By MICHAEL MROZIAK
Niagara Gazette —
For the first time in their history as a member of the Ontario Junior Hockey League, the Buffalo Junior Sabres are defending a title.
Two of them, in fact.
The 2012-13 edition of the Jr. Sabres were the regular season champions of the OJHL’s West Division and South-West Conference.
However, you can sense it from the man running the team — that’s good, but not satisfying.
“I’d feel better if we were conference champions based on our playoff performance, not just the regular season,” said Jr. Sabres head coach and general manager Michael Peca. “I think we did get a lot of respect from our peers in the league. I think our program is well respected and you’re a target.
“Any time you finish first place in your division or your conference, teams hold you as the benchmark for the following year. We’re going to be up against it every time we play somebody. We’re going to get their best effort and we’d expect nothing less. If we want to continue to be atop the standings, we’ve got to withstand that stuff.”
The Jr. Sabres open their 2013-14 regular season this afternoon in North York, Ontario against the team that eliminated them from the postseason last spring, the North York Rangers.
The Jr. Sabres set a rather high standard for other clubs to follow in 2012-13. They were nationally ranked — in Canada, where they compete among other Junior A level hockey teams that develop players ages 16 to 20 years old for consideration by college hockey programs. The Canadian Junior Hockey League ranked the Jr. Sabres as high as No. 7 nationwide last season.
They had a 50-plus goal scorer, Tyler Gjurich, who was later honored as the league’s MVP. Their starting goaltender, Parker Gahagen, posted seven shutouts.
Those two players are now gone. Gjurich, who was in the final year of junior eligibility, is about to begin a minor league tryout for the New York Rangers organization in Hartford. Gahagen is entering his first year at West Point, where he will stop pucks for Army’s NCAA Division I hockey team. The latter is one of at least a half-dozen players from last year’s lineup who are preparing this fall to continue their hockey careers at the NCAA level.
Among the few players returning from last year’s lineup is Lewiston resident Ben Casale. Like Peca, he’s pleased with how last season went but like his coach is hungry for more.
“Definitely. It was nice winning the regular season in the conference last year but it left a bad taste in our mouth losing so early (in the playoffs),” said Casale. “We had bigger goals and this year is the same. We expect to do big things and go as far as the Dudley Hewitt Cup (the Ontario Provincial championship).”
Besides Casale, this year’s edition features Nick Smith, a North Tonawanda native who studies and has previously played at Nichols. He was called up to the Jr. Sabres briefly last season and this year has a regular spot on the roster.
“Nick was part of this team a couple of years ago but decided to go back to Nichols (to play). He thought that was best for his development,” said Peca. “What we’d seen in Nick last year when he was up with us a little bit, and even just a one-game preseason that we had, Nick’s got some pretty nice potential in him. He skates really well. He handles the puck pretty good. He’s not afraid to go to the hard areas of the ice. I’m really excited to see what kind of player he can develop into.”
While Buffalo lost its lone preseason game, a 6-5 overtime decision against the Rochester Jr. Americans last Wednesday, another player with local connections made a good first impression. Defenseman Dennis Gilbert, a Clarence resident and student at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, scored two goals. He’s one of the defensemen Peca will look upon to replace key blueliners who have since moved on to NCAA hockey.
Also in the mix are Wheatfield resident Ryan Kuhn, a forward who played last season with the Jr. Sabres 18U squad, and Tonawanda’s David Hopfer, a defenseman and fellow former Jr. Sabres 18U player who graduated from Kenmore East High School this past June.
“It’s a new group. It’s a younger group but at the same time it’s a hungry group,” said Peca about this year’s squad, which also includes several players from East Amherst, Rochester and even players from as far away as Montana and Alberta, Canada.
Four current players are already verbally committed to NCAA college hockey. Gilbert has committed to Niagara University. Team captain Ryan Schmelzer and forward Nolan Sheeran are committed to Canisius beginning next season, while forward and Lancaster resident Michael Ederer has committed to St. Lawrence University.
That’s been one of the program’s most important missions, to develop players for college hockey. Part of getting them noticed is to help them raise their levels now. The bar is already set pretty high, given last year’s accomplishments.
“I think getting these guys to realize how hard they’ve got to compete night in and night out, and that includes the practices, to kind of build a regular season that prepares you for playoff hockey is incredibly important for us,” said Peca.
That regular season begins this afternoon. Following today’s road game, the team will host its home opener at 7:30 p.m. Monday against the Toronto Lakeshore Patriots at the Northtown Center at Amherst.
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Buffalo Jr. Sabres Upcoming Home Games
Monday, 7:30 p.m. vs. Toronto Lakeshore Patriots (home opener)
Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. vs. Toronto Jr. Canadiens
Both games are at the Northtown Center at Amherst (formerly Pepsi Center)
1615 Amherst Manor Drive, between Maple and Millersport
Admission: $7 adults, $3 students & seniors
For the team’s full schedule, go to www.buffalojuniorsabres.com