by Warren Rappleyea
As he heads into his second season behind the Ottawa Junior Senators’ bench, Head Coach Kyle Makaric is looking straight ahead as he prepares his squad for a run at a fourth successive Central Canada Hockey League (CCHL) crown.
Makaric’s first year in Ottawa was remarkable, indeed. He signed on just in time for training camp. Despite a six-week layoff when the pandemic intensified, the Junior Senators dominated the CCHL regular season to finish with the best record in the circuit. Ottawa then won 12 of its 13 playoff games, including a pair of overtime thrillers in the finals against the Hawkesbury Harks, to claim the Bogart Cup—and a berth in the nationwide Centennial Cup competition.
“From the beginning, last year went very smoothly,” Makaric said. “We had great leaders on that team. On and off the ice. When the pandemic hit the team stayed in Ottawa. They wanted to play—even though they had no idea if the season would continue. That attitude came down from our captains. That’s really important because I think a lot of that rubbed off on our younger guys who are coming back this season.”
One of the continuous challenges in junior hockey is rebuilding teams as players graduate and others move to different leagues. As always, the Junior Sens have a strong foundation to build on.
Among the key returnees are forwards Vincent Velocci, who scored 16 goals a year ago, Massimo Gentile, who had a strong showing in the Centennial Cup, Braxton Ross, who was also real good at the Nationals, and two-way forward James Taylor, a key role player a year ago. Wil Murphy, who seemed to get better with each game, and Sam Grabner are expected to anchor what has been an historically stingy defense.
A cadre of new recruits will be vying to earn positions throughout the lineup and Makaric said he’s very pleased with what he’s seen so far—a group of passionate and skilled youngsters with high hockey IQs, and he plans to take advantage of that.
“This has been a successful organization for some time. Winning breeds winning, so players do want to come here,” the coach added. “But it’s not that simple. For us it starts at the top with ownership (Martin Dagenais) and our GM (Jamie Mayo). When we recruit players we really do our homework to make sure they’re the right fit. They understand the team-building aspect and which guys need to be in which spots, and it filters down through the coaching staff and captains.”
The coach noted that, as a result, the Junior Sens have a “magnificent culture,” that helps the players push each other and maintain their competitive drive. “We like to say that sometimes their toughest game of the week will be at practice.”
Ottawa generally go with four lines so it’s particularly important that the players know their respective roles and be willing to play a 200-foot game. Last season, Makaric experimented at times with different set-ups, occasionally playing two forwards and three defenders or four forwards and a single defender.
OJS fans can expect more of that this time around. The coach noted that this helps the players be less robotic and more creative, while keeping his them challenged and potentially confusing the opposition. Makaric and assistant coaches Stuart Battrick and Ryan Hand have been kicking ideas back-and-forth throughout the summer.
“We’re looking to gear toward the type of hockey where we have five guys and it doesn’t look like three forwards and two defensemen,” Makaric said. “There will be some things that when you watch our team this year that you might have never seen before. We’re definitely going to get creative with lineup set-ups, different positions and things outside of a traditional approach. We’re looking to keep everything fresh and try and be progressive. Our goal is to push the envelope and not do the same stuff over and over.”
That should certainly make for some exciting hockey, starting when Ottawa opens the season on September 24 at their temporary home in the Fred Barrett Arena, at 3280 Leitrim Road. The Navan Grads will provide the opposition. The Barrett Arena is roughly a 10-minute drive from the Junior Sens’ long-time home rink at the Jim Durrell Recreation Centre on Walkley Road, which is undergoing renovations and will reopen in the spring of 2023.