The Tillsonburg Hurricanes have been quick out of the gate in their third Greater Metro Junior Hockey League season.
Winners of their first three hockey games, the Hurricanes rocketed into the upper stratosphere of the South Division, for the first time putting them on par with teams like with Kingsville (4-3-0),
Niagara-on-the-Lake (3-1), Oshawa (2-0) and Niagara (2-0) and North York (2-0).
Team owner and general manager Ian Ellis said recruitment and retainment have led to the team’s early success.
“He (head coach Jason Dopaco) has done a top shelf job over the off season,” said Ellis, noting they had planned to take a few weeks off, maybe even a month, to relax after the conclusion of the
2017-18 season, but both Dopaco and Ellis found themselves ‘back at it’ and recruiting within the first two weeks.
“Recruiting really started backed in December 2017, talking to players around the world,” said Ellis. “We took off a good week and went right back at ‘er. Jason has done a fantastic job talking to
players – good quality players that we know will help us get to our chief target and goal, and help us this year become a winning team and aim to win the league championship.
“So he’s done a great job, hands down.”
It wasn’t just promoting the team off-ice, the Hurricanes saw some success with ‘The Trench’, a 19-week summer development program Dopaco ran for junior-age players and 10-week minor hockey
“He’s been busy,” Ellis smiled, “and right now, these three games are a reward for him. It’s shown how hard he’s worked.”
The crown jewel in their recruitment drive was Ivan Bondarenko, who was fifth in scoring in the Western States Hockey League (WSHL) last year with 126 points. Ellis said the 21-year-old Russian might
currently be the top-ranked player in the GMHL.
“He has not just made a statement in our league,” said Ellis, noting Bondarenko had 23 points in Tillsonburg’s first three wins, “but with the players around him. He has made the good players better.
He has elevated everybody’s game. Not just in game time, but in practice time and out in the community… he is just a great addition to our team. Just bringing in that one player has really advanced
Bondarenko and the Hurricanes made their first ‘statement’ to the league in the season opener, a 24-0 win over London in which Bondarenko had nine goals and six assists.
Tillsonburg got by St. George 8-6 the next day, then beat Windsor 6-1, leaving both the Ravens and Aces with 2-1-0 records.
“The players around him are also generating points too,” said Ellis, “so he was a very positive addition to the hockey club.”
Tillsonburg’s Griffin Sinden, the teams’ leading scorer last year with 72 points as a 16-year-
old, is currently second in GMHL scoring behind Bondarenko with 11 goals and 21 points.
The team’s early success has generated interest from hockey agents, who have been calling players on the team, said Ellis.
“Players from around the world, from Russia, from the States, are now calling us to see if there are any available spots to come on our team. It’s happening through social media, the websites, and
now they’re showing an interest in coming to our team which is great. And that’s what happens when you have a winning team – people want to be part of a winning team.”
The Hurricanes flirted with success in their first two campaigns, showing some promise, but were not able to maintain it over long stretches missing playoffs both seasons. This year they want to
“We looked at the St. George game and said, ‘was this luck?’ No. We broke the game down and we feel we beat them physically, mentally and on the score clock – the areas where they beat us last year.
The next test was Windsor, and they’re a great team. They beat us three out of four times last year, and we were up 5-0 after the first period.
“So yeah, we want to roll. We want to be full steam ahead and get as many wins as possible so that we finish high in the standings. Our goal is Top 3.”
The St. George game was a good test, he said, because in the warmup the Ravens attempted to verbally intimidate the Hurricanes.
“Once the game started, they tried their stuff but they didn’t have the strength and size to compete with us. This year, we beat them in that department. We out-forced them, we out-checked them, we
kind of drove them into the ice and they were getting frustrated, and they were getting penalties. They couldn’t handle the pressure of that type of game that we gave to them.”
The last two seasons, the Hurricanes learned from their opponents, said Ellis, watched and studied them, and know what they need to beat that.
“We think we’re ‘there,’ but I don’t think we’re there 100 per cent. I’m not convinced 100 per cent yet. I’m looking at it thinking… a couple more pieces, then yes.”
The Hurricanes, who have a home-and-home against St. George Oct. 26-27, will also be tested by several other South teams, including Kingsville Kings, a perennial power-house.
“If we pass those tests, then we’ll really know we’ve got a contender in the South Division.”
