Story by Jeff Gard

The Picton Pirates were playing in the Tod Division final when the 2020 Provincial Junior Hockey League playoffs came to an abrupt end in March of that year.

They trailed the Napanee Raiders 2-0, but the first two games were competitive with the Raiders earning 2-1 and 3-1 victories. Napanee (36-5-1-2) and Picton (27-15-1-1) had been separated by 19 points atop the division standings during the regular season. Both clubs had swept their first-round match-ups in four games.

Jason Parks, who has now reprised the general manager role, was covering the Pirates for the Picton Gazette newspaper at the time, which he has done for numerous years when he hasn’t been directly involved with the junior C hockey club.

Parks recalls chatter during the second game against the Raiders that the rest of the series would be suspended. He thought the series was far from over at the time, despite the Raiders being favoured to win.

“That was the team that was going to give Napanee the best run for its money,” Parks said of the Pirates. “We had beaten them at home, we stayed competitive with them. Down 2-0, that series was far from over and we’d proven we could win in Napanee.”

Game 2 on March 12, 2020 was the last time the Pirates would play at the Prince Edward Community Centre in 18 months. The Pirates were able to meet up for non-contact exhibition games with the Port Hope Panthers and Napanee Raiders last year, but didn’t host any of the games as there was no ice in Picton.

As is the case every season, changes have been made to the Pirates roster, but the big changes came off the ice to the management and coaching staffs.

Chris Masterson retired as general manager and head coach Ty Green left as well. Parks said Masterson voiced to him his concerns about the future of the club if new executive members didn’t step up. Parks agreed he would reach out to some people about coming on board.

“I found some folks that didn’t want to see the Pirates leave, including club founder Ron Norton who was president, coach, has done everything with the franchise here and there,” Parks said.

Norton returned to the club as team president and named Parks the new general manager, a role he held from 2009-2011, helping to put some pieces in place ahead of the Pirates’ 2013 Schmalz Cup provincial championship win.

A big task has been “getting out in the community and reminding the good folks of the County and hockey fans that we’re here,” Parks remarked, noting there’s great support locally for the Pirates on Thursday nights and the junior A Wellington Dukes on Friday nights.

In selecting a new head coach, Parks turned to former Pirates assistant coach Kyle Hawkins-Schulz who played junior A hockey locally for the Trenton Sting and Wellington Dukes.

“Hawk actually played for me for a few games back in 2009-10 (during a conditioning stint in Picton),” Parks said. “I knew him as a player and he’s from the County, grew up in West Lake. He was part of the staff in 2013 with Ryan Woodward that won the Schmalz Cup.”

In more recent years, Hawkins-Schulz has helped out with some local triple-A teams. He was automatically a frontrunner for the vacant job in Picton.

“It’s just natural here with the community that they like to support their own,” Parks said. “He’s been looking for a head coaching job. He really wanted his own ship to run, pardon the pun.”

Parks said Hawkins-Schulz wants to use the opportunity to develop as a head coach while also developing players for the next level. The GM considers that to be a perfect fit. Hawkins-Schulz has even coached some the current players, like captain Devin Morrison, with a Dukes development team.

“As soon as Devin found out that Hawk was coming aboard he was really just elated that we had gone in this direction,” Parks said.

Morrison is a key player back for the Pirates at forward as are Nate Boomhower, Nick Kirby-Palliser and Landon McLellan. On defence, Derek Vos is an anchor of the back-end while Noah Brandt is back with the club after spending the 2019-20 season with the Powassan VooDoos of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League. The 21-year-old defenceman registered 93 points during 79 previous regular season games for the Pirates.

One defenceman the Pirates won’t have is Logan James. He played some exhibition games last season with the Trenton Golden Hawks and could have played in Picton this season, but has earned a spot the Yarmouth Mariners of the Maritime Junior Hockey League.

“We certainly would’ve liked to have him back, but on the other side of things and to a greater extent we’re very proud he’s able to make the leap and be an impact player in that MJHL,” Parks said, adding that teams should place an emphasis on moving players to high levels of hockey.

“You can try and build perennial Schmalz Cup winners and that’s great, but on the other end of things you can also develop kids and get them up and out and eventually you’re going to build a Schmalz Cup winner just because of your reputation of having kids in your lineup and then getting them up and out to higher levels,” he said. “That’s sort of the long approach, but I think the right approach.”

Picton gave long looks in the pre-season to younger players like Ben Smith and Gerrit Kempers with final roster decisions still to be made. Though limited roster spots were available, it was important to get local players as much junior C experience as possible.

“We want to expose as many of those County kids as we can to this level of hockey,” Parks said.

Recruiting each year is important and now because more challenging with the addition of the Frankford Huskies to the Tod Division.

“Frankford certainly makes us all up the ante in terms of what the recruitment will be out of the Quinte area,” Park said. “Obviously they’re going to be coming knocking as well as us and Napanee and Campbellford to a certain extent. It’s going to be harder to recruit, but that’s the challenge and as long as you have a good sound program and you’re doing your business the right way, at the end of the day you should win a lot of those recruitment battles.”