Were this a typical pre-season, Paul Frustaglio and his French River Rapids would be well ahead of the game.
Their roster is almost complete, with newcomers such as Cole Sheffield and Nolan Burnside set to join eligible returnees like Levi Siau, Ryan Smith, Ty Chambers and Cooper Bowman on the ice at Noelville Arena.
But this, of course, is not a typical year, and the NOJHL, like most hockey organizations in Ontario, is only now taking its first steps toward a return to action after a COVID-shortened 2019-20 campaign, while carefully following guidelines set by Hockey Canada, the Ontario Hockey Federation, and health authorities at the federal, provincial and regional levels.
The league recently released its own, detailed return-to-play plan for 2020-21, with several potential start dates, the earliest being Oct. 15, while acknowledging that all scenarios depend on the current public health situation. Despite all the uncertainty, Frustaglio, who serves as French River’s president, general manager and head coach, maintains a clear-eyed optimism about the coming campaign, as well as a hope that his team will push for a playoff spot once the puck finally drops for five-on-five action.
“With the COVID restrictions and the fluidity of the rules, it’s hard for us to provide information to players and parents when the leagues and the governing bodies are still trying to figure out the best route for health and safety,” Frustaglio told The Sudbury Star. “In the end, I will never, ever bend a rule for health and safety. I come from the medical profession and for me, compliance is 100 per cent. You never break those rules, because in the end, somebody’s life is at stake.”
French River has already compiled its own manual of policies and procedures internally, while Frustaglio himself was on the committee that drafted the NOJHL’s 44-page plan, which was then submitted to the government and to the OHF.
“We were hoping to play COVID hockey in the fall,” Frustaglio said. “The reason I call it that is because there’s going to be implicit restrictions on the movement of the players — just like in our current society, you can’t go wherever you want, you need to wear a mask, practise social distancing, all these other rules. All of these rules that are now in place in daily life would follow the players coming from the Noj. We have players coming from all over the province and whatever rules are in existence for people coming into our province, we’re going to do the same thing with regard to self-isolation, having tests. Testing in the North isn’t very difficult and I know that some who visited Toronto, when they got back, they called the public health unit to get a test, they were asked why and they said, ‘We were in Toronto and we want to be sure,’ and Public Health was all over it. They said, ‘Yes, come in tomorrow.’
“We’re really grateful to the public health units in the North for allowing things like that to happen, because it’s really important that our players are self-quarantined and they have a negative test before coming to the North. I don’t want anybody coming to the French River area and spreading the virus. It can’t happen on my watch and it can’t happen on the league’s watch.”
As far as his on-ice product is concerned, Frustaglio is excited that most of the players from last year’s squad have committed to returning, to push for the playoff spot that has eluded the Rapids franchise in its first five years of existence.
“Of the 16 or 17 kids who could play, we have 13 coming back,” he said. “That is really good.”
Siau, a former Sudbury Wolves draft choice who sat out the first part of 2019-20, but returned to score at a point-per-game pace, is expected to return. Smith, another signed Wolves prospect, could also be on the regular-season roster, but will try to make the OHL club as a regular.
Chambers, who is coming off a strong finish to last season, will be among the team’s top offensive threats, as will Cooper Bowman, a third-year member of the French River squad and one of its captains last year.
They’ll be joined by a couple of promising 2004-born recruits from the London area in Sheffield, a goaltender, and Burnside, a forward, both of whom are represented by the same agency that helped bring all-star netminder Owen Say to the NOJHL last season.
They’re expected to arrive in Noelville as early as mid-September, for the first in a series of conditioning and skills sessions.
“When you have a core like that coming back, that’s great, and when you have some young talent like the two boys I mentioned, those are guys who are going to make a difference this year, I believe,” Frustaglio said.
Stepping behind the bench last season after the latest in a series of coaching changes, Frustaglio will remain there to begin the year, with Cole Burton set to return as an assistant coach.
A pair of graduates whose final junior season was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, Will Frustaglio and Connor Loft, will assist the coaching staff, though they won’t be behind the bench during games.
“Having two veterans who put up the careers that they did in the Noj, having them around and helping with the kids, that’s a big plus,” Paul Frustaglio said.
“I have quite a few wins for a part-time coach. As you know, we have had some unfortunate luck the last couple of years, but that’s OK. I’m up for the task, I’ve got the experience and I can do it.”
He’s hopeful that can-do attitude extends to teams across the league, along with a determination to follow health and safety guidelines to the letter.
“We’re doing our best here in the NOJHL to get hockey back for the kids,” Frustaglio said. “We have worked really hard and we have spent a couple of months preparing a very comprehensive document to protect the kids and the communities, because that is so important. Health and safety is first for us.
“We believe that with everything we have done, we can have hockey this fall.”