It has been almost three years since the Central Canada Hockey League crowned a champion. The league is on track to award the Art Bogart Cup sometime in May, but getting to the finish line hasn’t been easy for the CCHL’s 12 teams, including the Pembroke Lumber Kings who have faced plenty of adversity as they try to get ready for a post-season push.
The 2021-22 season has been a rollercoaster ride for the Kings who spent much of the first half of their schedule at or near the top of the overall league standings, but just before the Christmas break, COVID-19 cases soared in the province of Ontario forcing the league into an extended two month shutdown. That break was costly for the Kings who lost the league’s leading scorer, Brady Egan, who was forced into moving to the United States to protect his eligibility for a college scholarship.
The move stung the Kings but paid off for Egan who landed a scholarship at Clarkson University where he will study Business while playing for a Division One school next season. When Egan left the Kings to join the Bismarck Bobcats of the North American Hockey League he had 43 points, making it impossible to replace his scoring. Instead, head coach and general manager Alex Armstrong focused on shoring up the team’s back end by acquiring one of the top defenceman in the league, Bruce Coltart, from the Smiths Falls Bears. The move signaled the Kings were going to have to change their focus to protecting their own end if they want to have a long run in the playoffs.
The loss of Egan wasn’t the only hit for the Kings offence. They also lost Gabe Malek to a season ending injury. He had 22 points in 27 games for the Kings before he was lost to the club, and then when the team returned from a 53 day break in game action, the injuries piled up. Top players like Jack Stockfish and Jesse Kirkby missed several games and role players like Alex Urbisci and Zac Correia suffered injuries that put them on the shelf for extended periods. Now, as the team heads down the stretch of its regular season schedule, the club is hoping to get healthy.
Arguably the best Lumber King since the schedule resumed has been goaltender Reece Proulx who has been stellar. He has carried the bulk of the work since the Kings traded Dalton McBride to the Bears in the trade for Coltart and he has answered the bell. Proulx has recorded a pair of shutouts and has had a stingy goals against average since the Kings resumed play in early February.
Throughout the season, the Lumber Kings have continued to breakthrough the top 20 listing of the top Junior A teams in the country, but they have been a club that has had good and bad streaks. At one point they lost five games in a row, before turning it around and winning six of seven games.
When injuries pile up a club can drop quickly in the standings if they lose a few games because the schedule is so crowded. On several occasions, the Kings have been short the normal 18 skaters in their line-up because players have been hurt, ill or suspended and there have been call ups from the club’s Junior B Whitewater Kings. That’s created chemistry challenges, especially when the club has often played up to 5 games in 7 days, allowing for very little practice time. It’s the same story for all of the teams, but some like Pembroke, have been bitten by injuries more than other clubs.
It will be a race to the finish line with the league regular season schedule closing early in April. Then it’s off to the playoffs with three best of seven rounds scheduled for the top 8 teams who qualify for the post-season. It’s been a while since the Kings have experienced playoff hockey, but you know the players will be pumped to have the opportunity to play for a championship.
The clock is now ticking. The Kings have only a few weeks to get ready for post-season action. It should be fun to watch how this team prepares and performs in the playoffs. The talent is there to have a long run. As always, it will come down to the execution, discipline and desire to win. That’s how championships are won.