Pierce scores first OJHL goal in Dukes win

(Emmet Pierce #5 in action for the Wellington Dukes. Photo by Ed McPherson/OJHL Images)

Story by Jeff Gard

Emmet Pierce is a standout player for the Wellington Dukes.

That’s not just for his experience, leadership and skill, but his 6-foot-6, 215-pound frame has always garnered the veteran forward extra attention as well.

“I was pretty well always the biggest guy on the ice,” Pierce said. “Growing up I was always taller than everybody else so it’s definitely something I’ve been used to for awhile.”

The 20-year-old tallied his first Ontario Junior Hockey League goal and added an assist in the Dukes 5-1 win over the visiting Haliburton County Huskies on Friday night at Lehigh Arena.

Pierce’s goal at 15:55 of the opening frame provided Wellington a 2-0 lead at the time and stood up as the game-winner in the final result.

Emmet Piece after scoring his first OJHL goal. (Photo from Wellington Dukes Twitter @OJHLDukes)

There was also a delay that lasted about 45 minutes early in the second period as a pane of glass shattered after Pierce was checked into the boards by Haliburton’s Patrick Saini near the Dukes bench.

Pierce, a Napanee native and Quinte Red Devils product, came to the Dukes from the OHL’s Flint Firebirds to complete his junior hockey career closer to home this season and was named captain of his new club in Wellington.

“It’s a big honour to be named captain and I’m really looking forward to the season. We have a great group of guys and hopefully I can help lead this team to a championship,” Pierce said. “To me leadership is a huge deal if you want to win a championship and that’s our team’s main goal. So just making sure everything is running smoothly in the dressing room and just leading by example and showing up every day, working hard and getting myself better and my teammates as well.”

Head coach Derek Smith said Pierce was a natural choice to wear the ‘C’ for the Dukes.

“He’s a great human being, he leads by example, he’s a good role model for our younger players and older players,” Smith said. “His skillset on the ice is second to none the way he can win battles with his size and he’s got great hands. He’s a big piece of our team and a really, really important player on and off the ice. We’re excited about the season with him leading the way.”

Rookie forward Will Mitchell also had a big game Friday, pacing the Dukes offence with two goals in the win. He opened the scoring with first OJHL marker at the 7:11 mark of the first period and then put the Dukes up 3-0 as he notched his second goal at 3:28 of the second shortly after play resumed.

Oliver Tarr replied with the lone goal for the Huskies midway through the middle frame. Payton Schaly, with his team-leading third goal, restored the three-goal cushion for the Dukes at the 13:39 mark of the second. Jacob Vreugdenhil earned his second assist of the night while Pierce also credited with a helper on the play.

Haliburton had outshot the Dukes 10-9 after the first period and 22-16 by the end of the second. The total ended 31-30 in favour of Wellington as the club fired 15 shots at Huskies netminder Nicolas Heinzle in the third period with only a shot by Ethan Quick at 12:38 beating him.

At the other end, Wellington goaltender Ethan Morrow made 29 saves in recording his second win of the season.

The only penalty in the game was a roughing call against Haliburton’s Sam Solarino four minutes into the third period.

Liam Whittaker and Bradley Darrach each recorded a couple assists as six Dukes players had two points in the win.

Pierce envisions a successful season ahead of the Dukes with strong goaltender from Morrow and Matt Dunsmoor, a strong group of defenceman on the back-end and depth at forward from not just veteran players, but all age groups including the youngest.

“We’re just a solid all-around team. “Our 16 year olds are both playing big roles for us,” Pierce said, referring to Mitchell and Quick. “We’ve got a mix of everything and I think that’s something you’ve got to have if you want to be a good team.”

Growing up in Napanee, Pierce always had an eye on the Dukes and even practised with the club on a couple of occasions as a U16 player. He found success playing at the AAA minor hockey level, including in his OHL draft year as he scored 22 goals and assisted on 35 others in 36 games.

“I was fortunate enough to be on a very good team and we had great coaches every year so they helped us all get to where we are now,” said Pierce, naming coaches like Randy Uens and Steve Bancroft.

Pierce was a found-round draft choice of the London Knights in the 2017 OHL Priority Selection and played 77 games with the nearby Strathroy Rockets of the GOJHL, registering 29 goals and 33 assists during his tenure with the Jr. B club.

“I got to play with Strathroy and practice with London so it was definitely a cool experience getting to see what junior hockey was all about for my first year and learning from the older guys,” he said.

During his second season with Strathroy, the Knights traded Pierce to the Firebirds at the 2020 OHL trade deadline. He played 24 games with Flint the rest of that season and 55 more in 2019-20 before last year was wiped out.

Pierce enjoyed his OHL experience, though disappointed he missed out on an important season last year. His goal now is to move onto to play Canadian university hockey after this season with the Dukes where he’s reunited with some players he grew up with like Vreugdenhil and Cole Maguire.

While he always aspired to play in the OHL, Pierce has come to appreciate more important things.

“I kind of just matured I guess. The first couple years you’re just kind of eager to get to try and play in the OHL and it’s a big accomplishment. It’s something that you kind of look forward to having the opportunity to do when you’re younger, but once I got to my second or third year, it started to weigh on me not getting to see my family,” Pierce said.

“Playing far from home, it was tough not getting to see my family and friends too often, maybe once or twice a year, so it’s definitely nice being close to home and every once in awhile leave my billet house and go home and see my family. They come to every home game a I know lots of my friends are excited to watch more of my games this year so that will be nice.”

The Dukes (2-0-0-1) return to action Sunday afternoon when they host the St. Michael’s Buzzers (1-2-0-0). Game time is 2:30 p.m. at Lehigh Arena.