Since 1996-97, when the Detroit Red Wings won their first Stanley Cup in 42 long years the Motor City has been trademarked “Hockeytown” by hockey fans around the world. As the hockey season rolls into full swing over the next few weeks, there is a new border town ready to claim the title of “Hockeytown” for the upcoming season – and it is not an NHL franchise.
One-hundred eleven kilometers (69.1 miles) northeast up the St.Clair River from the Joe Louis Arena sits the RBC Centre in Sarnia ready to greet hockey fans filing through its doors. The RBC Centre is home to the Ontario Hockey Leagues’ Sarnia Sting and this exciting team is ready to take the league by storm. It has been a long struggle for the Sting organization as the team has not advanced past the opening playoff rounds in the last eleven years. The Sting fans have grown frustrated with the team failing to make the playoffs in the past two seasons in a league that only four teams do not see post-season action. In their 17year history, the Sarnia Sting have not reached the OHL Finals but when Erie comes to town tonight (September 23rd) this overhauled roster of superstars will be looking to give their town – their Hockeytown – something to cheer about.
The Sarnia Sting franchise is blessed to have two players with game changing abilities skating as the faces of the franchise. Russian superstar and the Sting’s 2010 first round import pick, Nail Yakupov, had no issues adjusting to the North American game as he racked up 49 goals and 101 points to finish fourth in league scoring. Yakupov’s season was impressive enough for him to win both the OHL and CHL rookie of the year honours. Much of Yakupov’s success can be attributed to teammate Alex Galchenyuk and his family as they helped his transition to a new country and culture. Alex Galchenyuk, the 2010 1st overall OHL Priority Pick, is an American born player of Russian decent that also displayed his elite talents playing alongside his good friend Nail. Yakupov and Galchenyuk share a special bond that will surely carry over to the 2012 NHL Entry Draft where both players are expected to become Top Ten selections. Last night, TSN’s Bob McKenzie named Nail Yakupov the favourite to follow suit of former Sarnia Sting superstar Steven Stamkos and become the first overall selection. Alex Galchenyuk, McKenzie’s fifth ranked player, will certainly vie for a top draft position as well. These two electrifying Russians are just two reasons to visit the new Hockeytown of Sarnia.
Last spring, the Sting executive team filled the vacant General Manager and Head Coach position with a highly touted hockey man named Jacques Beaulieu. The former associate coach of the London Knights comes to town with a winning resume as he has been credited with the successful rebuild of the eventual 2011 CHL Memorial Cup Champions, the Saint John Sea Dogs. Beaulieu’s son, Nathan, was a Sea Dog and his strong season eventually earned him a trip to the 2011 NHL Entry Draft where the Montreal Canadiens selected the strathroy native 17th overall.
Jacques wasted little time revamping the Sting roster as he made numerous trades over the summer months that brought in some hard working veteran talent that would give the franchise some depth and credibility. Beaulieu’s finest summer moves may have been his ability to recruit several highly touted draft picks that initially had no intentions of playing in the Ontario Hockey League. In 2009, Sarnia took a flyer when they selected forward Reid Boucher and defenseman Connor Murphy in the fourteenth and fifteenth rounds, respectively. Beaulieu was able to recruit these two recent NHL draft picks into coming to the border town City of Sarnia. Connor Murphy, selected 20th overall in the 2011 NHL Draft’s 1st round, gives Sarnia some much needed help on defence but will miss the first couple months due to a knee injury. Reid Boucher, selected 99th overall in the 4th round by the New Jersey Devils, brings his goal scoring touch to a team that will certainly score their share of goals. Boucher has shown great chemistry on a line with Nail Yakupov and Alex Galchenyuk throughout pre-season play and will certainly challenge for the OHL rookie scoring lead.
The Sarnia sting also added a big pivot from Iroqouis Falls, Ryan Kujawinski, with the sixth overall pick of the 2011 OHL Priority Draft and Kujawinski will jump directly into the lineup this season. The Sting’s biggest addition, especially long term, may have been drafting an offensive defenseman from New Jersey by the name of Anthony DeAngelo. The shifty smooth skating DeAngelo was a steal in the second round and the Sting convinced the former Cedar Rapids 15-year old star to come join a potent Sting team to better his game. Look for DeAngelo to become a fixture on the Sting’s powerplay as he quarterbacks the play. The Chicago Blackhawks 2010 2nd round pick, Ludvig Rensfeldt, will also be joining the Sting’s top six forwards as the large Swede comes over as an import pick. The result from several trades and signings has left only a few remaining from last year’s ninth place Sting team. There is little doubt that change was needed in this organization and it comes at the perfect time as the Sarnia Sting look to challenge for the West Division title and bragging rights within the Western Conference.
It has been a busy and exciting summer as the team takes a whole new look into the 2011-12 OHL season. Sarnia has become a city to visit for the upcoming hockey season as scouts will pile into the RBC Centre to watch star forwards Yakupov and Galchenyuk compete for the 2012 NHL Draft top spots. Goaltender Brandon Hope will be challenged by overager Brandon Maxwell for the Sting’s starting goaltender role but Hope is another 2012 NHL Draft eligible Sting that is looking to prove himself. With lots of fresh faces joining the Sarnia roster this year, be sure to familiarize yourselves with Charlie Sarault (former Kingston Frontenac), Justin Thomas (Sault Ste. Marie), Domenic Alberga (Brampton Battalion), Taylor Carnevale (Windsor), Julian Luciani (Ottawa), Alex Basso (Belleville), Patrick Harrison (Kingston) and the abovementioned Brandon Maxwell (Kitchener) as these players provide depth that Sarnia has longed for.
In their final home game of the preseason the Sting witnessed a record preseason crowd of 4,123 fans at the RBC Centre. If that attendance figure is any indication of the community support the Sting will receive this season then the team will certainly be motivated to bring Sarnia its first Memorial Cup birth. The Sting finished with a preseason record of 4-1-1 with Yakupov leading all Sting forwards with six goals and 15 points in six games capped off with a four goal, five point performance in their last preseason 6-1 win over the Windsor Spitfires.
The puck drops tonight at 7:05pm as the long awaited Sting season kicks off. Hockey has been revitalized in the City of Sarnia thanks to a couple of talented Russian players and a whole new hope. It appears that all paths to the 2012 NHL Entry Draft lead through this border town and it will not be surprising if Sarnia is soon dubbed the new Hockeytown.