Story by Jeff Gard

In March of 2020, the Napanee Raiders were two wins away from capturing their second straight Tod Division title in the Provincial Junior Hockey League.

They went from being eager to defend their Schmalz Cup PJHL championship from the year prior to a lot of unknowns this 2021-22 campaign following a wiped out season last year.

“No one really knows,” said Raiders head coach Ben Hagerman as the new campaign was about to get underway. “You can kind of guess and look at everyone else’s potential roster, but you really don’t know where you stack up until you’ve been around the league at least once, maybe even twice. Thirty five games, so it’s going to be really, really fast. Every game is going to mean a lot with two points up for grabs in the standings to make sure you finish in hopefully a home-ice advantage scenario for the playoffs.”

One thing was evident as Napanee’s training camp got underway and players returned to exhibition games and hockey with physical contact.

“It’s been really exciting to see how the kids are responding in terms of their level of thankfulness and not taking hockey for granted,” Hagerman said.

That being said, the coaching and management staff didn’t take the 2020-21 season for granted either, even if exhibition games were few and far between. The team was changing and the Raiders needed to be prepared for when hockey returned in the traditional way.

“We had the four 21-year-olds and about eight more 20-year-olds on that (2020) team…we’re basically left with about five guys from that March 2020 team on our team now,” Hagerman said. “We really went to work during the COVID year when we were only allowed to do scrimmage and exhibition games and practices and really found out about some guys who were attending Queen’s that were first year students and some really strong local products that graduated out of major midget.

“We were able to kind of slowly reconstruct the roster during last year when we were really only allowed to practice. That put us in a good spot for training camp this year and we had a few surprises from guys that ended up coming in and making the team as 17-year-old rookies. We feel pretty confident with our roster.”

Having two veterans goaltenders is a great place to start with the return of 20-year-olds Bailey Maracle and Mitch Brown.

The other returning 20-year-old players from the 2020 playoffs are forwards Logan White and Soren Zamuner and Logan and defenceman Noah Westwater.

New to the Raiders this year are Payton Gauthier of Kingston, who played 41 games for the Gananoque Islanders during the 2018-19 season, Napanee’s Ben White who is the younger brother of Logan White, and Reid Lambert, also of Napanee now playing for his hometown junior C team.

The Queen’s University students Hagerman referred to are Matt Sheehy and Johnny Wright, who played prep school hockey together for Upper Canada College and Chris Edwards who played for St. Michael’s College School. The three players usually play on a line together.

Hagerman wasn’t expecting to use a card on a 16-year-old player this year.

“I really feel strongly that if you take a 16-year-old player he needs to be put in a position where there’s going to be quality ice time and their role is going to be pretty significant, at least as significant as if he was playing midget,” Hagerman said. “The further we got into camp and how many guys returned from the COVID season where we rebuilt last year and the role they were going to play compared to taking a 16-year-old, I didn’t think it was fair. We’re just going to AP as many 16-year-old players as we can and get them in the lineup while they’re playing midget. I think that’s the best for everyone right now.”

Despite the unknowns, Hagerman does expect the Tod Division to be “very competitive” this year and considers it to be one of the top divisions in the entire PJHL. The Raiders have been successful in recent years and Picton and Port Hope have had great runs as well. Amherstview and Campbellford hope to be improved and the Frankford Huskies are new this year, replacing Gananoque.

“We’ve got a couple small, tough barns in this league that will be no easy points coming out of those rinks,” Hagerman said. “I think this is going to be a really solid division with whoever ends up winning it and making a push for a provincial title. All we can worry about is ourselves. We like what we have and we’ll keep moving forward.”

Hagerman grew up in Stirling and played minor hockey there before moving on to the Quinte Red Devils, eventually moving up to play junior hockey in Napanee while also gaining some junior A experience with the Wellington Dukes.

He likes the opportunity junior C hockey provides to players to continue playing while also attending school and perhaps working jobs as well. Often times it also means players can continue playing in their hometown for a team they grew up watching.

“For kids to play out of their hometowns, it’s a huge thrill if you’ve grown up watching that particular team and you have something to strive for in your hometown. It gives people and the fans that recognizable face that maybe they watched that kid grow up because they’re friends of his family. It’s an exciting brand of hockey,” Hagerman said.

“These kids don’t hold anything back. They play hard, it’s still a physical brand of hockey, excellent goaltending and ultimately I think every team in our league is moving players each year onto junior A. You’re looking at six to 10 guys moving on after a year of junior C sometimes to a higher level so we’re proud of that as well.

“I encourage anyone to check out your local team if you can this year.”