Q & A With Saginaw Spirit GM Dave Drinkill

The Saginaw Spirit were in the stretch run of the 2019-20 season ready to go on a potential long playoff run. But then everything around them and the Ontario Hockey League stopped.

The Spirit had just six games left before the playoffs would have begun. They were within five points of the London Knights for the top spot in the Western Conference. There were high hopes of a championship for Saginaw.

Fast forward to September 2021. Familiar faces have moved on. Many such as Cole Perfetti were important contributors to where they were hoping to go. The time has come for the Spirit to go through a bit of a transition with fresh faces looking to make an impact. While many important players have left, some remain who will have a big part in helping the new faces get accustomed to the OHL.

Related: Cole Perfetti Talks Preparing For an Unprecedented Draft

Spirit general manager Dave Drinkill was kind enough to talk with us about the upcoming season and much more. Among the topics, we discuss new players adjusting to the OHL and how the team stayed sharp during a lost season. We also talked about Chris Lazary, Tristan Lennox, leadership, scouting and Covid protocols. Drinkill also opened up about the mindset behind drafting Adam Fantilli and how that situation worked out for them despite him not reporting. Enjoy.

Dave Drinkill Q & A

THW: Dave, thanks for doing this. What are some of the storylines you are watching in the preseason?

Drinkill: For our team, we have a lot of turnover like a lot of teams in our league do. We have seven players returning from the last time we played a game. One of them is a goaltender. We play a different style of game with puck possession. We’re skilled. We don’t dump pucks in. We want to control them on entry. To bring all these young kids in at once and try to teach them our style and our system that takes a lot of time. Our coaching staff has done a really, really good job and put a lot of work in and will continue to put a lot of work in.

For us, it’s developing their skills and teaching them our concepts. We’re not really worried in exhibition about the outcome of games. Do you want to win? Sure. But if we lose games like we did to Erie (first exhibition game), it’s not the end of the world. It’s a good teaching lesson for us. I don’t want that happening on opening night. For us in getting to know these kids. It’s a lot of new players and a lot of guys new to the league. It’s just teaching them the concepts and learn how to play the Saginaw style.

Dave Drinkill, OHL, Saginaw Spirit
Saginaw Spirit GM Dave Drinkill has a lot of new faces on the team after being on the verge of a long playoff run in 2019-20. (Photo credit: OHL)

THW: What do you think is the hardest thing for a new player to adjust to when they first enter the OHL?

Drinkill: I think it’s two things. The compete level every shift. You can’t take shifts off in our league. That and little details. When you’re coming back in the D zone if you’re not shoulder checking before you pick up a puck there’s a guy on top of you where in minor hockey you’d have more time to curl so you have to come and make a play. So little, little details that are small things that people don’t realize like shoulder checking, getting the guy’s stick in traffic, being in the right body position in puck battles so you’re not caught on the outside. Those little things you can get away with in minor hockey as an elite player. That’ll really come back to bite you in the OHL. Learning everyday is a process and you have to focus on getting better everyday.

THW: Looking back at the time off with the canceled season, what did your team prioritize in making sure everyone stayed sharp? How did you spend the extra time?

Drinkill: It was tough. We did a lot of communication with our guys. A lot of guys have graduated onto pro. The guys that were in limbo (head coach) Chris Lazary, myself and our staff did a lot of talking with those guys, guys like (Danny) Katic and (D.J.) King who were going to be overagers last year that weren’t sure what was going to happen. A lot of it was making sure their mental health and their well-being was ok because it was tough on those guys. They didn’t know if they were going to play, when they were going to play.

And then for the guys that were going to be coming back, like (Josh) Bloom in their draft year, (we) made sure he’s staying in shape. We’re feeding a lot of video to NHL teams. Tristan Lennox it was the same thing playing in his draft year. There was a lot of talk with him making sure he was alright. And they were doing everything they could that if they didn’t get called at the NHL Draft that they’d be ready for a camp. And our guys that were invited to camp, Mitchell Smith, T-Bone Codd, it was the same thing, be ready to go when you need to get going. We’re just trying to keep our guys as sharp as possible.

