Wellington Dukes host OJHL season-opener Friday night

Story by Jeff Gard/Total Sports Quinte

Another season of Ontario Junior Hockey League action kicks off Friday night for the Wellington Dukes, which will host their opening game of the 2022-23 schedule against the Lindsay Muskies.

Game time is 7:30 p.m. at Lehigh Arena.

“The beginning of the season is always a bit of a feeling out process, but I think the league is going to be a lot deeper this year. I feel like last year coming out of COVID a lot of teams used it to compete, but a little bit of a development year as well,” said Dukes head coach and general manager Derek Smith.

“Now I think there’s going to be a lot more parity in the league. It starts with Lindsay on Friday. They’ve done a great job the last few years building the program up. They do a great job there of making sure they’re getting everything out of the players and I know they’ve done a great job of recruiting so Friday’s going to be a tough test for us and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”

Wellington will return with a revamped roster following the departures of captain and last year’s OJHL top goal scorer Emmet Pierce, Jonathan Balah (who Smith considered to be the best defenceman in the league last season and the best blueliner to play in Wellington in a long time), Harrison Ballard, Barret Joynt, Cole McGuire, goaltender Matt Dunsmoor and more. Ethan Quick is with the Ontario Hockey League’s Ottawa 67’s.

Smith is looking ahead and pleased with a strong group of returning players, including forwards like Jacob Vreugdenhil, David Campbell, Corbin Roach, Will Mitchell and Jaxen Boyer as well as defenceman Jacob Dietz, Creo Solomon, Alex Case and Erik MacNeil and goaltender Ethan Morrow.

New additions include goaltender Jacob Osborne from Westminster Prep school, Jacob Julien (acquired in a recent trade from the Trenton Golden Hawks), Belleville native Nate Woods who played last season for the Pittsburgh Vengeance U18 AAA team, as as well as Edward Moskowitz, Graeme MacAuley, Zander Latrielle, Connor Paronuzzi, Jared Langdon from last year’s Quinte Red Devils U16 AAA team, and Wellington’s own Cole Lavender, who played the past two seasons for the junior C Picton Pirates.

“We haven’t had a Wellington player in quite some time. He’s put the work in the last couple years and had a great summer and we’re excited to see what he can do with the Dukes this year,” said Smith, adding all the new recruits are bolstering the organization by pushing each other and the veteran players. “We’re excited about the group we have.”

Smith has plenty of confidence in his new goalie tandem of Morrow and Osborne.

Morrow, whose rookie campaign two years ago was limited to development and exhibition games due to the league shutdown, played 27 games last season for the Dukes, posting an 18-7-0 record with a 2.47 goals-against average and .916 save percentage. He stepped up big in December when Dunsmoor got injured and continued to provide stellar netminding in the new year.

“After Christmas he was lights out and one of the better goalies in the league and his numbers reflected that,” Smith said. “He had a good summer and we’re fortunate to have him back. He’s just hopefully going to be a rock for us just as Jacob Osborne will be as well and hopefully they can push each other and both give us a chance to win any night.”

Osborne caught the eye of the Wellington brass two years ago when he attended their development camp. At the time, he opted to return to Westminster Prep, but remained in contact with the Dukes.

“We’re lucky that he decided to come to us mid-summer,” Smith said. “He’s a big, strong kid, very athletic, very sound. He seems like a great teammate, the guys love having him around. He was exceptional in the training camp and the exhibition season. He’s going to be a big part of this team as well.”

This week Smith was pleased this week to announce Dukes veteran Jacob Vreugdenhil as the club’s new captain as he enters his fifth OJHL season.

“(Jacob) came in as a 16-year-old with a lot of potential,” Smith said. “He skated well, had a good shot, he read plays and he worked hard, but over the years he’s really grown into a young man who’s a beast in the gym. In practice he’s always the hardest-working guy, he’s always putting in the extra work and obviously with the season he had last year centring I think one of the top couple lines in the OJ, the big minutes he plays and special teams, killing penalties and winning faceoffs. He had a great summer and looks ready to not only be our captain and leader, but one of the better players in the league and hopefully lead us to the Buckland Cup.”

Vreugdenhil is excited to follow in the footsteps of former Dukes captains like those he played with including mentioning Pierce, Ben Evans, Ryan Smith and Tim Fallowfield.

“It’s an honour to be the captain of such a great organization,” Vreugdenhil said. “I can’t wait to get started this year.”

Vreugdenhil played seven years of AAA hockey with the Red Devils before making the jump to junior A hockey in Wellington.

“They took me and it’s kind of like a big family in the County here,” he remarked. “It’s a great atmosphere in the rink every day. We do whatever we can to win and we’ve had successful teams in the past.”

Vreugdenhil doesn’t consider himself to be a vocal leader, though others can assume that role.

“I show it on the ice more,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’m the loudest guy, but lead by example.”

This season the OJHL is returning to its traditional format as all teams will meet during the regular season rather just within their respective conferences. Also, the playoffs will return to an eight-team seeded format for each conference. Last year the top four teams in each division earned a playoff berth.

“It’s definitely exciting this year to open up the schedule to the way it was a few years ago that we get to go to all the rinks and play every team in the league,” Smith said. “It’s special for guys that are from out of area that get to go home and maybe play against a team they grew up watching.”

Vreugdenhil said his teammates are ready to start playing meaningful games.

“We’ve been here for awhile now, camp’s been long and everyone’s just really excited to get the regular season going and hopefully go on a big run this year.”