Rapids well underway in building NOJHL entry for 2021-22

French River Rapids head coach Paul Frustaglio speaks to his players during first-period NOJHL action against the Espanola Express at Noelville Community Centre on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. PHOTO BY BEN LEESON/THE SUDBURY STAR/POSTMEDIA NETWORK

Knowing that September can creep up quickly, Paul Frustaglio has set to work early in preparing the French River Rapids for 2021-22.

Ben Leeson – The Sudbury Star
More from Ben Leeson

President, general manager and head coach for the NOJHL club, Frustaglio has already made a slew of signings, with a focus on Northern Ontario talent, and is also expecting several veterans back at Noelville Community Centre for what he hopes will be the team’s first full season since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re very hopeful and excited for this upcoming season,” Frustaglio told The Sudbury Star. “We have approximately 14 players returning and all of our captains and assistants are returning to lead us to what we hope will be a successful year.”

Among those returnees are a couple of fifth-year Rapids — a fairly rare occurrence at the junior A level — namely forward Levi Siau and defenceman Griffin Simpson, both of whom served as alternate captains for the COVID-shortened 2020-21 campaign.

Captain and fourth-year forward Cooper Bowman is also set to return, along with third-year defencemen Jack Ginocchi and Brandon Hass — the latter of whom is local product from the community of Alban.

“That’s a very strong core coming back,” Frustaglio suggested.

One question mark is centreman Ryan Smith, who has already spent three seasons wearing red, white and navy, as the Sudbury Wolves prospect hopes to become a full-time OHLer this coming season.

“He would only help our hockey club, but we’re hopeful he sticks with the Wolves this year,” Frustaglio said. “He deserves to be in the OHL. He’s such a strong, talented player.”

Members of the second-year group, who cut their teeth in cohort play against the Espanola Express during the relatively restriction-free months of November and February, are led by forward Leo Chambers, who was a standout rookie for the 2020-21 squad, along with promising netminders Cole Sheffield and Hayden Williamson, as well as Anthony Pileggi, Denis Seriy, Josh Russell and Brady Dyer.

“We’re really happy to have them back,” Frustaglio said.

“As you know, we’re a small community franchise, so we do everything we can to make it as much of a family orientated environment as possible. It may not work for everybody and not everybody coming to a small community works, but it’s a testament to these kids, because they have come to French River and they just love the community, they love the way the community treats them and we’re lucky to have a great support staff and billet group and people from the municipality work so hard because they love their hockey team so much. That’s a big part of kids wanting to come back, because they feel like they’re wanted and they’re loved. It’s like a second home to them.”

French River Rapids forward Cooper Bowman (27) carries the puck past netminder Ben Montgomery (31) while Espanola Express forward Gavin Graham (2) gives chase during first-period NOJHL action at Noelville Community Centre on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. PHOTO BY BEN LEESON/THE SUDBURY STAR/POSTMEDIA NETWORK

The Rapids’ first new signing this year was 16-year-old forward Spencer Hughes, a 13th-round pick by the Mississauga Steelheads in the recent OHL Priority Selection. Many of the newcomers, however, will be more well-known to hockey fans in Northeastern Ontario.

Among them are Noelville native Dominik Godin, who skated with the Rapids near the start of last season, and Val Caron’s Noah Brazier, the brother of former French River scoring star and Rochester Institute of Technology commit Hunter Brazier. French River’s other Sudbury-area recruits include Hayden Radey, Reid Lafrance, Jackson Drigo and Joshua McKay.

“Due to COVID-19 and not knowing what’s going on with the Delta variant and where it’s going to be — flu season comes back in the fall and in the winter, we know that — we thought it was best to rebuild our local talent, because we have a bunch of local guys leaving us soon, in the next year to two years,” Frustaglio said. “We really focused on the North and we added some great local talent.

“That’s six players locally who we have just signed, so I think that’s good for our program and it’s good for the North, to allow these other players to stay in the North and get a chance to play junior hockey.”

He hopes round out his roster with a few more veterans, pointing to the Stanley Cup final-bound Montreal Canadiens as an ideal mix of youthful talent and veteran poise.

Frustaglio will continue as head coach this coming season, with his son and Rapids graduate Will Frustaglio as an assistant. He’s looking for a replacement for assistant Connor Loft, another French River alum, who is expected to suit up for Niagara University’s entry in the American Collegiate Hockey Association.

“For our preparations, we have been holding Zoom calls with the players for the last month and we’ll continue to have them every Wednesday,” Paul Frustaglio said. “On these calls, we go through different aspects of life — we talk about respect, we talk about maturity, we talk about commitment to the community, the issues that are going on in the world and what we expect from them, we talk about how to deal with social media, we talk about their mental health.

“We’re doing all these different sorts of things on a weekly basis to keep the kids engaged.”

Will Frustaglio is running the team’s off-ice training campaign, and guest speakers such as Philippe Daoust, a former Rapid and an Ottawa Senators draft pick, have joined the calls to provide insight and advice. Legendary hockey executive Sherry Bassin is among the upcoming guests.

“They just had a very difficult COVID season, a bunch of kids haven’t played and this is a way to bring them all together,” Paul Frustaglio said. “Up until recently, you couldn’t even leave your home, but I believe it’s very important for everyone to be able to engage, to get excited about their new teammates and see their old friends and get mentally prepared for a long season that is really less than two months away, when you think about it.”

The NOJHL announced plans this week to start the 2021-22 regular season on Sept. 16, pending approval from provincial, regional and municipal health authorities, so training camps could start around the end of August.

“The way it looks, the numbers are coming down and the vaccination rate is quite high, so I’m quite impressed with what this province has done, but I think there’s a direct correlation between our numbers being down and people being respectful of others and people getting vaccinated, so I think we’re going to have a good season here. We’re doing everything we can to prepare.”