This story was published in the Winter 2023 edition of Total Sports Quinte magazine
Story by Jeff Gard/Total Sports Quinte
Four members of the Wellington Dukes relished the opportunity to represent their country in international competition this past December.
Goaltender Ethan Morrow (Kingston, ON) and forward Matheson Mason (Newmarket, ON) were selected to play for the silver medal winning Team Canada East at the World Junior A Challenge in Cornwall, Ontario while head coach Derek Smith (Belleville, ON) and athletic therapist Leah Toffelmire (Trenton, ON) were named to the staff.
Smith, who was an assistant coach for Canada East, enjoyed the “amazing experience” in helping select 22 players from different leagues – Ontario Junior Hockey League (OJHL), Central Canada Hockey League (CCHL), Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League (NOJHL), LHJAAAQ from Quebec and the Maritime Hockey League (MHL) – to come together and compete as a team in international competition, something not a lot of players get to experience at the junior A level.
“It was pretty special,” Smith said. “I thought we had a great tournament. It took a little bit to get some chemistry to really get the team to gel but they did a good job coming together as a team and obviously winning a silver medal – it wasn’t our goal, our goal was to win gold – but all in all I think it was a successful tournament and a lot of the kids proved that they can compete with kids all over the world at this age.”
Team Canada East was joined in the World Junior A Challenge by their Canada West counterparts along with the United States, Sweden and Latvia.
The United States prevailed with a 5-2 victory over Canada East in the gold medal game on Sunday, Dec. 18.
Canada East trailed 2-0 after the first period before Mason got them on the board near the midway mark of the second and then Matthew Cato of the Quinte rival Trenton Golden Hawks tied the game later in the middle frame.
Morrow, who played in every Canada East game, was the busier of the two netminders in the final contest as he made 37 saves in a losing cause. He was outstanding the previous afternoon, stopping 37 of the 38 shots he faced in a 4-1 semifinal win over Canada West.
“Being able to wear the Team Canada jersey was nothing short of a dream come true,” Morrow, in his third season with the Dukes, said. “It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I was able to bond with players across eastern Canada that I may not have had the chance to. We grew closer as a group and although we were disappointed on being defeated in the gold medal game, we were proud of ourselves on earning silver.”
Smith said Morrow gave Canada East a chance to win every game.
“The semifinals against Canada West, he was lights out and he played really well in the finals – 2-2 with seven minutes left in the second period against Team USA, it was anybody’s game and he made some really big saves,” Smith remarked. “He, in my mind, was the best goaltender in the tournament. I think he played amazing and it’s going to set himself up very well for the second half and for our team here in Wellington. I know he opened up a lot of eyes for the next level.”
Smith also lauded the efforts of Mason, who is in his first season with the Dukes.
“He had a great tournament. He scored in the gold medal game to get us within one in the second and he was great on the penalty – a lot of energy – and he created a lot of offence with his legs and with his skillset. He was a big part of our forward group.
Mason was thrilled to be part of an “amazing” experience.
“It was amazing. Getting to wear the Team Canada uniform is a dream come true. I wouldn’t have been able to make it if it wasn’t for my family.”
Scoring a goal in the gold medal game, live on TSN, in front of an energized crowd was certainly a highlight, noting it “would probably be the number one goal in my career so far,” he added. “After scoring and not even being able to hear myself was just the best feeling of my life.”
Toffelmire congratulated the Cornwall volunteers and arena staff for such a well-run World Junior A Challenge that she was thrilled to be a part of.
“Working with Team Canada East was my first experience with international competition and to come home with a silver medal was really rewarding,” she said. “It was validating to know that my experience with the Dukes helped earn the trust of the players and coaching staff to keep the boys healthy and strong so that they could persevere through excellent competition.”
Smith said support staff like Toffelmire are essential to the success of any team.
“She worked so hard,” he said. “They are non-stop go pretty much 18 hours a day and she kept our guys healthy and she helped out around the locker room. I know she enjoyed the experience and we couldn’t have had the success we did without her.”
That’s no different back home, of course, with the Dukes.
“Realistically, she’s everything. She’s a rock, she’s amazing. She’s the best at our level,” Smith said. “I think if she wants the opportunity to move up, it will be there for her because she’s so good at what she does and most importantly she’s a really good person and good to be around every day.”
Smith was an assistant to Canada East head coach Billy McGuigan, who is also the longtime head coach of the Maritime Hockey League’s Summerside Western Capitals from P.E.I. Joining them as assistants on the staff were Mark Jooris from the OJHL’s Burlington Cougars and Kyle Markaric from the CCHL’s Ottawa Jr. Senators.
“It was a nice change,” Smith said. “I started my coaching career coaching the defence and that’s what I went back to. It was a lot different managing eight defencemen than most nights 12 forwards or even more (with the Dukes). It was a good experience to get back to the roots I suppose and it was a good experience for me to learn from some other coaches at this level that have been coaching for a lot longer than I have and that’s Mark Jooris and Billy McGuigan.”
He learned just as much from Markaric, who’s in just his second year coaching the Jr. Senators.
“It was nice to see other people and how they communicate and how they approach the game whether it’s practices, film, kind of the verbiage and lingo they talk about,” Smith said.
“For me it was a great learning experience to be able to sit down for two weeks and talk hockey. I was like a think tank for two weeks straight so it was great.”
Smith said a number of players put themselves on the radar of teams at higher levels of play.
“A lot of guys took the opportunity and made the most of it,” he said. “It’s going to help them out a lot individually, but most importantly we did something pretty special…and that’s to play for a gold medal for Team Canada East.”
One interesting aspect for the Dukes members was playing or coaching players they are used to playing against, especially OJHL East Division rivals like Cato from Trenton, Andy Reist and Adam Barone from the Cobourg Cougars and Patrick Saini from the Haliburton County Huskies.
“Any time you get to put on a Canada jersey it’s really special,” Smith said. “A lot of the guys have played against each other whether it’s in the OJ or the CC, Quebec, up north and out east. They get a chance to meet some new friends that I’m sure they’re going to cherish their relationships and stay in contact.”