London Nationals adjust to changes to not only lineup but also safety gear

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The first hurdle?

Get used to those full cages and shields.

The Ontario Hockey Association doesn’t want a bunch of players with Drew Doughty-sized dentist bills. So, this season in the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League, the half-visors, which grant half-protection to faces, are toast.

“It’s a different beast this year,” London Nationals GM-coach Pat Powers said.

You can guess the response. A lot of older players who haven’t donned them since midget hate the intrusiveness they cause.

“It’s harder to communicate with the guys on the bench, that’s for sure,” Powers said. “You’re used to reading lips and now you’ve got this chin guard and shield or mask in the way.”

The muffled response is balanced by the safety component, though.

“When guys are going into battles in the corners and the sticks get up, I’m not nearly as nervous at having an errant stick hit someone in the face,” Powers said. “I’m sure we’re going to save a few man-games to injury this year, and that’s always nice.”

The Nats want to stay healthy so they can do a lot of damage around the Junior B loop.

On paper, they’re special.

London hasn’t finished first in its conference during the regular season in seven years, but that hasn’t stopped them from frequent Sutherland Cup visits.

That’s the next hurdle — the No. 1 seed.

“Do I want us to finish first? Absolutely,” Powers said. “But like I say every year, as long as we’re playing our best hockey come the middle of February, I’ll be happy then. We have a lot of new parts and it’ll take us a little while to figure them out and see who plays best where, and with whom.”

Those parts will be on display this weekend, starting with Friday’s showcase season opener against St. Catharines and Saturday’s Sutherland Cup rematch with the Elmira Sugar Kings.

Many of the usuals, including OHL vet-laden Caledonia, will be flexing their muscles, too. Listowel, Leamington and Niagara Falls should be good, as well.

The Nats don’t have Adam Sinclair (Western) or Ethan Nother (British Columbia junior league) anymore, but they have eight 20-year-olds, including seven up front. Brett Primeau, a former LaSalle Viper, has jumped aboard as one of them.

“He’s a pure goal scorer and plays with a little edge to his game,” Powers said. “He always stood out on the power play and was on the ice in big situations.”

Defender Brett Whitehead, formerly of Rayside-Balfour, and the Webb twins (Jack and Mitchell), who start facing their old Falcons mates immediately, add to the club’s savvy.

After two straight trips to the Cup final, skaters are clamouring to help London get to the top.

“When you win, it’s a self-promotion tool we’ve been lucky to have,” Powers said. “Of course, players want to come to a team that gives them a better chance to win, especially as they get a little older.”

And if you suit up for London, it guarantees you don’t have to be hit or hassled by Max Vinogradov, the pesky producer up front.

“I expect a real big year from him,” Powers said. “I expect him to be a leader on and off the ice. There might be a little change in him (as he turns 19 in January). He might not be quite as rambunctious and play a bit of a controlled game.”

He’s not the only Londoner to watch.

Cohen Kiteley, a former Jr. Knights midget, played so well, he forced the Nats to keep him. Fellow forward Luke Drewitt, part of a stacked Jr. Knights minor midget club last season, had a great camp with the Kingston Frontenacs and is the youngster on board.

There’s room for another rookie standout, too. It’s a luxury at this point, though.

“We want to make sure it’s the right player who will get an opportunity to play,” Powers said. “Just to sign one to have another one is not fair to that player. We’ll take some time because there’s still some real good minor midgets and London produces a lot of good players. We’ll see what our needs dictate.”

They shouldn’t need much.

Even through that full face gear, you should see plenty of happy people.

— — —


GOJHL Junior B showcase at Brantford’s Gretzky Complex

Friday: vs. St. Catharines, 8 p.m.

Saturday: vs. Elmira, 7:30 p.m.

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