The GMHL schedule was balanced for the 2018-19 campaign, rather than geographically tilted, so the Hurricanes will play two home and two road games against each of the South teams.
“So we’re not playing Kingsville six times. Last year I think we played 18 or 20 games against three teams – and they were all top teams. So how do you compete?”
Ellis advocated for the balanced schedule, and other owners jumped on, hoping to see a little more parity in the league.
“There will be nights you win, and some nights you lose.”
The puck will drop at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 5th for Tillsonburg’s home opener against Niagara-on-the-Lake (2-0) in the Kinsmen Memorial Arena. The Hurricanes then host Northumberland on Saturday,
Oct. 6, also at 7:30 p.m. – and in the Memorial Arena.
The team hopes to have a band playing prior to Saturday’s game, with inflatable/bouncy castle for the children and pre-game BBQ.
“Local businesses have agreed to support the opening weekend.”
For the first time the Hurricanes will be playing four of their Saturday home games on the Memorial side of the Community Centre while the Tillsonburg Thunder are on the road.
At least 10 players returned from last year’s team, said Ellis, giving them a good core t
o work with. And over the first month of the season, they’ve gelled exceptionally well.
“This is the best gelled team so far. We have a lot of local players – we have Noah Demelo… Riley Ellis from Woodstock, Griffin Sinden from Tillsonburg, Alex Takacs, our team captain Mitch Randell…
So what’s happened is the local guys who live close by have been setting up barbecues for the team at their homes, out at their farms, so they’re kind of gelling in a different way. Last year they’d
go to local establishments, this year they’re going to the farms. They’re just kind of chillin’ and doing their own thing, which is great.”
The Hurricanes have also been active in the community, Ellis noted.
The team had its grocery bagging day at Sobeys, they set up at The Town Centre mall, they helped serve at the Shriner’s barbecue, and this week visited Annandale Public School’s open house, and on
Saturday they are helping at the Helping Hand Food Bank’s annual Food Blitz.
“This crew is like the first year, the support from everybody is coming along really well. That’s kind of what you build winning teams with, so coach is happy, I’m happy.”
The team’s depth starts in the net where the Hurricanes have been 20-year-old Kyle Fritz and 21-year-old Ray Smith.
“Our goaltending is dynamite,” said Ellis. “Ray Smith, right now, has the best goals against average in the league. Kyle Fritz has been really strong – he’s from Montreal – and we targeted him in a
trade. He was the goalie in the St. George game. And Ray’s from Texas, he’s with us for a second year, great focus.
“We have the top goal scorer in the league, Ivan Bondarenko, and second top scorer Griffin Sinden.”
The Hurricanes brought back Dallas Routh, a 21-year-old 6’3″ forward from Alberta, who was traded from Tillsonburg last season.
The Hurricanes have some sponsors, but would like some more to come on board.
“It could help take us further into the playoffs,” said Ellis, anticipating an extra $25,000 to $30,000 will be needed if they go deep into the post season.
“Any little of community support helps, and we’ll make sure we return the favour. So there is room for more sponsors, open to anybody else in the community.”
The team is also open to finding new billets, he said, to add to their “really good billets.”
“And if anyone wants to help work with the team as a volunteer, just give a shout and we’ll find something. We’re always looking for volunteers to help make the games run smoother.”
They are also looking for someone to wear the team’s new fox mascot uniform.
“One of the players down in the States bought it,” Ellis laughed. “Dalton Brown picked it up… The Fox.”
The Hurricanes experience this year will include a ‘Shootout’ between periods. Fans who win a $5 draw will try to shoot the puck through a hole in a board blocking the net.
“If you get it in, you go to the finals at the end of the year and you have a chance to win some decent tickets for the Leafs.”
It’s still early in the season, said Ellis, who has been encouraged by the team’s success so far and is hoping the community gets involved.
“It’s great for the community. We want minor hockey to be part of our program this year and I’ve already part the word out to them,” he said, noting they will have free admission for kids
12-and-under on Oct. 5th and Minor Hockey Night is Oct. 6th.
“We have a White Out Night, Beach Ball Night, Tennis Ball Night, Halloween Costume Night… just to throw a little bit more excitement into it.”
Season tickets are available for $100. General admission is $10, and $5 for seniors/students.
“People should come out and watch these kids. Ivan Bondarenko is some kind of player – it’s worth $5 if you’re a senior or $10 – to come out and watch this kid. He is quite entertaining to watch,