Story by Jeff Gard
Derek Smith knows what it means to play for the Wellington Dukes.
As a player you’re battling for your team, your own growth on the ice and as a person away from the rink, the staff, the volunteers, the fans and the Prince Edward County community.
Before returning to the organization as a coach, the 37-year-old spent four seasons on defence with the Dukes from 2000-2004 before moving on to play NCAA hockey for Lake Superior State University followed by a 10-year pro career, including 94 NHL games with the Ottawa Senators and Calgary Flames.
“It’s amazing. Honestly, it’s the best place to play junior hockey,” Smith, now the Ontario Junior Hockey League club’s head coach, said, recalling past national junior A championships as a player and assistant coach with the Dukes. “The fan support that we have is second to none. I remember in 2003 when we went to Charlottetown for the Royal Bank Cup and all the fan support from the people that made the trip there. I wasn’t around here for 2011 but when we went to Chilliwack in 2018, the amount of people that made the trip and were behind the team 100 per cent, win or lose, it’s just exciting to be a part of it. With the ownership group we have, they’ve put a lot of time and investment into making sure this program is what it is.”
The organization is built on the strength of longtime staffers, volunteers and fans. Many familiar faces remain to this day that were with the Dukes when Smith played.
“Don Cotton has been around here for 30 years now and without him we wouldn’t be where we are,” Smith said. “Just to be able to come to the rink and see the same faces that are here as when I played and are still in it for the same reason of the love of hockey and love of the community, it’s something special.”
With the OJHL having returned this fall after a cancelled season, Smith wants the 2021-22 Dukes players to be ready to battle for their roster spot every night as the players return to traditional hockey.
“We want competition,” Smith said. “We want guys that are intense and want to battle for the Wellington Dukes and want to battle for their personal development. It’s going to take some time, but we’re starting to come together. We’re excited about the group we have, but we need to be hungry coming out of the gate. Realistically every team is in the same position. Everybody’s happy with their team, but we’re going to have to get out to a quick start so we can get our feet under us and get back to playing hockey.”
Some key pieces to the roster were in place to return, including Barret Joynt, Jacob Vreugdenhil and Mason Reeves with new some great new additions like Emmet Pierce and Ethan Quick.
Pierce, a Napanee native and Quinte Red Devils product who joins the Dukes for his final junior year following two seasons with the OHL’s Flint Firebirds, was named team captain while alternates Vreugdenhil, Reeves and defenceman Cole McGuire round out the leadership group.
“It’s a big honour to be named captain and I’m really looking forward to the season,” Pierce said. “We have a great group of guys and hopefully I can help lead this team to a championship.”
Maguire, who is 19 and from Belleville, is expected to be a big part of the Dukes defence this season. The former Red Devil played 16 games for the Pickering Panthers during the 2019-20 season before heading to Wellington where he’s been since.
“He’s somebody we’re looking forward to taking big steps,” Smith said of Maguire. “He took some huge strides last year and he’s going to be part of our leadership group.”
One of the new players this season is 16-year-old Ethan Quick, of Trenton, who was a fourth-round draft pick of the Ottawa 67’s in the 2021 OHL Priority Selection and will develop in Wellington this season.
“For a 16-year-old kid, the strength he has and the maturity, it’s unbelievable,” Smith said. “With any 16-year-old there’s going to be a little bit of growing pains, but I think with the work he’s put in and the commitment to being the player he can be, the growing pains aren’t going to be what you would expect. He’s a big body, below the dots in the offensive zone he’s a special player, he’s an old school throwback kind of guy and you don’t find those guys too much anymore. We’re excited to help him with his development.”
Goaltending should be an area of strength for the Dukes this season with the tandem of Matt Dunsmoor and Ethan Morrow.
Dunsmoor, now 20, posted an impressive 24-5-2 record, 2.25 goals-against average and .932 save percentage with the Dukes during the 2019-20 season before moving up to join the QMJHL’s Rimouski Oceanic.
“He’s a big part of what we want to do this year. He’s a 20-year-old now and has taken some leadership upon him,” Smith said. “(Dunsmoor) is somebody that’s going to be the backbone of our team and he’s going to help with Ethan Morrow’s personal development as well. If he can help Mo get to where he wants to be and they can push each other, it’s just going to make our team stronger.”
Morrow, a 17-year-old prospect for the Sudbury Wolves, returns for his second season in Wellington, though his rookie campaign was a lot of development through practices and exhibition games.
“Hopefully they can both keep pushing each other and it’s just going to help their development as well our team in the future,” Smith said.
Smith said the Dukes players are energized from returning to regular hockey and the team is built on the strength of depth, skill and leadership from goaltending out to the defence and forwards, but they still have to put the work in to ensure success at the OJHL level.
“Just make sure that every night you bring it and you push each other and you push the other team,” Smith said. “With the makeup of our group, there’s going to be a lot of competition and it’s going to be fun to see the guys grow.”