By Randy Russon – Hockey News North
December 11, 2020
It is still early in the 2020-2021 regular season.
But with a record of 3-1-2 through its first six games, the Espanola Express seems to be on the right track from what has been somewhat of a train wreck through its first five seasons as members of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.
For example, since entering the NOJHL as an expansion franchise in 2015, Espanola has made the playoffs only twice while never posting a winning record over five seasons.
In fact, when Espanola made the playoffs in 2019-2020 with a record of 17-34-5, it was the most wins in a season by the Express since its debut term of 2015-2016 when it posted a 12-39-3 mark.
Meanwhile, from 2016-2017, 2017-2018 and 2018-2019, the Express missed the playoffs all three seasons with respective records of 9-45-2, 2-52-2 and 10-43-3.
Do all the math and in five regular seasons of existence before this one, the Express did resemble the aforementioned track wreck with an overall record of 50-213-15.
That is right folks — only 50 wins in five years from 278 regular season games.
However, and notably, the Express reversal started to go forward last season when 44-year old Jason Rapcewicz took over sole ownership of the franchise and became president and general manager.
Under Rapcewicz and second-year head coach Dave Clancy, the Express made it back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2015-2016 season. But Rapcewicz and Clancy parted ways during the past off season when the two could not agree on a new contract.
Enter 38-year old Brent Hughes — with the recent experience of three straight winning seasons as an assistant coach with the Cape Breton Eagles of the Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League — as the new bench boss in Espanola.
And through extended use of video and working closely with his players both one on one and as a team, Hughes has the Express on a good route in the early going of the 2020-2021 NOJHL season.
After starting out with an 0-0-2 record against French River to begin the season, the Express took three of the next four games from the Rapids, including the last two on the road. Thus, it is the 3-1-2 record that Espanola takes into its second cohort series of the season, this time against the always-contending Soo Thunderbirds.
Hughes, from his end, said the improvement that the Express has shown since early September skill sessions through the first few games to this stage of the NOJHL regular season is “all about structure and trust in the system … and a whole lot of video.
“The players get to see themselves on video and together, we make the adjustments,” Hughes told Hockey News North. “That is where buying into the system comes into play.”
Asked if the Express is a coach-able group of players, Hughes had an immediate response.
“Absolutely,” he exclaimed, before adding: “We are a younger team and our players are like sponges … they want to absorb what is being passed on by the coaching staff and the guys really want to be part of a winning team.
“It is a new style approach that we are trying to bring to the team … it’s like a breath of fresh air and new beginnings and I like the way we bounced from a bad 8-2 loss to French River in our rink to go into their rink and win back to back games (by scores of 7-4 and 6-1).”
Hughes also likes the atmosphere that his leadership group of players led by captain Josh Boucher and assistants A.J. Favot, Cameron Walker and newcomer Ben Anderson have created.
“They are incredible in the dressing room with the positive energy that they have helped to instill,” Hughes said of the foursome that includes Sudbury area products Boucher, Favot and Walker as well as Anderson, who hails from Wetaskiwin, Alberta.
Meanwhile, the Express also features a pair of Sault Ste. Marie lads with 2001 birth dates in second-year forward Cole Delarosbil and seasoned defenseman Jordan Ritchie, who played in the NOJHL last season for the now dormant Elliot Lake Wildcats.
“Cole is a great kid,” Hughes said of the 6-foot-1, 190 pound Delarosbil. “The kids love him, he is dialed in and shows up for every practice ready to work hard.
“Del just needs to not dwell on a bad shift or to put too much pressure on himself,” Hughes noted of Delarosbil. “He wants so badly to do well but he just needs to focus more on his next shift or his next game and not dwell on what happened in the past.
“He gives all that he has and is a good player for us. His will to win and his work ethic are really big assets for us,” Hughes added, in further praise of Delarosbil.
As for the 6-foot-1, 195 pound Ritchie, Hughes said he loves what the rugged defender brings to the Express.
“I love Jordan Ritchie,” Hughes began. “I swear that even if he wasn’t wearing shin pads that he would be out there blocking shots. He is a warrior with an unbelievable work ethic and his determination is a great example to the younger kids on our team.
“He has been an unbelievable addition to our team and I can’t say enough about Jordan. I love him,” Hughes stated emphatically.
Looking at the big picture and what is the new normal of modified play in the NOJHL and playing the same opponent multiple times before moving on to the next cohort, Hughes said that “each set of games is like a playoff series and it makes for a lot of excitement.
“It’s like if you go out there and win your share of series over the season, chances are that you will have a winning record going into the playoffs.”
As for being a head coach in the NOJHL with Espanola after three full seasons as an assistant at the QMJHL level out in Cape Breton, Hughes said he is “loving it.
“I enjoy the teaching that goes with the coaching and trying to help the players to improve through video.
“I am not just a hockey coach … I am about getting to know the kids on a personal level and trying to help them with their goals and aspirations.
“I try to treat my players the way I wanted to be treated when I was a player,” Hughes added. “It is important that I know where they stand with me and where I stand with them.”
Seems as though a lot of positive energy is emanating from Espanola.
EXPRESS RUNS NORTH
Meanwhile, to say that the Express has a liking for players from northeastern Ontario would rank as an understatement.
That is because of the 22 players who are currently on the roster of the small market NOJHL team, no less than nine of them are lads from the north — six reside in the Greater Sudbury Area, two are from Sault Ste. Marie, and one calls Iroquois Falls home.
Express skaters hailing from Sudbury are forwards Josh Boucher, Bradley Brunet, Devon Savignac and Cameron Walker and defensemen Joshua Kavanagh and A.J. Favot.
Sault Ste. Marie boys who are aboard the Express train are forward Cole Delarosbil and defenseman Jordan Ritchie.
And goalie Carson Boutin is from Iroquois Falls.
Of note, Brunet (Niagara Ice Dogs), Savignac (North Bay Battalion), Walker (Kingston Frontenacs), Kavanagh (Peterborough Petes) and Favot (Niagara) are all Ontario Hockey League priority selection draft picks.
And all nine northern boys have additional NOJHL eligibility remaining after this season.