The weather says summer, but there’s a touch of hockey in the air as the Elmira Sugar Kings prepare for the coming season. Things get moving in earnest with the start of training camp August 18.
Joining a strong returning core from last year will be several new recruits. Included in the mix are some familiar faces from the Kings’ 2017 Sutherland Cup-winning lineup, defensemen Anthony Azzano and Dawson Shackelton.
“We’re really excited. We’ve got two guys back that played two years for us when we won the Sutherland Cup that didn’t play last year, but are coming back this year. Two defensemen, so we’re really happy about that,” said Jeff Snyder, director of hockey operations.
“So we feel we’ve got a real good defense because we’ve got four other returnees from last year coming back. So we feel really good about that.”
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For Azzano, who made his junior hockey debut with the Sutherland Cup-winning 2016-17 team, he’ll no doubt be hoping to recreate the success of that first year.
“It was crazy, I don’t think I ever really appreciated how much winning a championship that big was to me,” said Azzano. “Playing my first year and realizing the obstacles we’d overcome throughout the season, it was obviously quite a ride, for sure.”
Azzano took a hiatus from the Kings to play for the Junior A Pickering Panthers last season, but says he’s looking forward to returning to Elmira.
“I just wanted to try Junior A for a year. But I didn’t realize how special playing for Elmira was. Playing Junior A out here, it’s not really the same as playing in a team like Elmira. It just doesn’t even compare,” he said.
“The fan base, the support from the community is nothing close to some of these Junior A teams out here. It’s pretty wild, and that’s what really made me miss it.”
Also joining the Kings this year will 16-year-old forward Jakson Kirk from Alma. It’s Kirk’s first year in the junior league, but the young player has already built up quite a record. He was the seventh round draft pick for the OHL Peterborough Petes this year, and last season played up in a couple games with the Junior B rival Guelph Hurricanes.
“I’m kind of like a power forward kind of guy, and a play-maker. I’ll make plays around the net and find the open guy,” said Kirk, of his role on the team. He’s an adaptable forward as well, able to play both left wing and right wing.
“Last year I played right wing, but I’m a left shot. But I just like having my stick to the middle of the ice, it just opened up more opportunities.”
Kirk has been playing hockey near all his life, joining the Fergus Centre Wellington Fusion, and then more recently the Guelph AAA Gryphons. And living just outside of Elmira, Kirk has been a regular fan of the Kings too.
“I always go and watch their games. Last year, my friends and I would always go watch, and it’s just kind always been a dream to play there. As a kid I was like, ‘Oh man, that’s somewhere I want to play,’ because the atmosphere is pretty crazy for junior hockey. They get a lot of fans,” he said.
Bringing some additional firepower to the team are fellow new forwards Tyson Hillier from Waterloo, and Heidelberg resident Brody Waters. At 17, Hillier was the 14th round draft pick of the Peterborough Petes, having led the Waterloo Wolves AAA team in scoring last season. Waters, a 16-year-old, is coming in as the fourth round draft pick of the OHL Owen Sound Attack.
A few seasoned hands are joining the Kings as well. This year, Elmira picked up two players from the rival Brantford 99ers, forward Hunter Dubecki and goaltender Mathew Woroniuk.
There are few spaces on the team left to fill, but with a quality roster in the making, Snyder is confident the Kings will have a fighting chance at reclaiming their championship title.
“We’re going to be younger, for sure, but we feel the young guys that we’ve got coming in are going to be able to help us right away, so we’re excited. I think we’ll be a team that gets better as the year goes on, but we feel we’ve got enough right out of the gate to be a contender right of the bat,” he said.
Returning players from last year’s team include forwards Jeremey Goodwin, Kurtis Goodwin, Tyler Biles, Zack Cameron and Mason McMahon, defensemen Damian Figueira, Jonah Burley, Harrison Toms and Karson Massey, and goaltender Rhett Kimmel.