By Spencer Seymour
Even though the team didn’t achieve their ultimate goal, the fantastic season that the St. Marys Lincolns enjoyed made Head Coach Jeff Bradley proud to be a part of the organization.
“Mike [Herman] said it best when he said after Game Five that he and I have both been around some really good teams but not all of them necessarily were special. This year’s team, though, was truly special. Honestly, I’m in awe of our players.”
“It wasn’t just the hockey part, it was the people that they were. It’s not often that you have a team of great people, and we had that. That’s why I’m proud to be a part of this team. Everyone on this team is going to be battle-tested and hungry coming into next year.”
The Lincolns swept the Strathroy Rockets in the first round of the GOJHL playoffs followed by another four-game series win in their semi-final against the London Nationals. The Lincs’ season included winning 15 consecutive home games and a six-month stretch during which the Lincolns didn’t once lose two games in a row.
In the Western Conference Final, the highly-potent Leamington Flyers erased the memory of their upset loss a year ago to the Chatham Maroons by eliminating the Lincolns in five hard-fought games. Bradley told the Independent that he believes that the bitter taste of defeat will push the team’s returning core to be even better next year.
“Obviously, you wouldn’t like to have these lessons, you would rather just win. But it’s not a bad thing for us to have these lessons and remember the pain and use it to get better next year. Guys on our team suffered this year. There were really unfortunate injuries. Austin [Keleher] had a big scare. Rourke [McEwan] hurt his shoulder at the most unfortunate time for him. There were disappointing games that we let slip away from us but all of that is character-building and I think we’ll be better for it next year.”
Arguably the player who had the hardest year from a health standpoint was defenceman Josh Cornfield, who had a series of unfortunate illnesses and injuries that limited him to just 26 games. Bradley felt bad for the Kitchener product but believes he is going to be chomping at the bit by the time next season arrives.
“He is an elite puck mover, a very calm presence on the ice. This year was tough for him because he was sick for a while and then injured for the rest. We know he’s working hard to get healthy and in shape for next season and we think he has the ability to be a really important player for us.”
Rourke McEwan, mentioned during Bradley’s comments about the team’s lessons and pain of this season in regards to his late-season shoulder injury, was credited by the Head Coach along with the team’s other hometown player Jimmy Schiedel for their high levels of maturity despite not always having a regular spot in the lineup as rookies on a veteran squad.
“Guys like Jimmy and Rourke, they’re young guys on a team that had championship aspirations so they weren’t always playing, but they never complained. They didn’t come to practice and sulk. They showed up every day and worked hard.”
“They understood that when they weren’t playing, their role was to push the guys who were playing to keep getting better. Role recognition is a huge sign of maturity in individuals and that a team as a whole is ready to contend, and that’s what guys like Jimmy and Rourke did.”
At the start of the season, Jacob Montesi was also in a position of being in and out of the lineup. However, the rookie blueliner’s consistent, reliable defensive play, coupled with constant overall improvement, made Montesi a lock in Bradley’s lineup every night by the end of the year.
“Jacob’s progression went a bit under the radar but his development was really big for us. At the start of the year, he was in the rotation on the bottom pair and by the end of the year, he was a staple of our defence core and a really important player for us.”
To start the post-season, Montesi was one of just four defenders available to Coach Bradley along with Nathan Small, Grayden Strohack, and Josh Tidgwell. Despite the depleted nature of the backend, the quarter of rearguards shouldered the massive load incredibly well.
“Obviously Nathan is a great player but I really respect him for giving me another opportunity to be his coach again,” Bradley commented about Small, who was traded by London to St. Marys early in his Junior ‘B’ career. “I was on the bench when he signed his first junior card in London years ago and it didn’t go as he had hoped the start of his junior career would go. For him to come back and let me coach him again speaks to his character. We have a great relationship now and it’s all thanks to him being such a great person.”
“I hated coaching against Josh because he’s so tough and mean,” laughed Bradley about the grizzled Tidgwell. “So I was really happy to get him on my team. He’s respectful, super committed, and loves the game. We wouldn’t have gone as far as we did without him. He was such a stabilizing presence on our blueline. He made all of our players play a couple of inches bigger because he brought a ton of toughness to our defence.”
“The best compliment I can give Grayden is that there’s no way he’s back with us next year,” remarked Bradley on Strohack. “He is definitely an OHL-ready player and he’s a really good person who the guys like being around. For a young defenceman to play such a mature game is really indicative of his talent and I firmly believe that he’s going to take that next step to the OHL next season.”
Part of the reason the task for the four defenders at the start of the playoffs felt so tall was the absence of Adam Barkley to start the blueliners. The native of Inkerman, Ontario was a horse for Bradley’s squad all season. But as good as he was on the ice, he also displayed an incredible ability to adapt to his new surroundings and help lead a team far from his home.
“For Adam to come in not knowing anybody and to be as great a teammate as he was so impressive,” Bradley said. “Everyone knows how good of a player he is, there’s nothing the guy can’t do. We played him a ton and used him in every situation. He proved that he is an elite defenceman, but just as importantly, he was also a fantastic leader.”
Of course, the leadership conversation with this team can’t be had without mentioning the rest of the leadership group. Specifically, those players who, along with the aforementioned Small, wore a letter on their jerseys, including Captain Ethan Lamoureux and Assistant Captains Jacob Chantler, Michael Elliston, and Eric Smith.
