THUNDER BAY – Andrew Wilkins is taking over a hockey team just two years removed from missing the playoffs for the first time in team history.
Named to the head coaching post of the Lakehead Thunderwolves after the surprising retirement of long-time bench boss Bill McDonald, Wilkins inherits a team coming off back-to-back seventh-place finishes.
He’s looking to his veterans for leadership, as the club tries to reclaim its glory days, when a trip to nationals wasn’t only a possibility as training camp broke, it was expected.
Wilkins, who turned 30 in July, said he’s counting on the guys who have been around the program for a few years to step up their games and play to their potential to help lead the Wolves back into a contending role.
But the rookies have important jobs too, he said.
“Obviously our leadership, starting with (captain) Dillon (Donnelly) and guys like Bill Jenkins, Daniel Del Paggio and Brennan Dubchak – you expect those guys to lead the way,” Wilkins said. “I think we need to get more out of each one of them from where we’ve been in the past. And that sets the standard for the guys coming in, as well.”
Donnelly, who started wearing the ‘C’ last season, said he’s impressed by the moves made by the first-year head coach to make the team more competitive than last season, when they were among the lowest-scoring teams in Canada and middle-of-the-pack defensively.
“I think (coach) has done a great job bringing in not only just first-year guys, in terms of university experience, but also some guys from the States that can step in and be veterans right away,” Donnelly said.
“You’ve got (Caleb) Boman, who played down in the States and you’ve got (Jordan) Larson as well, who was down there. It’s a good mix of old and young guys right now and we’re really excited about it.”
Dubchak said it’s early, but things are looking up.
“We’ve got a core coming back and we did lose a lot of good players, but I feel like the new players coming in are really good. I feel like (Andrew) did a great job recruiting and as much as they’re first years coming in, I think they’ll make a big impact in their first year, so I’m excited to see that,” said the fifth-year Dubchek, who had six goals and eight assists in 28 games in his senior season.
In addition to Larson, a Fort Frances forward who spent two seasons at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, and Boman, a blue-line regular with Niagara College in 2016-17, training camp boasted several other first-year hopefuls.
Among those vying for roster spots were goaltender Brandon Bodnar, trying to make the jump from the Thunder Bay North Stars, Dexter Kuczek, a high-scoring forward who tallied 37 goals last season with the Winnipeg Blues, Daniel McKitrick and Jordan King, a two-year veteran of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey league who toiled for the Amherst Ramblers last season in the Maritime Junior Hockey League.
Marathon defenceman Chase Stewart also remains a possibility, though he plans to seek a spot in the Ottawa Senators organization first.
“I’m hoping just to show people what I’ve got and hopefully get a contract somewhere in their system. And if not, I’d be just as happy coming back here to play for Lakehead,” Stewart said.
The Thunderwolves open pre-season play next Friday against the Lethbridge Pronghorns, coached by Thunder Bay’s Murray Nystrom, at Fort William Gardens.
With files from Thunder Bay Television's Shayne Pasquino.