2021 Saginaw Spirit Season Preview

Fresh Faces and Strong Optimism Mark the Return of OHL Hockey to the Ice

Posted In: Sports, ,   From Issue 919   By: Robert E Martin

16th September, 2021     0

As the Saginaw Spirit prepare to embark upon their 20th season, the back-to-back West Division champions look to build upon their impressive successes as they stand on the other side of the COVID-19 lockdowns, which has shut down action on the ice for the past 18-months.

Two years ago the Spirit secured the 2019 Western division championship, improving upon their most successful run in franchise history; and through the process of OHL Priority Selection are focused upon reconstituting the team, having recently signed defenseman PJ Forgione and forwards Sebastien Gervais and Ian Phillips along with goaltender Brett Fullerton over the past few weeks.

When asked his impressions about the team’s strategy for this upcoming season following the 18-month hiatus precipitated by the pandemic, the Spirit’s Vice President of Communications & Broadcasting, Joey Battaino, is equally reflective and optimistic.

“Considering that in 2019-20 we didn’t get a full season and last year playing was suspended entirely, the stoppage impacted us for two seasons,” he reflects. “Back in 2018-19 when we won the division and went to the third run in the playoffs everybody was happy with that and people within the organization thought we were on our way to the top for 2019-20 because we had a really strong group of players - everybody got a year older and had the added experience of going that far in the playoffs, so it was unfortunate COVID shut us down because we had a good team and were playing together really well when the season was tossed.”

“For both of those seasons Saginaw had a very legitimate chance of bagging a championship, so obviously that was the toughest pill to swallow when thinking of that time during the Pandemic and how we couldn’t get on the ice,” he continues.

“As for the team itself, we are now returning with a group of 80 players since the last time we were on the ice, which is a small number for this league, so it’s a re-tooling type of year.  There were a lot of roster spots open at training camp that players were competing for and in talking with the General Manager and Coach, they kind of relished that and used it as an opportunity to challenge some of the younger guys to play their hearts out and compete for a roster spot on the team.  Even though things haven’t been fully decided roster-wise, we have a good sense going forward after training camp, which was a positive experience for the younger guys and good experience for the older guys.”

“A good example would be Dalton Duhart who started when he was 18-years old and turned 19 when the pandemic shut us down, so now he’s one of the leaders on this team for the first time, which isn’t to say he wasn’t the last time, but the guys are looking at him as a leader so it’s a new opportunity for him and guys like Mitchell Smith and Camaryn Baber and some of our older guys who are going to lead this team.”

Interestingly enough, Mitchell Smith is attending Colorado Avalanche (NHL) training camp before the OHL season begins and is a two sport athlete. He played baseball at Heritage High School and hockey in the OHL with the Spirit, focusing on baseball when the OHL did not play last season. He is the second player ever to play for the Spirit who also hails from Saginaw and grew up going to Spirit games.

When asked why he chose to evolve as a two-sport athlete, Smith explains that it’s hard to say.

“I enjoyed both baseball and hockey a lot and definitely dedicated time to both of them,” he reflects. “I don’t think I would be the baseball player I am without hockey and I definitely know I wouldn’t be the hockey player I am without baseball. It’s more of a mental thing. Last year I focused entirely on baseball, seeing as hockey was locked down; and maybe being a single-sport athlete will be beneficial to me, so we’ll see what I can do when I put 100 percent of my effort into hockey.”

Are there any attributes about playing baseball that Mitchell has been able to transfer over to hockey?

“Hand to eye coordination is huge in baseball and not the most noted thing in hockey,” he reflects, “but when you think about it and trust where your hand and stick is, hand and eye coordination also goes into hockey and definitely offers bonus skills - whether its knocking pucks out of the air or catching pucks, I’m utilizing control of my hands that I learned through baseball.”

When asked what attributes he hopes to bring to the team, Mitchell references his play on the ice. “I think being one of the older defensemen I’m going to have to take control and help the younger guys out on and off the ice. I’m hoping the various skllls and things I’ve learned over the years can carry over to the team and younger players, making it an easier transition for them from amateur hockey over to the OHL.  It will be exciting to see what kind of year we can put together.”

“All the guys are going to bring a lot to the table, so I want to focus on the comfortability of the younger guys and trying to get as much confidence instilled in them as possible. I know they have the excitement and talents to be here. Everybody earns it and it will be interesting to see what we can pull together. I think from the younger guys to the older we are going to be a serious team and I don’t think any one person is going to carry us to any wins this year.”

