Thursday , 21 October 2021
Goaltender Easton Hesse and forward Chayce Schmidt settle down the play in front of the Yaks goal back in November.

A sweet end to a bittersweet season: Pontiacs see improvements as campaign ends 

It was just another piece of news to adjust to, pivot, and make new arrangements for.

Fresh off of a pair of home victories against the Whitecourt Wolverines, on a four-game win streak and about to face the Fort McMurray Oil Barons–the top team in the AJHL North Division–the Bonnyville Pontiacs were informed that a member of the Whitecourt Wolverines tested positive on Monday for COVID-19 meaning the Pontiacs operations were going to be shut down for at least two weeks.

After a round of negative tests for the Pontiacs last week, the AJHL announced that despite originally planning to end the season at the end of May, that provincial health authorities requested the season end in line with the Western Hockey League and there would only be two more weekends of action.

That brings the Bonnyville Pontiacs season to a close.

“It was really in my view two different seasons,” said coach and general manager Rick Swan.

The Pontiacs went 6-4-2 from when the Pontiacs restarted on March 12, rounding out a 5-0-2 stretch after a difficult start against the Sherwood Park Crusaders.

The Pontiacs began the year with many different faces in the organization, but like all clubs around the league, had to recruit, fill positions after players left for other situations, and work on getting aging-out players a scholarship while developing the returning players.

Matt McKim, 20-year-old defensemen Alex Marrocco and Colt Corpse, and Americans Nick Traggio, Will Hilfiker and Michael Fairfax all started their seasons with the team before being traded or returned home.

Not to mention with the original recruits Daniel Colabufo and Max Dorrington never crossing the border with the pandemic going on, it was a year of turn-over, but positive improvements for many of the Yaks, who will return next season.

“I thought that it would have been an exciting build-up to finishing off the season against Fort McMurray who had an older experienced group that would have provided us a great challenge, but still measure the improvement and development, which was the whole philosophy behind us even playing this year,” said Swan.

“Ultimately, at the end of the day, I’m glad we got to play. I’m proud of our guys. They did things right, so that we could continue on every week to build a play. And they were champions, and took a leadership role to make sure that our community can be proud of the way they conducted themselves. As a result, no fault of their own, we were put into a pause situation because of being in a close contact cohort situation.”

Hesse and York commit to NCAA

Two of three 20-year-old players secured scholarships in the past week.

Easton Hesse, a workhorse goaltender for the Pontiacs organization for the past two season, committed to Lake Superior State in Michigan. The Leduc-born netminder continued his impressive junior career this season with no one starting as many games and posting a goals-against-average of 2.11 or a save percentage of .931. He also had two shutouts.

His career numbers are a 51-24-7 record with a 2.18 goals-against-average and .918 save percentage. He played in eight career playoff games and a 3-4 record.

“Because of the way he played the last four games and Easton Hesse to get a Division I commitment in a COVID world, we’re ecstatic for the kid because he’s well deserving of it, but not having a lot of exposure for schools and their uncertainty with recruiting, there’s just so many positive things that we created just because we got the chance to play,” said Swan.

Jaden York as well as found a new home next year at Skidmore College in the NCAA Division III. York’s physical play on the wing this season is a testament to this announcement. He played three seasons with the Pontiacs and over 100 games with the crest.

Meanwhile, Josh Kroon, who returned for the final four Pontiacs games after leaving late winter for a NCDC position, is also in discussions for a Division I scholarship. A veteran of the league, Kroon played 158 games over the course of four seasons.

“The guy’s [York] going to be an unbelievably successful person after college just because his work ethic is second to none. And I put his work ethic every day in the same category as Joel Ray and Ryan Symington and Charlie Gawlicky and that’s a massive compliment for any player because, as we said, you know what they’re going to bring here each and every single day,” said Swan.

Chemistry developed

The biggest revelation of the Pontiacs restart was the chemistry that developed between platoons of forwards, which could be put back together again next season.

Kash Rasmussen’s four games against Whitecourt Wolverines proved he could be an elite scorer in the league moving forward with seven goals and two assists down that stretch. With Sebastien Tamburro, 10 points in 16 games, and Justin Stathopolous, 7 points in 14 games, there is speed, finish, and size on that line going forward.

“He’s our captain that’s going to be returning for next year. He was labelled a can’t-miss-guy coming out of midget, and he’s dealt with more adversity and setbacks that most people would maybe forced them to rethink about their involvement in the game, but all it’s done to him is given him inner drive. And that perseverance has been a driving force to fuel him to get better every day,” said Swan.

“ He’s always been a responsible person without the puck, but his poise and what he capable of offense he’s capable of being, I predict, the best, complete player in the Alberta Junior Hockey League moving into next season.”

