PHOTO BY BEN LEESON/THE SUDBURY STAR/POSTMEDIA NETWORK
Team prepares to open exhibition schedule on Sunday
Ben Leeson – The Sudbury Star
The French River Rapids will have plenty to play for this season, in their return from the COVID-shortened 2020-21 campaign that limited the NOJHL entry to only eight games.
For forward Dominik Godin and defenceman Brandon Hass, however, there will be a little something extra on the line when the Rapids drop the puck on 2021-22 — hometown pride.
Both hail from the French River community of Alban, just minutes away from their home rink at the Noelville Community Centre.
Godin, Hass and their teammates returned to practice earlier this month, and will start the pre-season schedule with a home-and-home series next week against the Greater Sudbury Cubs (the Rayside-Balfour Canadians, prior to their recent rebrand).
“Honestly, it’s great, especially being local guys,” said Hass, 18, shortly before a practice on Wednesday night. “Especially with COVID being such a big deal, coming back here and being on the ice again is an amazing experience.
“COVID was really tough for everybody. Everybody was down, didn’t know what they were doing, had nowhere to go, but everybody seems to be in gear to go.”
A product of the Nickel City and Sudbury Minor Hockey systems and a member of the high-powered Team NOHA outfit that appeared in the OHL Cup in 2018-19, Hass played six games for the Rapids as an affiliate that season, before signing on as a full-timer at just 16 years old in 2019-20, collecting seven points in 55 games.
After dressing for only two contests last season, both against the Espanola Express, he was eager to don French River’s red, white and navy blue jersey once again as the NOJHL prepared for a full return to action this fall.
“We’re doing well,” Hass said. “We had the rookie camp that just happened last week and not all the guys were here yet, because of shots and all that COVID stuff, but I think we’re jelling pretty well, especially with main camp coming up, and we’re getting ready for the game against Rayside.”
He’s prepared to embrace a leadership role on the team, haven taken cues earlier in his junior career from older Rapids such as Cooper Bowman, Connor Loft, Reid Manning and player-turned-assistant coach Will Frustaglio, among others.
“We have a lot of young guys this year, like six, seven rookies,” Hass explained. “I’m just there to lead them, to show them the right way and just play hard.”
Among those freshmen is Godin, a skilled 17-year-old whose minor hockey experience includes some time with the North Bay Trappers U16s, before joining the Sudbury Nickel Capitals of the Great North Under-18 League for modified play last season.
“I’m excited,” he said. “Last year, we didn’t have a full season, and I had a couple of practices with the Rapids, so I was really excited for this year and I’m honestly just stoked to get on the ice with my new teammates and show everyone how we can play.
“I have a lot of goals for myself and it’s never doing to end, but I just want to show how I can play and be the best I can, to wake up every day and try to be better than I was the day before.”
His transition to junior hockey and to competing against stronger, faster players seems to be going smoothly so far, and he looks forward to real game action.
“Honestly, I’m not scared at all,” Godin said. “You have to go out there and be ready to play, you can’t be nervous, can’t show that you’re scared, because they’ll target you.”
Having attended several Rapids games as a youngster, the opportunity to play for a hometown crowd and a devoted fan base, even with limited capacity, was a major factor in Godin’s decision to sign with French River.
“They’re amazing,” he said. “I have come to a bunch of games here and the fans go wild, they’re very supportive and we just have to show them why they should be cheering.”
“We have a couple of guys here who have family members in the community, and from Sturgeon (Falls), as well all around North Bay and Sudbury,” Hass added. “Definitely, if the fans come in, it will mean more revenue for the team and it will mean a lot to everybody.
“Hockey is big in this community, especially with the family tournament here, as well. If everything gets back to normal and we can get fans in, that will be great.”
Having built most of his roster earlier in the off-season, Rapids president/general manager/head coach Paul Frustaglio likes the look of the squad and its mix of veterans, such as Hass, and talented newcomers, including Godin.
“Brandon had a good rookie year for us coming out of minor midget, and he was able to learn a whole lot from our captain at the time, Connor Loft, who was his mentor,” Frustaglio said. “If he can replicate the role, the play and the leadership of Connor Loft, we’ll be terribly excited. He’s a very dedicated young man, he’s smart and he’s in fantastic shape, and I believe this is the year he will take a significant leadership role.
“Dom Godin skated with us last fall, during the COVID-shortened season and unfortunately, he wasn’t able to get into any games, so he played midget hockey, but we stayed in contact throughout the season and I was looking forward to seeing what his progress would be. I believe his work ethic and his commitment to playing the game is very high.”
A strong skater, Godin reminds Frustaglio of former Rapids scoring star Hunter Brazier, who now plays for Kemptville of the Central Canada Hockey League and recently secured an NCAA Division I scholarship to the Rochester Institute of Technology.
“If he is anywhere near what Hunter was and is, we’re going to be extremely happy with that young man,” Frustaglio added.
“I feel these two, who have come up through the system, are great role models for the children in the community who say hey, I can start here in house league and work my way up. The fact they have done that and have led the way will be significant for other young hockey players in French River. I’m sure you’re going to see a lot of young kids coming to our games, excited to see two local boys playing significant roles.”
Local fans will get a good look at both players on Sunday, when the Rapids visit the Cubs for a pre-season tilt at Gerry McCrory Countryside Sports Complex, starting at 6:30 p.m.
French River opens the home side of its exhibition schedule on Tuesday, welcoming the Cubs for a 7 p.m. puck drop.
“We have concentrated on getting as many local kids as possible,” Frustaglio said. “With this pandemic, you never know what’s going to happen, but the local kids will get one good year of leadership under their belts, following the leadership on this team, they’ll learn from these veterans and they’ll be the next group ready to lead the team in coming years.”