“Going into this season for myself the most challenging thing is having the confidence and focus to be a better defenseman and set the tone and be a role model for the younger guys,” he concludes. “Hopefully we’ll string some wins together and come out and perform the way we’re expected to and what we expect from ourselves. Playing a lot of games against the new teams will be tough, but we’ll have a strong mindset no matter who our opponent is.”

“I think every team in the league is in the same boat,” he notes. “It’s difficult to pre-determine who will be tough teams, but we are looking to dominate our schedule and I think there will be certain teams like London that will present challenges, but with our own skills I wouldn’t have a problem putting our team up against theirs right now.”

As for some of the newer players to keep an eye on, Battaino says the thing to keep in mind is that regardless of whether the player is young or old, it will be their first time on the ice in a competitive manner in over a year, which presents good opportunities.

“Our first round pick Luke McNamara is a forward center who performed very well at training camp,” states Joey. “It looks like he could be the real deal.  We draft 16-year old players and now there’s a draft for under 18-players and we picked up a player from Sault Ste. Marie named Calem Mangone who is fast and only 5’1” tall, so he’s a pest and appears to be very agile. Honestly, I can go down our entire player roster, but when watching the games there wasn’t any one player who truly stood out singularly, which is frankly perfect for building a team.”

Additionally, the most recently signed players - Charlie Fink and Brett Fullerton have general manager Dave Drinkill very excited.   “I am happy to announce we have added Charlie Fink and Brett Fullerton as we continue to build our roster,” said Drinkill. “Charlie Fink is a rugged power forward with a quick shot. We look for him to add some physicality to our lineup. Brett Fullerton has an NHL frame. We like the way he fills the net and I know (Goaltending Coach) Rick Ice is looking forward to working with him this season.”

In many ways, this year presents a whole different OHL with different players moving on and different rules in play, coupled with the way the teams are shaping out.

“Looking at the other teams we’re competing against there are some teams people think will be better than others, but I’m not subscribing to that theory yet. I think the field is as wide open as it’s ever been. Normally, you can hand-pick 5 teams that are going to be hot, but I wouldn’t say that this year because there are a lot unknowns. I do think this will make it an engaging season for fans. Everybody is learning as we go here and what they have and what they don’t have.”

When asked what he feels the most challenging component will be moving through this upcoming season, Battaino references all the changes that have occurred over the past 18-months.  “I’m not sure if this is really a challenge, but for myself - because I don’t want to speak for anybody else - it would the fact that I’ve worked in hockey for 12-years now and there are a lot of nuances now about the way things have changed going through this Pandemic.”

“It’s changed the way we interact, we have to respectful of peoples’ space; and at training camp and going into pre-season its changed the way you interact with the players, and the space you give them. You are aware of this now when you’re around the players and it wasn’t that way before, but we’ll get used to it. We were doing Zoom interviews off the start and the younger guys embrace that - for them it isn’t that different - it’s older guys like me that need to figure it out.”

Battaino says pre-season ticket sales have been going well and people are ready to roll. “We had quite a few fans show up to our scrimmages at Saginaw Bay City Arena, as the Dow isn’t quite ready yet for ice, and I was pleasantly surprised by how many people showed up. I think fans are excited about just seeing hockey again in a live setting and I think that excitement will trickle down into the season. We haven’t lost but a handful of our regular season ticket holders prior to the pandemic, so that is a really positive sign as well. I also thinks fans will see other fans at the game and realize it’s okay to be there and then you’ll get a snowball effect.”

The Saginaw Spirit’s first home game is set for Saturday, October 16th against Erie and begins at 7:05 PM at the Dow Event Center.   While there will still be 20 teams in the OHL league, because of ongoing travel restrictions, the Spirit are only playing the Western Conference this year and will not be playing out East.

“It should be really great to see all our fans back at The Dow,” concludes Joey. “Seeing all those fans show up at our scrimmage games really amped things up and the players feed off of that. It’s more important than ever for fans to support the team as the players get back into the Dow.  I think it’s the best building in the league for atmosphere and I know our fans are chomping at the bit for things to get rolling again.”

“It’ pretty exciting to think about opening night and what that’s going to like and I’ve got to pinch myself right now just thinking about it!”               

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