AJ Macaulay and Austin Saint each took major strides ahead. Macaulay’s almost 40 minutes a game in the Sherwood Park series, and continued lugging of all critical minutes makes him an elite defensemen moving forward. Austin Saint finished second in team scoring with 12 points and brings a brash, physical element to the game.

“He [Macaulay] could be an elite defenseman, not only at the junior level, but now you start to look at what type of college player that he’s shown that he’s got the potential to be,” said Swan.

Ethan Sundar and Alex Power each showed the tools to be Top-6 forward next season. Sundar is Bonnyville’s most creative and crafty forward and now has 58 games under his AJHL career belt before the age of 18, scoring 21 points. Alex Power’s skating ability leaves a lot of potential for growth during a full campaign as well, as Power can score and get into the high-danger chance areas.

Chayce Schmidt may be the Pontiacs harding working forward. The Lloydminster product continues to play a honest game, taking big faceoffs, killing key penalties, and finding ways to drive toward the net. Schmidt’s second season proved he won’t be outbattled in any situation and he could finish, as well, with 3 goals and 4 assists for his efforts.

Trey Funk will be an interesting player to follow–the player from Redwood Meadows started to get comfortable with the club as games went on, scoring two goals and finding his niche on the penalty kill as well.

Vincent Lamanna had a difficult season trying to get into the lineup with injuries and close contact procedures, but the Pontiacs have a very good prospect on their hands and Lamanna’s last weekend of games against Whitecourt showed positive signs for the young forward.

The Yaks x-factor in the restart was Cold Lake-native Wyatt Cook. Swan says Cook provides an element the Pontiacs have not had in awhile since Cody Fiala, with his combination of size, swagger, and effort.

Cook put out a public challenge to the Whitecourt Wolverines and fought once against the Sherwood Park Cruaders’ Ashton McNelly.

“He’s a little bit of a throwback that doesn’t exist in hockey anymore. You know, not only does he play with emotion and he plays on the edge, he’s a guy that everybody rallies around in the dressing rooms. He’s a guy that works extra in the gym, he works extra when he’s given available ice and practices,” said Swan.

“He’s a before and after guy. And he’s had some adversity with some major injuries as well. And he’s just the tip of the iceberg of what I think that he can accomplish with potential as a player, but he gives you he gives us that x-factor, and everybody’s on high alert when he’s on the ice.”

Questions will loom about veteran forwards who struggled to find their way this season in Roc Truman and Bruce MacGregor.

Koebel, Ashmead take strides

Defensively, the growth of Ryan Koebel was the first player mentioned in terms of growth, from the first shutdown in November to the restart. Koebel jumped from a bubble guy in the lineup to a top-pairing rearguard due to lineup changes and made the most of his opportunity. Becoming a more difficult player to play against, Koebel now comes back to Bonnyville next season as a legitimate AJHL defenseman.

JR Ashmead’s skating ability as a 17-year-old looks top-level for the AJHL and when his frame fills out, the Pontiacs are excited for what he can do.

Spencer Lecot continued to be noticed by the coaching staff in a positive light for his ability to quietly move pucks in the defensive zone while also finding opportunities to join the rush.

Zach Whittaker also provided sound defense since coming from the Notre Dame Hounds in March. He scored once and had a difficult shot from the point for goalies to wrestle with.

Cam Emigh’s shot in the league saw him play eight games, put up one assist, and get his feet wet in the AJHL as well.

One of the top questions for the Pontiacs brass for next season is what to do in goal with Easton Hesse aging-out.

This season’s backup Matthew Hennessey showed sprak and battle in his six appearances and he got two wins against the Wolverines. Plus, St. Paul-native Bradley Mistol played in one game, made 18 of 19 saves, and with his 6 foot-5 inch frame could be someone in the mix at the start of training camp.

“His strength is who he is as a person, just how good of a teammate he is. As well as that shows, with the role that he played. It’s a tough role. But he came in every day to challenge our guys to be better…but he’s done more than that. Now, he gets us in our conversations to think that now we’ve got another kid that exceeded our expectations,” said Swan.

Next season

In hopes there is a usual 58-game AJHL schedule in the 2021-2022 season, the Pontiacs are hopeful to have the players they recruited actually on their roster when games continue in the fall.

They are expecting the likes of Hilfiker, Traggio, and Fairfax to return next season–all would be 20-year-olds.

American defenseman John Barker has been recruited as well.

The AJHL season will conclude next weekend.

Sherwood Park plays Spruce Grove, Brooks takes on Olds, and Drayton Valley battles Calgary and Spruce Grove.

About Michael Menzies

Menzies is the editor-at-large for Connected Media Inc. Born and raised in Vermilion, he started in May 2018 during his NAIT Radio and Television practicum and reports on local politics, sports, and community issues. He became the Bonnyville Pontiacs play-by-play voice during the 2019-20 season. He also comments on provincial and national issues. Menzies hosts Connected! Evening Monday-Thursday at 5 o’clock. He also likes to buy books and read some of them.