Graduating players grateful for time with Dukes

By Jeff Gard – Total Sports Media

Wellington Dukes head coach Derek Smith knows he’s losing “a lot of character and a lot of leadership” from his departing overage players.

Captain Ben Addison, James White, Tyler Ignazzitto and Evan Miller have all played their final Ontario Junior Hockey League game for the Dukes as they graduate from the junior hockey ranks and move on to the next level.

“To be 20 and put up the numbers these guys did offensively says a lot of their skill level, but they were all great people, all captains and we’re going to miss their leadership,” Smith said. “Ben Addison’s been here for three years and he’s been a part of some really good teams and he’s learned from a lot of good leaders like Dawson Ellis and Ryan Smith and Ben Evans. It helped him grow and now guys like him and James White, Iggy and Millsy have gotten to show some of the younger guys what it takes to be a leader at this level and successful and take your careers to the next level. 

“Hopefully the things they’ve taught some of the younger guys will rub off and some guys can take their place, but we’re definitely going to miss them. They’re not only fantastic players on the ice, but they were really good people in the locker room as well.” 

Photos by OJHL Images Ed McPherson and Tim Bates

Ben Addison, who is from Uxbridge, played minor midget and two midget seasons of ‘AAA’ hockey with the Central Ontario Wolves, serving as team captain both years, before earning a roster spot as a walk-on in training camp with the Dukes in 2018. He credits his former Central Ontario coaches Claire Cornish and Brad Bricknell for teaching him to pay attention to the small details and improve his positional play.

Addison believes that gave him the ability to play for the Dukes.

“I think at the next level the big thing that separates guys…is the little details and their play away from the puck, not just with the puck. I think doing that made a difference for me,” Addison said. “Obviously when I had the puck,(I was)  trying to show a little bit of my offensive side, but also being responsible in the d-zone. Especially as a rookie, a lot of teams want to take guys that they can trust in the d-zone rather than guys that are just all offence.”

Following his minor midget season, Addison wasn’t selected in the Ontario Hockey League draft. He was later selected by the Kitchener Rangers following his first midget season in the U18 draft. 

“I was a little bit more of a late bloomer, just kind of coming into my own and wanting to develop,” Addison said, adding he was intrigued by the possibility of playing NCAA hockey while getting an education. “It’s an honour to be drafted to the OHL and it’s a great league, but I kind of knew from the beginning that my route would be NCAA.”

Addison encourages any player not selected in the OHL draft to not get discouraged.

“The one thing I would say is try not to worry about what everyone else is doing,” he said. “Everyone’s development is different, everyone needs different things and hockey is a marathon not a sprint so just because you don’t get drafted doesn’t mean your career is over or you’re not a good player. It just means that you’re going to have to work a little bit harder to get where you want to be.”

Addison’s leadership qualities continued with the Dukes and he was named team captain for this season. He considered it “an honour and privilege” to be captain for the organization.

“I just try and be a guy in the room that anyone can talk to. I want to be able to communicate and have good relationships with all my teammates,” Addison said. “On the leadership side, I try and lead by example…try and just work hard, come to the rink every day focused and lead by example on the ice as well.”

Addison will always fondly remember his first season with the Dukes and their playoff run that season. After placing fourth in the division standings, the Dukes knocked out the top-seeded Cobourg Cougars in five games before edging both the Whitby Fury and North York Rangers in seven games. They were ultimately swept in the OJHL championship series.

“We were underdogs going into playoffs and our Buckland Cup run was awesome,” Addison said. “We came up a little bit short, but anytime you’re an underdog and you go that deep into playoffs and you make it to the league final, it’s obviously going to be special and something I’ll never forget.”

Another memory that will last is finishing last season on a 17-game winning streak (13 regular season games plus a four-game playoff sweep against Cobourg).

Looking ahead, Addison will make the move to university hockey, but he’s not sure where yet and will continue to evaluate offers he has in Canada and the United States. 

“It’s a big decision for me and I’m just trying to take my time and make sure I do my due diligence before I make that commitment,” he said.

One thing is for sure, he’ll take any advice offered from Dukes general manager Rob Ridgley and coach Smith.

“They care about their players and I respect their input and what they think of certain teams and schools,” Addison said. “Coach Smitty, he’s done such a great job forming me into the man I am now and the player I am. He’ll play a big factor in my decision-making just with whatever input he has for me.”

Photos by OJHL Images Ed McPherson and Tim Bates

James White was reunited with Addison after the two played together with Central Ontario. White, who played minor hockey in Peterborough, spent a season with the Wolves before moving on to join the Rayside-Balfour Canadians of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League. 

From there, he earned a spot with the Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He played 91 games for the Sea Dogs during the course of a season-and-a-half, before deciding it was best to return close to home.

He reached out to Addison to get insight into the Dukes organization.

“I texted him before I made the decision to come back and asked what it was like, how the team was, how the guys were,” White said. “I think that was a factor in me coming back, knowing that a guy like that was there and being able to trust what he says about the organization.”

White joined the Dukes a year ago January. He didn’t expect to be in Saint John’s plans this season and thought junior A hockey would be his best path forward. The way he saw it, coming home early would help boost his confidence while helping the Dukes try and win a championship.

Unfortunately, the season was cut short and there was no OJHL season this year either, though White was grateful to get to play in the exhibition games against the Trenton Golden Hawks. He scored 11 goals and added nine assists in 17 games, including two eight-game series.

