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Canadians setting bar high: Armstrong

Noah Serre of the Rayside Balfour Canadians and James Redmond of the Timmins Rock battle for the puck during the NOJHL Showcase 2017 at the Gerry McCrory Countryside Sports Complex in Sudbury, Ont. on Tuesday October 10, 2017. Serre is one of several players returning to Rayside this season. Gino Donato/Sudbury Star/Postmedia Network 

Ben Leeson
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There’s a different look to the Rayside-Balfour Canadians front office this season, but the on-ice product, and certainly the expectations, will be similar to the team that reached the NOJHL final in 2017-18.

Tim Armstrong, who took over as vice-president and director of hockey operations in late August after the league took control of the team from owner Adrian Gedye, figures that with several returnees from last year’s squad, as well as a group of quality newcomers, the locals should be poised for another deep run.

“Last year, I was working for the league as one of the supervisors of officials and I also did some scouting for their league all-star team,” recalled Armstrong on Friday, a few hours before the Canadians opened the regular season with a visit to the Powassan Voodoos. “I got to watch a lot of their games and I watched a lot of Rayside games and I think what we’ve got going for us is a lot of the core players are back, eight or 10 guys.

“I’m excited about what we have going on for this year.”

Returnees to watch up front include the leading scorers from last season, hard-nosed Evan Krassey and skilled Kyle Liinamaa, along with speedy two-way threat Noah Serre, who join experienced blueliners Evan Lavallee, Zachary Snow and Brandon Atkins.

Notable newcomers among the forward group include Eric Eschweiler, Zach Hauseman, Matthew Dokis-Dupuis and Alex Fowke, the last two recent graduates of the Sudbury Nickel Capital Wolves team that competed at Telus Cup nationals last spring, as well as fleet-footed Giordano Biondi, a Sudbury Wolves draft pick.

More Nickel Caps grads, Joel Mongeon and Chris Clark, figure to be solid contributors on the back end.

“Those guys, I believe, know how to win,” said Armstrong, referring to the Telus Cup participants, whom he hopes will excel in regional and provincial competition at the junior level, too.

“As far as expectations, I would hope that we can win the West and compete with Cochrane or one of those teams and get us on the road to the Dudley Hewitt Cup,” Armstrong said.

While the team lost No. 1 netminder Brayden Lachance to graduation, they have returned former backup Jean-Marc Brisson and added David Bowen, a Sudbury Wolves prospect who recently returned from training camp with the OHL club.

“I think we’re set there,” Armstrong said. “It’s a good way to start, when you’re brand new to the team as a manager.”

Tapped to lead the group from behind the bench is Dan Cuomo, a Levack native and onetime Wolves forward who has lived in Europe since the late 1970s, first as a pro player in the Netherlands and then as a coach for teams in the Dutch top division, as well as national under-20 and under-18 entries from Holland and Bulgaria. He also served for many years as the Wolves’ European scout.

“Dan really is a global hockey student,” Armstrong said. “He knows a hockey player when he sees one. He has a house on Windy Lake in Levack and he wants to get back and reconnect with his father and mother, who are getting up there, so he has legitimate reasons to come back. I played with him in university and has been a good friend of mine for almost my whole lifetime and we saw an opportunity, I opened the door for him and he came over and grabbed it.”

Cuomo has been joined by a couple of familiar faces for the Rayside players. Steve Lauzon, head coach for last year’s conference champions, has returned as an assistant, along with the recently re-hired Kyle Tarini.

They’ll look to keep the ship steady while Cuomo returns to the Netherlands to attend to some personal matters, which are expected to keep him there for about one month.

“In the meantime, Steve Lauzon, who brought the team to a championship final in our league, he’s back and he’s taking over the head coach duties while Dan is away,” Armstrong said. “From what I could see in the training camps, the two worked well together, and I expect that to continue when Dan comes back.”

All of which has been a big help to Armstrong, a former player and assistant coach in the NOJHL and successful bench boss with the Sudbury Lady Wolves midget AA program.

He admitted he hasn’t seen much of his family since taking the reins of the local junior A outfit.

“It has been busy, but it has been fun,” Armstrong said.

“When it’s a league-owned team, you know it’s a temporary position, but the way we look at it is we’re in for the long haul, meaning we want to win the last game on the last day. In the back of our minds, we know the team’s up for sale and it could be pulled from us at any time, but that’s not the way we’re operating. We’re putting together a good-quality product that people are going to want to see and we want to see success on the ice. That’s pretty well the bottom line.

“We’re starting to see things get together already and it has only been three weeks. I think a lot of people are going to be surprised with the product we put on the ice.”

The Canadians’ home opener is Sunday against the Soo Thunderbirds, the team they eliminated in a hard-fought, heated NOJHL conference final last season.

Start time at Chelmsford Arena is 6:30 p.m.

Twitter: @ben_leeson