DEER LAKE Ed Kearsey will need a bit more time to assess his players, but he believes this year’s edition of the Western Royals will be a stingy team with a lot of speed up front.
Kearsey, a Corner Brook native who now calls Deer Lake home, is back as head coach of the Western Royals of the Newfoundland Senior Hockey League. The Royals held training camp at the Hodder over the weekend so coach Kearsey has a better feel for what he has to work with this season.
A star defenceman with the Royals in provincial senior hockey circles in the 1980s, Kearsey believes the team will be much stronger on the back end this year with import Bryan Gillis supported by a defence corps anchored by three seasoned import rearguards — Nathan Saunder, Brad Woods and Zack Firlotte — with a zest for keeping pucks out of the cage. Kearsey believes the Royals have a pretty impressive top four defenders that can stack up with teams around the league when Deer Lake native Stephen Simms is thrown in the mix. He also believes they will be deeper with rookies Adam Guy of Corner Brook and Dion Brake of St. George’s possibly filling the other top-six positions on the back end.
“I want us to be tough to play against in our end and up front run and gun I say,” Kearsey said, noting an aggressive, systematic forecheck will be something he will preach to his charges this year because teams broke out of their own end way too easy last winter.
“We’re going to make other teams pay in our own zone and we’re going to take a lot of bodies,” he added.
He admits the brand of hockey at the senior level isn’t as hard-hitting as it was when he played in the league, but he feels that’s simply a refection of the rule changes that have been implemented in the last couple of years. He said it’s a lot more challenging to play a physical game, but he’s quick to point out puck possession is huge so the team must be aggressive in the pursuit of the puck at all times within the rules of the game no matter how frustrating that can be from time to time.
“There’s a lot of fast players ... you can’t hold anybody up to hit them so it’s hard to even make any real body contact,” he said.
The Royals made a statement by filling all import cards with defencemen after securing the services of import goalie Bryan Gillis for a second straight season. That meant the Royals opted to part ways with sniper Brett Morrison, who was leading the scoring race until getting hurt in the final leg of the regular season, and hard-working forward Ryan Sparling.
Kearsey acknowledged that Morrison was a consistent performer, but didn’t think Sparling produced enough offence to warrant an import card. More importantly, he said, the Royals look to be just fine up front with some key acquisitions, particularly the signing of former Eastlink CeeBee Stars forward Matthew Thomey, who is expected to be one of the top offensive players in the league this year.
Thomey skated on a line with Royals captain Steve North and Brian Barker during the training camp. Coach Kearsey thought the trio had a lot of chemistry throughout the camp and couldn’t help but notice the skillset of Thomey in his first glimpse of the highly-touted pivot expected to be the offensive leader of the Royals.
“He’s tough on the puck and I think he’s going to be the real deal,” Kearsey said of Thomey.
Firlotte, the newest import signed by the Royals, had his first couple of skates with his new teammates and coach Kearsey saw enough to like what he brought to the rink. He was impressed with his size and strength and thought he was a pretty decent skater for a big defenceman.
“He’s big and strong, but who knows if he’s physical. I am hoping he’s like Saunders for clearing the front of the net,” he said.
Woods, Saunders, Mark Robinson, Justin Barbour, Scott Doody and Chris Peach weren’t in Deer Lake for the weekend camp because of various work and/or school commitments. Kearsey got a chance to try a few line combinations while putting his players through a variety of skating drills all weekend, but he doesn’t yet know what his opening weekend roster will look like.
However, he wants the players to know they will have to be accountable and earn everything they get. He has a number of players who he wants to have a better look at, such as former Stephenville Junior Jets star Josh White who was in camp and has signed with the team, so he’s hoping the players will be amped up about playing when an opportunity presents itself.
The Royals open the season this weekend with a two-game showdown against the Grand Falls-Windsor Cataracts (Saturday 7:30 p.m. and Sunday 2 p.m.) at Joe Byrne Memorial Stadium in Grand Falls-Windsor.