Story by Jeff Gard
With the start of the Ontario Junior Hockey League regular season fast approaching, the coach of the Wellington Dukes wants his players to make the most of their final two exhibition games.
The Dukes, 2-2 during pre-season play, will host the Cobourg Cougars on Friday night at Lehigh Arena. Game time is 7:30 p.m. The two clubs will meet again Monday evening in Cobourg.
“We need guys to get used to playing here in Wellington and getting our team structure and systems as nailed down as possible,” said Dukes head coach Derek Smith. “There’s still going to be some rust, but what we need is intensity and we need guys to really sharpen up so when Oct. 1 comes we’re ready to go.”
In addition to the exhibition contests, practices will also be of the utmost importance during final preparations for the start of the 2021-22 OJHL campaign. October is the busiest month on the schedule for the Dukes with 13 games set, including the season opener against the Mississauga Chargers on Oct. 1 in Wellington.
“Once we get rolling, we have a lot of games in October,” Smith said. “We have to take advantage of this last week to make sure we’re prepared.”
Through four games this pre-season, the Dukes have split home-and-home series with the Trenton Golden Hawks (4-3 win, 6-0 loss) and Carleton Place Canadians (3-1 win, 12-5 loss).
The first game against Trenton was much different than the exhibition games between the Dukes and Golden Hawks last season.
“It was great that we got to experience what we did last year playing Trenton 17 times, but when you add in body contact and it’s more physical, it’s getting back to where hockey should be played,” Smith said. “There’s some rust out there, guys haven’t competed like this in quite some time.
“For the first few games guys might have been a little too overzealous in trying to be physical and finishing their checks, but as the last couple games have gone on, we’re getting back to playing physical but with a little more structure getting our habits back. That first game against Trenton was good to see the contact back and the will and intensity in the guys.”
Smith said it’s evident how much the players missed regular hockey and entered training camp well-conditioned to compete.
“There’s been a lot of competition in our camp. Obviously pre-season is time where you really get to look at who has taken steps over the last year-and-a-half or two years and guys have showed,” Smith said. “We need more out of a lot of guys, but that will come in time. We have lots of room to grow, but so far we’re happy with how guys showed up and want to be Wellington Dukes.”
Goaltending is set with a strong tandem of Matthew Dunsmoor and Ethan Morrow.
Dunsmoor, now 20-years-old, returns from the Gatineau Olympiques of the QMJHL after a strong season with the Dukes the 2019-20 season. Morrow, the 17-year-old Sudbury Wolves prospect, returns for his second season in Wellington.
“Hopefully they can both keep pushing each other and it’s just going to help their development as well our team in the future,” Smith said.
The rest of the lineup is close to being set (watch for an upcoming Dukes season preview), but Smith said it’s also subject to change.
“It’s junior hockey and we’re always trying to find the people that are going to fit in with our culture in Wellington,” Smith remarked. “Up until Jan. 10 when the trade deadline is, we’re always looking for the right players. Just because our lineup looks like it does today doesn’t mean that the spots are always going to be taken by these guys. They’ve done a good job coming in so far, but we’re always looking to improve our team.”
A number of players, some by surprise, have made a great impression so far and the upcoming games against Cobourg will be a great final audition heading toward the regular season.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that have had a really good pre-season,” Smith said. “We have some guys on our team that, to be honest with you, when we started we didn’t really have them pencilled in, but they’re guys that have spent the last 18 months getting ready for this and they’ve earned their opportunity to keep competing for spots.”