship year for us and things head in that direction, then we can address anything whether it’s goaltending, defence, or forwards. We can address it all.”
The lost season hurt the development of all three.
Having both Lalama or Sbrocca show they can handle the goaltending duties would allow Barrie to dress its two overage forwards and defenceman.
“All these kinds of things factor in,” Williamson said. “No real difference to Wickware too, he’s been equal to that group. We all think they’re similar, but the approach you take with Wickware is that he’s a year older. His situation makes it a little bit tougher as the overage guy.
“We’re just looking for one of them to step up and give us a little consistency and give us a chance every night.”
The Colts cleared up some of their defensive and overage logjams with Williamson announcing Matthew Hill is no longer with the team.
Hill is going through a tryout with the American Hockey League and could end up in the East Coast Hockey League, if not there.
“If he comes back, we’ll put him up for trade and see what happens at that point,” the head coach said.
The Colts could also be without Los Angeles Kings first-round pick Brandt Clarke to start the season.
The star defender has missed almost three weeks recovering from mononucleosis, but was expected to be cleared to play this week after tests went well and found that both his spleen and liver were the proper size.
He had a light skate on Friday and Williamson isn’t sure whether he’s ready to return this week or next.
He said the team is not rushing anything.
“He tells me every day he’s ready to be in the lineup,” Williamson said, before laughing out loud. “Keeping Brandt out of the lineup is not an easy thing, I tell you that.”
Clarke and Nathan Allensen head a deep, talented group on the blue line that includes returnees Connor Punnett, Matthew Sredl, Ian Lemieux and top import pick Artur Cholach.
“The defence could be the strongest point of our team right now,” Williamson said.
Clarke and Allensen will provide plenty of offensive punch from the back end.
“We’ve been really impressed with Allensen,” the head coach said. “He’s had a good preseason and he looks like he’s ready to have a big year as an overager, and I think he can be one of the best ones in the league.”
Williamson is also excited about what he’s seen for Cholach. The Ukraine import provides size and a physical presence.
“I think he is going to be outstanding for us. We’re really happy with him,” Williamson said. “He needs a little bit of a learning curve, but the bones of what he brings to us is exactly what we need.”
One pleasant surprise at camp, said Williamson, was the play of Sredl. The rugged defender looks like he’s ready to take on a bigger role.
“We’re really proud of Sredl,” the head coach said. “He’s done a good job and has taken steps forward.”
Lemieux is one who will be relied upon for his defensive play.
“Lemieux looks like a real strong, shut down type of guy,” Williamson said.
In top picks Beau Akey, Barrie’s 19th overall selection, and Grayson Tiller, Williamson believes he has two future impact defenders.
Both are expected to go through the typical growing pains that young players go through and Williamson will have to see how they fit in.
“For Tiller to learn from some of the older guys we have is outstanding,” he said. “He’s someone that comes with a smile on his face every day to the rink. Akey is an exceptional talent and for him, he’ll be able to watch Brandt Clarke and see some of the things that he does.
“I’m really not worried about these young guys. They’re going to get their time and their future is extremely bright.
Former Saginaw top pick Punnett and Lake Worth, FL. free agent pickup David Burri give Barrie nine defenders Williamson says can play every night.
While he would like to trim that number down, the head coach said he’s in no rush.
“I think we’ll bide a little bit of time just because we know we’ll lose Clark for World Juniors,” he said. “We’ll probably lose him for a month. Cholach could also be playing (at Worlds).
“The extra body and injuries, you just don’t know. I think we’re going to be very patient. It’s a luxury we have and I know it’s not perfect for the players, but I think it’s going to be better for them in the long run too. I think being patient there is important.”
Despite the loss of leading scorer Tyson Foerster to the Philadelphia Flyers organization and Swedish import Oskar Olausson lighting it up in exhibition with the Colorado Avalanche, Williamson believes his club still has plenty of firepower.
San Jose Sharks prospect Ethan Cardwell and New York Rangers prospect Evan Vierling are expected to lead a solid group that includes overagers Nicholas Porco and Anthony Tabak along with returning forwards Jacob Frasca and Ryan Del Monte.
Rookie Hunter Haight is already being projected by scouts as a first-round NHL pick, while young forwards Beau Jelsma, Cooper Matthews and Chris Grisolia give Barrie plenty of skill upfront.
“We think we have a really nice mix of our older guys that can lead by example and then there’s the Jelsmas, the Haights and the Matthews’ and Grisolias. The depth of our team looks real strong.
“We’ll count on Cardwell, Tabak, Vierling and Porco to really set the example for this team and this forward group. I think we’ll be able to score goals.”
Williamson is hoping for a breakout year from Porco. He needs the veteran to be a leader upfront.
“He can’t be an average player,” he said of Porco. “He needs to be a player that makes an impact every night.
“He’s got the speed, he’s got the physical game to do it, I think he just needs some confidence.
“Maybe that’s what’s been lacking for him the last little while.”
Porco will be fit into a good role on the top line alongside Vierling and Cardwell.
“Him on the wing there, we believe that line of two 19-year-olds and a 20-year-old should be awfully good,” Williamson said. “We’re excited about those guys playing together.”
Williamson said he treats Haight already like a veteran, even though he hasn’t played a game in the league. Last year’s top pick, the highly-skilled forward impressed this summer with Hockey Canada and has shown great chemistry with Frasca.
Olausson, says Williamson, would be a great compliment on a line alongside Haight and Frasca.
The Colts head coach says Haight reminds him of former OHL star and current NHLer Ryan Strome, who broke out big for Williamson in Niagara in his second season with 33 goals and 106 points.
“Hunter’s probably as well-rounded a player,” the coach said. “His defensive zone coverage is outstanding and that’s what gives you a real good feel about playing him a lot is that you’re not sacrificing.
“Sometimes with younger guys they struggle a little bit more defensively, but Hunter seems to have that well taken care of.”
Del Monte battled injuries and a steep learning curve as a rookie two years ago, but a strong camp and invite to Toronto Maple Leaf’s camp has boosted his confidence. Williamson is confident he’s ready to have a big season in Barrie.
“He went to Leaf’s camp and got a taste of it and what it takes,” he said of the speedy forward. “He’s got NHL-type skill and he just needs to round out his consistency that he gives us that kind of work ethic.
“That’s what he’s given me through the exhibition. He’s stripping pucks from behind, he’s back-checking hard. Those are the things that if Ryan does that, added to his skill, he’s going to be a very effective player for us.”
Both Matthews and Jelsma missed a key year of development due to the pandemic, but Williamson said both have fit in well.
“Matthews, nothing really fazes him,” the coach said. “He’s a skilled guy. He wants to make plays and we love his confidence.”
“Jelsma is just that energizing bunny,” Williamson added. “He just plays hard, he plays fast and he can make plays. I think he’s going to be a fan favourite.”
Grisolia, a second-round pick this year, is coming off a strong camp. The talented centre had two goals and two assists in six exhibition games and Williamson was impressed how after taking a stick to the face, he got stitches and then returned to the ice with a strong effort.
“It really showed me something about his character. I was proud of him,” the head coach said. Sometimes with young guys that can throw them sideways a little bit and they can be out of the game, but he wasn’t that way at all.
“He was right back at there with a couple of stitches in his face and playing hard.”
Game time Thursday night against the IceDogs is 7:30 p.m.
feature image: Brandt Clarke, Terry Wilson – OHL Images