Nationals owner-coach DeWolfe thinks new team in 'an amazing community'

by Matt Mackinder

by Stephen Leithwood, Niagara this Week

A junior hockey team is coming to Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The Niagara-on-the-Lake Nationals will compete in the Canadian Premier Junior Hockey League, playing out of Meridian Credit Union Arena on Friday nights beginning in September.

The CPJHL is made up of players between the ages of 16-20.

Tryouts for the Nationals begin at the end of May.

The team, which will sport a Columbus Blue Jacket-esque colour scheme, is owned and coached by former Jr. B hockey player Spencer DeWolfe of St. Catharines.

DeWolfe, 25, played four seasons with the Falcons of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League from 2009-13, and a short stint with the Grimsby Jr. C Peach Kings.

“I miss playing the game, but at the same time I’ve always wanted to be a general manager,” said DeWolfe, who currently teaches at Grapeview Public School. “I enjoy giving back through coaching, being on the other side where you’re reaching and educating the players.”

DeWolfe hinted at the prospect of ultimately bringing a Jr. B hockey team to Niagara-on-the-Lake, but understands that process will take time.

“It’s interesting how Niagara-on-the-Lake doesn’t have junior hockey. Even Thorold and Pelham have teams,” said DeWolfe. “We thought we hit a gold mine here. It’s an amazing community that looks out for one another, so we’re excited to work within the community with different events. I think it’s the perfect location for a hockey team.”

DeWolfe stressed the importance of player development and using hockey to open doors of opportunity in players’ lives.

The puck stops here

Two seasons ago, DeWolfe helped coach the Hamilton Bulldogs minor midget AAA team, which was made up of players born in 2001. A good chunk of the team was taken in the Ontario Hockey League draft, however there were a lot of players overlooked by scouts.

“We had nine guys get drafted, but there were a lot of kids who didn’t get picked and we talked to them about that,” said DeWolfe. “You’re getting drafted right now based on what your skill and what scouts think, but people develop at all different rates over time.”

DeWolfe used the example of NHLer Matt Moulson, who was a late bloomer. He played two seasons for Guelph in the GOJHL before landing in the NCAA and he was eventually drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“Being part of a team helps you network with your career. You learn a lot of life skills being a hockey player,” said DeWolfe. “We’ll be focusing a lot on individual skills. You want that time during practice to work on your edge work, the puck control. You need that in your developmental skates. That will be our main focus this year including analytics and using cutting edge software that will track anything you can imagine.”

The league consists of 10 teams: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Brampton, Lake Erie, Bracebridge, Seaforth, Grey Highlands, Coldwater, Maniwaki, Smith Falls and Essa.

“Town staff worked hard to facilitate this new tenant in the MCU Arena and to bring junior hockey to NOTL,” said Kevin Turcotte, manager of parks and recreation. “This is a positive opportunity for the community to enjoy Canada's national pastime.” 

Stephen Leithwood is the sports editor for Niagara this Week. He can be reached at sports@niagarathisweek.com.