All even on the Express as NOJHL's youngest team gets passing grade

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A .500 mark through 10 games is at least a passing grade.
And what is worth noting is that the teacher — in this case the head coach — has given his students an ‘E’ for effort.
To be sure, there have been ups and downs as evidenced by a 0-0-2 start through its first two contests to a 3-1-2 mark after six outings to the 4-4-2 records that it has 10 games into the 2020-2021 Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League regular season.
And while the Espanola Express has been somewhat inconsistent as the youngest team in the NOJHL — there is not a single 2000-birth-year player on its roster — one constant has stood out to head coach Brent Hughes.
“I really like our effort and our work ethic,” Hughes relayed to Sault This Week. “We have worked hard in every game that we have played so far.”
After posting a 3-1-2 record against the French River Rapids in its first six games of cohort competition, Espanola then had a 1-3-0 mark in four matches with the older, more experienced Soo Thunderbirds to close out the 2020 portion of the ’20-21 campaign.
“We are learning how to win and what it takes as it relates to sticking to our structure but for a young team that has had its ups and downs, there is a lot to like,” Hughes added. “We need to understand that the name of the game is possession and we have to be patient and not allow the other team to dictate the flow of the game to us. When we play our game, we can hang with the best of them.”
Hughes noted that in Espanola’s four-game set against the Soo, he thought that the Express allowed the Thunderbirds to decree the direction of play. Still, aside from one blowout win by the Soo, the other three games — of which Espanola won one — all went down to the wire.
And all things considered, Hughes said he likes what he has in the current 23-player roster that has been mainly assembled by Express president and general manager Jason Rapcewicz.
“We have a really good group of kids in our dressing room … I love the make up of our team,” noted the 38-year-old Hughes, a demanding coach who pushes his players to give their best at all times, be it at practice or during games.
Three of Espanola’s top players are 2003-birth-year forwards who are all from the Sudbury area and who were all Ontario Hockey League priority selection draft picks in 2019 — Cameron Walker (Kingston Frontenacs), Bradley Brunet (Niagara Ice Dogs) and Devon Savignac (North Bay Battalion.)
“All three kids have all the tools,” Hughes said of the troika. “They can all go out there and score a big goal to change a game. It is just a matter of them — like all of our players — having the ability to stay patient and stick to our structure.”
Walker, Brunet and Savignac are atop the Espanola scoring short, all having averaged more than a point per game to date.
Hughes also likes the atmosphere that his leadership group of players led by captain Josh Boucher and assistants A.J. Favot, Cameron Walker and newcomer Ben Anderson have created.
“They are incredible in the dressing room with the positive energy that they have helped to instill,” Hughes said of the foursome that includes Sudbury area products Boucher, Favot and Walker as well as Anderson, who hails from Wetaskiwin, Alta.
Meanwhile, the Express also features a pair of Sault Ste. Marie lads with 2001 birth dates in second-year forward Cole Delarosbil and seasoned defenceman Jordan Ritchie, who played in the NOJHL last season for the now dormant Elliot Lake Wildcats.
“Cole is a great kid,” Hughes said of the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Delarosbil. “The kids love him, he is dialed in and he works hard.
“Del still needs to work on not dwelling on a bad shift and putting too much pressure on himself,” Hughes noted of Delarosbil. “As I told you before, he wants so badly to do well and to not disappoint but he just needs to focus more on his next shift or his next game and not worry about what happened in the past.
“He gives all that he has and is a good player for us. His will to win and his work ethic are really big assets for us,” Hughes added, in further praise of Delarosbil, who has three goals, two assists, five points in nine games this season.
As for the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Ritchie, Hughes said he greatly appreciates what the rugged defender brings to the Express.
“I will say it again, like I told you before, I love Jordan Ritchie,” Hughes noted. “I swear that even if he wasn’t wearing shin pads that he would be out there blocking shots for us. He is a warrior with an unbelievable work ethic and his determination is a great example to the younger kids on our team.
“He has been an unbelievable addition to our team and I can’t say enough about Jordan. I love him,” Hughes stated emphatically.
To be sure, slowly but surely, the culture as it relates to the Espanola franchise seems to be changing in a positive manner.
For example, since entering the NOJHL as an expansion franchise in 2015, the Express has made the playoffs only twice while never posting a winning record over five seasons.
In fact, when Espanola made the playoffs in 2019-2020 with a record of 17-34-5, it was the most wins in a season by the Express since its debut term of 2015-2016 when it posted a 12-39-3 mark.
Meanwhile, from 2016-2017, 2017-2018 and 2018-2019, the Express missed the playoffs all three seasons with respective records of 9-45-2, 2-52-2 and 10-43-3.
Do all the math and in five regular seasons of existence before this one, the Express resembled a track wreck with an overall record of 50-213-15.
That is right — only 50 wins in five years from 278 regular season games.
However, and notably, the Express reversal started to go forward last season when the aforementioned, 44-year-old Jason Rapcewicz took over sole ownership of the franchise and became its president and general manager.
Under Rapcewicz and second-year head coach Dave Clancy, the Express made it back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2015-2016 season. But Rapcewicz and Clancy parted ways during the past off-season when the two could not agree on a new contract.
Enter Hughes — with the recent experience of three straight winning seasons as an assistant coach with the Cape Breton Eagles of the Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League — as the new bench boss in Espanola.
And now, through extended use of video and working closely with his players both one on one and as a team, Hughes has the Express on an even route and at the .500 mark through its initial 10 games of the 2020-2021 NOJHL season.
As for being a head coach in the NOJHL with Espanola after three full seasons as an assistant at the QMJHL level out in Cape Breton, Hughes said he is “loving it.
“I enjoy the teaching that goes with the coaching and trying to help the players to improve through video.
“I am not just a hockey coach … I am about getting to know the kids on a personal level and trying to help them with their goals and aspirations.
“I try to treat my players the way I wanted to be treated when I was a player,” Hughes added. “It is important that I know where they stand with me and where I stand with them.”


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