North Bay Battalion Betting on Big Rebuild

A blustery fall night in North Bay, Ontario, I attended my first North Bay Battalion game and fell in love with a team that admittedly lacked an on-ice identity. Being a metropolis dweller all my life, a small-city hockey game was always on my cliché Canadian bucket list, and this one did not disappoint.

In what was one of the closer games for the Battalion in the early season ⁠— only losing 4-3 to the Oshawa Generals⁠ — there was a continuous mutter around the arena that something needed to change, and change would come. The North Bay Battalion signaled the changing of the guard, and with the drastic changes about to be mentioned in this article, may have set themselves up for long-term success.

The First of the Changes

Fast forward to mid-December, when the losing became too much for the Battalion (5-23-0) and changes had to be made. North Bay made the incredibly difficult decision to reassign head coach Stan Butler, who had been within the organization for 22 seasons and stayed with the club through their relocation from Brampton to North Bay.

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In comes interim coach Ryan Oulahen who was tasked with steadying a ship that was verging on free-fall. With players heavily rumoured with not wanting to be there and palpable frustration from the eyes of the bench during the games, he was given the most difficult of challenges.

Oulahen, a former player for the Battalion, managed to impress in his time as interim head coach, enough that owner Scott Abbott decided to make the appointment permanent, and named him the second official head coach in North Bay Battalion history.

Even with the additions of Oulahen and new general manager Adam Dennis, the Battalion failed to climb out of the bottom of the league and finished with a league-worst 17-41-4 record. Even with all of their struggles, Dennis and Oulahen were slowly restructuring their team into a more positive environment, and changes would be evidence of this in the next few months.

The Draft

Being the last-place organization in the league is never a good set of circumstances, but for the Battalion and their loyal fans, it seemed like luck was still not on their sides. The last-place team in the league gains the top pick in the OHL Priority Selection Draft, which is the primary way for new players to play in the league.

Brandon Coe North Bay Battalion
North Bay Battalion (Photo by Terry Wilson / OHL Images.)

This year’s top prospect for the draft was supposed to be Adam Fantilli. Reports stated that he told the Battalion he would not report to the team if selected until 2021, instead opting to pursue the USHL. The North Bay club had to improvise.

In came Ty Nelson of the Greater Toronto Canadiens, who held his own with Fantilli, and OHL rookie sensation Shane Wright when he came up against them. Instead of Fantilli, the Battalion got a player who was genuinely excited to be heading to North Bay, and at 15 years old, he’s not shying away from the tremendous challenge that comes from playing for the beloved Battalion.

As seen above, Nelson can’t wait to be a Troop (what North Bay calls their players) and to create an atmosphere of players who want to be there is precisely what the team needs. Although he is just one piece to a large hole in the puzzle, having a first-overall pick who is this happy to play is precisely what the team needs.

Preparing for Next Season

Preparation for the 2020-21 season started early, with trades signalling their intent midway through the previous season. The first move of intent was when captain Brad Chenier was sent to his hometown Sudbury Wolves, so he could compete for a championship in his final season in exchange for draft picks the Battalion could use to build. The Battalion then moved on from former first-round import Martin Has and forward Cameron Peters as well. These two trades brought in draft picks key to making moves later on in the season, and into the lengthened offseason thereafter.

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On the acquisitions side, The Battalion was active both during the mid-season and after the COVID-19 shortened season as well. Key among those was the acquiring of two London Knights to shore up the worst goals-against in the league, and provide some mid-line depth that was desperately needed. First, North Bay acquired then-17-year-old Allen Winslow, which was a move to acquire a player for the long term who could play a depth role for now, but develop into a better player for the future.

After the season, the management of the Battalion decided more was needed, and if the team was to contend next season, they needed a veteran who could score. In came Russian winger Matvey Guskov, a 19-year-old, first-round CHL import who had experience winning and plays a 200-foot game. (from ‘London Knights move Matvey Guskov to North Bay for draft picks,’ London Free-Press, 06/01/2020)

Next Season Outlook

The Battalion are on the right track if they want to turn their team into contenders. With a few young stars, and adopting a mentality of acquiring players that want to be in the North, they could be making a run to the playoffs as soon as next season.

Matvey Guskov London Knights
Matvey Guskov formerly of the London Knights brings experience to a young Battalion roster.
(Luke Durda/OHL Images)

If Nelson and Winslow can come and steady the defence, while the young offence looks to develop and work as a unit, the Battalion could be a significantly better team next season. At the very least, the city deserves the success of a team that brings them together on the cold weekend nights of a very long Ontario winter.