“Since last March, nothing’s been perfect, but the Dukes have done a great job and Trenton too,” White said. “It’s way better to play (17) games than none so I was really thankful for that.”

White felt for the overagers who had their final season and playoff run cut short last year, but relished the opportunity to be a part of that team.

“It was a really different experience, especially last year,” he said. “Such an older group of guys that had the same will to win and want to win. It’s just such a special organization.”

This fall, White is heading to Ontario Tech University to study kinesiology and play for the Ridgebacks men’s hockey team. He’s looking forward to playing for head coach Curtis Hodgins and said some teammates have already reached out to him. 

Playing Canadian university hockey is something White has considered for a long time.

“I grew up knowing it was an option because we billeted Peterborough Petes players that went on to Canadain university and had some success in pro hockey,” White said.

Photos by OJHL Images Ed McPherson and Tim Bates

Tyler Ignazzitto, of Bath, grew up playing minor hockey in Amherstview first and a season for the ‘AA’ Kingston Canadians before seven seasons with the ‘AAA’ Greater Kingston Jr. Frontenacs.

He made the jump to junior hockey for two seasons with the Napanee Raiders of the Provincial Junior Hockey League before catching on with Trenton in the OJHL in 2018-19. He split last season between the Golden Hawks and Collingwood Colts.

This season, Ignazzitto found a home with the Dukes.

“Everything about the Dukes organization is first-class. Everyone from ownership, management, coaching staff to support staff and the executive are all on the same page with one goal in mind which is developing players and making sure they move on to the next level and the desire to win within the organization is unmatched,” he remarked. “The Dukes really take care of their players and it is a place where junior hockey players want to play and I’m thankful I had that opportunity to wear the Dukes jersey and represent the Wellington community.”

While games were limited for the Dukes this season, Ignazzitto didn’t take for granted the opportunity to continue his development as a player.

“It wasn’t the year we had in mind, but at the same time we always said we were extremely  fortunate to be playing, as many teams in Ontario were not able to play a single game,” he said. “I think it was important for myself to just be thankful I had an opportunity each day to work on my game and improve as a person and a player. With limited games, there was more time to work on individual skills, which Smitty did a great job breaking down little details in my game and helped me improve on my 200-foot game. I think the limited games was kind of a blessing in terms of having almost a full year of just skill development opposed to a more systems and team based approach in a regular season schedule.” 

Despite being exhibition, the games were still important.

“All year we preached individual skill and development so it was nice to translate those skills to games,” Ignazzitto said. “That’s where you can really see the hard work pay off and the development in your game. All of us are highly competitive players and to be able to go out and compete and play the game we love is always the best part of the week and something we looked forward to after many practices.”

Ignazzitto is currently weighing options to play in the NCAA at the Div. 3 level and aspires to earn a degree in health and exercise science. 

“I look forward to finding a school with great academics and a hockey program I can contribute to as a freshman and hopefully win a national championship,” Ignazzitto said.

Photos by OJHL Images Ed McPherson and Tim Bates

Evan Miller is from Niagara-on-the-Lake where his minor hockey career began and then continued in Niagara Falls. His midget years were spent with the Niagara North Stars in St. Catharines.

He played junior B hockey for the Fort Erie Meteors and Thorold Blackhawks of the GOJHL before being recruited by the Dukes.

“It was an honour. It’s a really great organization and I knew I wanted to play there from the start,” Miller said. “When they reached out to me, and I had a few other offers on the table, it was a pretty easy decision for me. My time there was amazing.”

Miller loved playing in a small community like Wellington.

“It was honestly some of the coolest moments of my hockey career, just the way the community was brought together and loved the team and supported the team,” he said. “It was something I’ve never been a part of before. It was truly an honour and some of the games against Trenton, Cobourg, packed barns buzzing, fans in costumes, it was pretty amazing. It’s really cool how a small town can all come together and support a local hockey team.”

He will especially remember last season with the Dukes and the 17-game winning streak.

“It was the best team I’ve ever been a part of,” he said. “It was just really special…everyone in the room bonded, we all knew our job, we all knew what we had to do every night, and it was just something that you can’t recreate.”

Miller has committed to play NCAA hockey for the RIT Tigers men’s hockey team starting this fall. He’ll study business there at the Rochester Institute of Technology. With the Tigers, Miller will join some former Dukes, including Andrew Rinaldi and Elijah Gonsalves.

“They play an offensive style, they like their Dukes, they respect our coaches and our staff, so they talked to them,” Miller said. “The facility and the school is incredible. I haven’t been able to get down there, but I’ve seen virtual tours, videos and all that, and it’s really a high-end school. It’s only an hour-and-a-half from my house which is even better.”

Injuries limited his time on the ice this season, but Miller said there’s no doubt his experience with the Dukes helped prepare him for the next chapter in his life.

“My time with the Dukes only helped me grow as a person and a player,” he said. “Through my injuries it only made me, I feel, mentally stronger and made me realize that I have to put in a lot of work and every single day I get to the rink I have to try to get better. 

“That’s something (the Dukes) try to preach every day – you’ve got to do the little things that separate you from the rest and if you work hard every day your opportunity will come and if you take that opportunity and do something well with it, just never look back.”

Coach Smith said it’s unfortunate his overagers didn’t get to conclude their OJHL careers with a proper season. 

“I feel for these guys, they put a lot of work in, but I know all of them are better off from their time in Wellington and I’m excited to see where their careers go,” he said