FORT WILLIAM FIRST NATION — As a point-producing forward with the North Bay Centennials, Rob DeGagne found himself invited to training camp with the Buffalo Sabres.
Though he never made the National Hockey League, playing one season in the professional ranks with the International Hockey League’s Peoria Rivermen, DeGagne said he still remembers the advice given to him and his fellow recruits by one of the greatest coaches in the game as the team kicks off training camp ahead of the 2023-24 campaign.
“Scotty Bowman said do what you do best,” said DeGagne, entering his eighth season behind the bench with the Thunder Bay North Stars, his team coming off a season that saw them come within a couple of goals of a Superior International Junior Hockey League championship.
“If you’re a goal scorer, don’t fight. If you’re a fighter, don’t think you’re a goal scorer, because it takes all kinds to make a team. He said if you had 20 goal scorers on your team you’d never win, because nobody would go in the corner to get the puck.
“Theoretically, he’s right. We’re looking for them put forth the work ethic and compete and show their skills a lot.”
DeGagne and the North Stars, with about 40 players in camp, are set to kick off exhibition play next Friday and Saturday against the defending SIJHL champion Kam River Fighting Walleye. Thunder Bay has about 15 players under contract for 2023-24, and are using training sessions at Fort William First Nation this week and next to narrow down prospective players to open the season on the North Stars roster.
While he’s happy with his team’s playoff run last spring, DeGagne said he knows he and his staff have worked to do to get the team over the hump and back to championship form, looking for its first Bill Salonen Cup since 2019.
“We’re just looking for maybe some more depth. We’re looking for maybe one more defenceman so some of the guys don’t have to log quite as much ice time. And we have to replace a lot of goals, so we have to find some guys to score some goals too,” DeGagne said.
The Stars lost two of their top three threats up front, Colby Feist and Nikolas Campbell moving on after aging out of Junior A. Captain Matthew Halushak and forward Dylan Winsor are also in the same boat. The four players combined for 56 goals in 142 games and were keys to Thunder Bay’s success throughout the playoff run.
Nolan Desjardins, a candidate to take over the North Stars captaincy, said with so many new faces in camp, the next month is going to be key as the team tries to gel ahead of its season-opener on the road on Sept. 22 against the Sioux Lookout Bombers.
“It just comes down, really, to getting to know everybody and building that family bond you get over the year with your team. I’ve found over the years playing with the Stars it’s been pretty easy having new guys come in and get the mojo going. We have a great group of guys returning that will put that all together,” the third-year veteran said.
One of those new faces is Chase Ellis, a Nova Scotia native who played last season with the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League’s Brantford Bandits.
He’s happy for a long camp, as he tries to fit into a new team and a new system.
“It’s time for the players to kind of meet each other and practice. You can’t just put a bunch of random players together and expect to win a game. You have to have know each other and know your place,” Ellis aid.
The Stars home opener at Fort William Gardens is scheduled for Oct. 6 against Dryden.