We did a lot of Zoom calls maybe not as much as other teams did. When we did them, they were to the point and direct. They were fun just trying to keep the guys together. It was very tough. I hope it’s something we never have to go through again.

Lennox & Lazary

THW: I know a lot of NY Islanders fans are interested in Tristan Lennox. What was he able to do in order to be ready for his moment where he got drafted despite not having a season? Also what has he meant to your team?

Drinkill: He really put in the work over the last 18 months. He was really starting to come in his 17 year old season because he’s a late birthday. Our team was really gelling. We’re getting to the point where we’re going to take a long playoff run. He was going to be our guy. Then everything got shut down. He didn’t get to play last year. He put a lot of time in the gym and came back in phenomenal shape. It was great seeing him get drafted by the Islanders.

Tristan Lennox, Saginaw Spirit
Tristan Lennox is the backbone of the Saginaw Spirit. (Photo Credit: Eric Young, Dream Bigger Media)

He means a lot to our team. He’s our backbone. He’s come a long, long way from a 16 year old boy to the man that he is now. Off the ice, the maturity level, the way he conducts himself around teammates, the way he interacts with myself and the staff. He’s just a great human being that we love having in the organization. And with us being talented but young up front, he knows he’s going to have to bail our guys out at times. That’s the job of an elite goaltender. He’s ready for it. I think he’s going to thrive and he wants that.

THW: During his draft year, I got to ask Cole Perfetti about your coach Chris Lazary and what makes him such a good coach. He said that he allows him to play his own game and was the best coach he’d ever had to that point. What is it about Lazary that makes him a good fit for your team?

Drinkill: He’s a phenomenal human being off the get go. He’s a phenomenal coach and person dedicated to his craft. Cole is right. He allows guys to be themselves. He allows them to play the game. He doesn’t want to pigeon hole you into something you’re not. He doesn’t a skill guy like Perfetti dumping pucks in. If you’re a creative skilled player, make creative skilled plays. That’s what you’re born to do. Let’s build you what you are instead of trying to turn you into something you’re not. He’s the hardest working guy I’ve ever seen. He’s at the rink at 5:30 in the morning doing video. He’s there everyday doing that. It’s crazy the amount of time and effort he puts in. I always say he was born to be a coach. He’s going to be a great one and he’s going to keep moving on and we’ll be happy for him at that point.

One thing I think he really does well is the culture he puts within our organization. He really allows the players to be themselves. We have a lot of fun at the rink. But when it’s work time, it’s time to work. When it’s time to have fun, guys know they can knock on his door and have fun with him and joke around and be themselves around him. I think that really helps some players come to the rink that they enjoy coming to the rink and they’re not scared to walk by the coach on a daily basis.

THW: With all the turnover the team has had, who are you looking to step up from a leadership perspective?

Drinkill: We have to do it by committee. Cam Baber is going to be our captain. He’s wearing the C in exhibition. He’s a phenomenal guy. This is his fifth season and played a little bit with us as a 16 year old. Then he went through all the runs of having good teams. He knows what it takes to be a winner. T-Bone Codd is a leader for us in the room. Nick Wong who we picked up just before the year is a great, young man who is going to help pull these young guys along. We feel we have a really good group of kids. But we expect those guys that have been here before, the Bloom’s, Mitchell Smith, T-Bone Codd, even Lennox on the backend. We expect them to pass that knowledge to the young guys.

The Adam Fantilli Situation

THW: I do want to ask you about Adam Fantilli. You completed the trade with North Bay. You will get an extra first-round pick in 2022. What led to this moment and what was the thought process in taking Fantilli when you did?

