THUNDER BAY – Andrew Wilkins was already facing a tough return-to-play battle.
The 32-year-old head coach of the Lakehead Thunderwolves men’s hockey team was already down a couple of star players, forward Tomas Soustal leaving for the professional ranks in his native Czech Republic, while forward Josh Laframboise decided to ink a pro deal with Kansas City of the ECHL.
Laframboise and Soustal combined to score 30 goals last season, the two highest-scoring players on the team.
On Thursday, Wilkins got the news he was dreading most, the OUA announcing it was shutting down all sanctioned sports until at least March 31, 2021 because of COVID-19 fears.
In some ways, the announcement may be a blessing in disguise for a Thunderwolves team that finished the 2019-20 campaign at 13-12-3, good for seventh in the OUA West.
He plans to use the down time – about 10 players are in town and working out on campus – to recruit, though what that might look like remains to be seen. The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League has begun play, but the other two major junior leagues and the country’s Junior A circuits have yet to move beyond training camps.
“We’ll be busy watching them and recruiting non-stop,” Wilkins said. “We can take advantage of the time to be a little busier with that. In terms of our players, I think the majority of our group is younger, first-, second- and third-year players.”
Wilkins is hopeful most of the rest of his lineup will be back in 2021-22, but said he’ll support whatever decisions his players make.
The Wolves have six senior players on their roster, along with a couple of fifth-year seniors, any of whom could decide to not return next season, having finished their schooling.
It’s a reality Wilkins is ready to face. Really, he has no choice.
“It’ll be up to them and we’ll provide the resources and encouragement to stay here at Lakehead ... It’s a chance it could happen and we’ll have to see what happens with hockey south of the border as well,” Wilkins said, adding Laframboise and Soustal earned a chance to show what they can do at the next level of the game.
One of the players who will be back is Ottawa’s Geoff Dempster, one of three out-of-town players currently in Thunder Bay trying to stay in shape.
The second-year centre, who had three goals and 10 points in 28 games with Lakehead last season, said it’s disappointing to endure a lost season, having to wait a full year before meaningful competition takes place again. Teams may be permitted to play exhibitions, but whether it’s financially viable or even possible from a numbers standpoint, remains to be seen.
“It’s obviously difficult,” Dempster said. “You’ve just got to get up in the morning and just pretend it’s really happening, that you’re still in that mindset that you’ve got to train every day, I’ve got to get better as a player,” the 22-year-old said.
“Nothing really changes mentally. Just not being able to play is difficult.”