THUNDER BAY, ON
September 21, 2022
By: Gary Mosalyk
The Thunder Bay North Stars rocketed to a 8-2-0 start in the 2021-22 SIJHL regular season, forging a 5-1-0 record on the road to kick off the year. Included were two wins against eventual league champion Red Lake Miners, and a 2-1 OT win in Dryden.
In a subsequent four-game homestand all against Wisconsin, Thunder Bay won three.
All of it was ancient history by season’s end. The reigning league champs went 13-14-4 the rest of the way, to finish in fourth place with a 21-16-4 log. A three-game sweep over the Lumberjacks was followed by a four-game sweep by the Kam River Fighting Walleye.
After a 9-0 Kam River blowout in game one, games two, three and four were all nail biters that went Kam River’s way.
Through it all head coach Rob DeGagne found solace in the team’s performance.
“Honestly, last year the last 10 games of last season were probably the most enjoyable time I’ve ever coached,” he said. “I got more out of those kids than I anticipated. They bought in, they’re a really good group of guys, and the beauty of it is we have most of those guys back. I thought we played very well in the playoffs. Arguably we could have won a few of those games. Bounce here, bounce there, other than the first game we played against the Walleye we probably played with them or out-played them.
“You got to find a way to win. We didn’t.”
Not surprisingly, the North Stars are looking to flip the script. They’ll be attempting to do it minus a few key players.
Team captain Hunter Foreshew (50 pts and top defensive forward in the SIJHL) and fellow forwards Lou Vesperini (39 pts in 37G), Pier-Luc Bellard (13 pts 14G with 43 penalty minutes) have aged out. Stalwart defenceman Kyler Belluz and starting goaltender Jordan Smith (11-9-2 3.01 GAA and .922 Sv%) are also gone.
Not to despair, according to DeGagne.
“We’re going to be a better team. We’re a year older, we had a lot of young guys last year. Got a lot of guys coming back. A lot of those players who were good young guys for us they have to fill the shoes of the Foreshews and Vesperinis–the guys that left.”
Defenceman Zack Davis, defenceman/forward William Demkiw and forward Mason Wesley are nursing injuries to start the season.
Connor Lemieux (8-3-1, 3.60 GAA, .913 SV%) looks to carry the load in net.
“Hopefully Connor can come in and take that number one spot for us,” said DeGagne. “He had an injury last year. He’s looked good in camp so far. Now it’s just a matter of finding that great back-up for him.”
Drew Caddo, Dylan Bertrand, Carter Anton, Drew Meloche and Matthew Halushak along with Davis and Demkiw will be counted on the defensive side of things.
Halushak, an OHLer with the Soo Greyhounds in 2019-20 will be a big cog on the North Stars.
“I’m definitely honoured to have Rob say I’m going to be a big leader this year,” said the 6-3, 201 lb graduate of the Kings AAA program. “When I first came into the league (SIJHL 2018-19) I was a 16-year-old kid. Now I’m leaving it, 20-years-old.”
In 52 games in ’18-’19, Halushak had three goals and a hefty 31 assists. His 51 penalty minutes presaged his salty presence on the 2021-22 roster–60 PIMs in 14 games, and 35 minutes in seven playoff games as a Star.
Halushak hopes to dodge some of the rough stuff and continue to contribute on the scoring side.
“When I came back here I developed more of my offensive game. I was able to get on the power play, start focusing more on my offensive game, on the opportunities that were presented to me,” said the former AAA King.
DeGagne rattled off several names on the leadership group, but paused to expand on Halushak’s role.
“Halushak’s going to be a big part of our leadership group. He’s got OHL experience. He’s a great leader in the room, outside the room. He’s poised to have a great season for us.”
Indeed ,Halushak had the ‘C’ taped to his jersey in the weekend exhibition games against Kam River. Hayden Cattani and Dylan Bertrand were named assistant captains.
Up front, Edison Weeks looks to be a force with his 26 points in 20 regular season games after being acquired from Weyburn Red Wings of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League in a mid-season deal last season.
Anthony Kuzenko, Noah Broughton, Dimitri Trahiotis, Nolan Desjardins, Hayden Cattani, Dylan Winsor, and rookies EJ Paddington, Easton Glousher, Bradley Moore and Magnus Pearson round out the forwards.
Moore struck for 19 goals in 23 games for AAA Timmins last year, and the lanky Pearson had nine goals and 16 points with the OCN Blizzard in nine contests, to go with 22 points in 41 games with the Norman Northstars in the MU18HL.
Trahiotis had 25 points last year, Demkiw 22, Bertrand 21, and Desjardins 20.
The team purchased a bus this year. Arrival date is November 18, decaling to follow.
“We’re excited about it,” said DeGagne, his sixth season as bench boss. “It’s nice to have your own seats, you can do what want to it with your wi-fi, televisions, so on and so forth. It’s another tool to recruit with. You have to have a first class program and I think we do. We have a great rink to play out of, a great dressing room, a bus. We’re all set.”
DeGagne’s happy to see COVID-19 in the rearview mirror.
“We’re excited to get our fans back in the building. We look to build on next year,” he said. “There’s some private boxes, there’s some exciting things on the business end of it. The investments the Kellaway’s have made are fantastic. . . I’m really excited about this season for sure.”
Thunder Bay opens the season with a game against Fort Frances on Sep. 24. They visit the Norwest Arena for a tilt with the Fighting Walleye on the 30th before their Fort William Gardens home opener against Kam River on Oct. 1.