Drinkill: You know what? I’m very open to what happened because we’d never thought he’d be there at pick 18. We thought somebody would have done it before us. Going into the draft, I had a meeting with ownership. I said listen. I told them who Adam Fantilli was. They had heard. I said if he’s there at 18, we’re going to take him. And they said 100% we are. We went over the scenarios. Best case scenario he plays for us at some point. Worst, worst case scenario we trade him and get our first-round pick back. We knew what we had going in. He was there at 18. We took him.

Adam Fantilli Chicago Steel
Adam Fantilli came for a visit to Saginaw after the Spirit drafted him. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

The Fantilli family was awesome. They came for a visit. They liked everything we had to offer. They spent a lot of time in Saginaw. But at the end of the day they chose the route that they chose and we definitely respect their decision. We got to the point where he wasn’t going to come play for us so we went to the worst-case scenario and that was move him to an organization in North Bay.

I have a lot of respect for the job Adam Dennis is doing up there. To be fair to them, North Bay put the most time into that family heading into the draft because they had the number one overall pick. So they have a good connection with the family. The Fantilli family likes North Bay. Now, we are hoping that Adam reports (to North Bay.) That means we’d get more picks in the deal.

There wasn’t really a shocking secret behind it. We drafted him. We hoped he’d come. We knew worst-case scenario we’d get a first-round pick back but the bonus in the whole thing was we drafted (Matthew) Jovanovic in the second round. We had him ranked as a high first-round pick. So when he got him in the second because of his commitment to Notre Dame, we ended up getting him to report and he just signed a contract with us. For us, it’s like recouping that first-round pick.

THW: So yeah, that definitely worked for you.

Drinkill: Yeah. For us, we got a little bit lucky. If we would have had to trade Adam last year, we wouldn’t have been able to scout these players. Now we’re going to have two first-round picks in a year where we can really focus on them.

Scouting & OHL Protocols

THW: That was going to be my question about scouting. How challenging was it for your team to scout and what adjustments did you have to make in order to be prepared for the draft after losing the year?

Drinkill: It was very tough. We got lucky. (Erie Otters GM Dave Brown) was in the same boat as I was because we’d see each other at tournaments in Michigan. I think we were the only two GM’s that could get over to watch games because of our work visas. Our draft strategy, we took a lot of Americans or players that played in the United States. Our first rounder Luke McNamara played prep school although he was from the Toronto area. PJ Forgione was a reentry to be added back into the draft and we took him in the sixth round after being able to see him play a lot. It was a lot of video. But you don’t get that feel in video. You don’t hear the guy’s power when he’s digging into the ice to push off. It’s just so much different on video. Video scouting doesn’t do it justice. How do they interact with teammates? Even when there was things going on in Ontario, it was more skill sessions, non-contact games. We did as best we could. We thought we had a good draft. We definitely leaned heavily towards Americans and players that got to play in the US because I physically got to see them in game action.

THW: My last question for now is about the protocols the OHL has put in place. How confident are you feeling about what’s in place and do you feel that a whole season can be completed as is now?

Drinkill: Yes I do. I’m feeling very confident that being from Ontario I have an understanding of what the government wants there. Being in the US it is different down here. I think having our players and staff vaccinated really made a difference for our guys and the league in general. Kudos to Dave Branch for stepping up and I think a lot of leagues are going to start following that especially in Ontario. There will be challenges no doubt about it. We just have to deal with them head on and keep pushing through. I think that’s the only way through this. In Ontario, the vaccination rates are going higher and higher so that’s perfect. We’re going to have some issues but I think we are going to play.  

The Spirit have two more preseason games to go before their 2021-22 season starts. They’ll play in Flint on Oct 1 against the Erie Otters and Oct 3 against the Flint Firebirds. Then they will open their regular season on Oct 16-17 against the Otters in Saginaw.

It is a year of transition for the Spirit but there is still plenty of reason for optimism. We thank both Drinkill and the Saginaw Spirit for the time in talking with us about the new season and much more.

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