“I remember coaching against Ethan thinking he was a good young player and to now see him become an elite player in this league has been a joy for me,” said Bradley about Lamoureux. “To watch him become the leader we had hoped for when we made him Captain and the example he set as a player who can play in any situation, I feel truly fortunate to have coached Ethan.”
“I was on the bench for Jacob’s first junior game with London,” Bradley continued regarding Chantler, “so to be on the bench for his first and last junior game, it means a lot to me. When he came in as a 17-year-old in London, he was fantastic and he was the exact same player this year, just older, stronger, and better. He’s a great leader, an ultra-competitor, and has set an incredible example for the young players on this team.”
“I was fortunate enough to coach Michael in the past and it was fantastic for me when he wanted to join the Lincolns,” raved Bradley on Elliston. “I have all the respect in the world for Michael and his family. He’s a quiet kid but he’s very respectful and he’s a heck of a player. We were a team that didn’t necessarily have wave after wave of explosive offensive players but Michael gave us an incredible scoring touch.”
“Seeing Eric take that next step in his development and how he embraced his role as a leader was great to see,” Bradley concluded on the hard-hitting Smith. “Eric is such a positive member of this team on and off the ice. Obviously, he brings that physical edge and this year really developed his game on the defensive side. He’s is the kind of player and person you want in your locker room.”
Smith wasn’t the only player who the Head Coach felt improved his defensive play. Chase MacQueen-Spence arrived as a dynamic offensive player but Bradley saw the first-year forward bring an incredible drive to round out his game.
“Chase came in as an ultra-skilled player but his game lacked defensive structure. But he put in the work and when we played him with Schnittker and Stubberfield for a little while, he really learned from those guys. He became a trustworthy player who you have no reservations about him being out there in the last minute of a period.”
Part of the reason MacQueen-Spence developed his game on the defensive side was a stint playing alongside defensive specialists Cole Schnittker and Adrian Stubberfield. The two overagers received high praise from the bench boss, who often turned to the longtime friends and teammates to shut down the opposition’s best scorers.
“I’ve never seen a kid bleed the jersey colours as much as Cole,” Bradley stated. “All that matters to Cole is doing what the team needs him to do. His willingness to block shots and his defensive play are spectacular. There aren’t too many kids who have the character that Cole has. I don’t think I’ve seen a player love his team more than Cole.”
“I don’t think there’s a kid that I’ve enjoyed coaching more in my life than Adrian. He is a great leader who prides himself on being a defensive-minded player. Everything he does, he does it the right way. He’s so self-aware. He understands the game incredibly well. Adrian will be good at whatever he does but there’s no doubt that he would be a really good coach.”
The Lincolns had another pair of longtime friends and playing partners in Jaden Lee and Luca Spagnolo, who quickly solidified themselves as exciting and gritty scoring threats.
“You know guys are going to be good but you don’t quite know how good. Having Luca and Jaden come in and immediately be impact players in your top six was such a huge part of this team getting as far as it did. Luca and Jaden are both super competitive, they never quit, and as good as they are in the offensive zone, they’re really solid two-way players who aren’t scared of physicality.”
With the amount of offensive talent like alongside Lee and Spagnolo in the top-six forward group, the personnel on the first two lines could constantly be interchanged. A line that became unshakable for Bradley, however, was the ‘Perfect Compliment’ line of Keleher, Matt Prendergast, and Owen Voortman.
“This year, we wanted Austin to be a third-line centre and then, in his 19 and 20-year-old years, he’s going to get the chance to be even more of an impact player in this league. The thing with Austin is whether he scores or not, the thing that never changes with him is that the more important the game is, the more impactful he becomes.”
“Any first-year player coming from minor hockey will have a bit of a learning curve,” continued Bradley on Prendergast, “but we had the opportunity to use Matt in the 2022 playoffs which made that learning curve a bit smaller. Matt progressed really well throughout the year in a somewhat new role for him. He works extremely hard, cares about getting better, and he’s got speed and competitiveness that could propel him to being an impact player.”
“In Owen’s case, it’s tough for kids to leave home for the first time, go to a new school, and live with a new family, but he seemed to handle it really well. Owen’s potential is through the roof. He started as a centreman and we moved him to the wing, which he was able to adapt to really well. You love having players who are flexible and that’s what Owen gave us. We could move him to any line when needed and other guys would ask us to put Owen on their line.”
One of the biggest reasons the Lincs went as far as they did this season was the fact that they wielded arguably the best goaltending tandem in the GOJHL. Matteo Lalama was coming off a 32-game season with the OHL’s Barrie Colts in 2021-22, while Carter George likely would have been the starting netminder for the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack in their first-round playoff series against the London Knights had they been allowed to call him up. The two netminders meant Bradley never felt even the slightest bit worried regardless of which one was in goal.
“Getting a player of Matteo’s prestige was extremely important for us,” said Bradley. “St. Marys hasn’t traditionally been the place that gets the big fish at the start of the season. He ended up being everything that was advertised. He didn’t just come here, he came here after playing in the OHL and he treated St. Marys with respect and had a great attitude.”
“We had told Carter at the beginning of the year that Matteo was going to be guaranteed a certain number of starts and Carter was fine with whatever we felt was best for the team. He always showed up with a smile on his face. It’s tough for Carter to have OHL success and then come back to Junior ‘B’ and serve as the backup. There are two ways you can handle that and Carter decided to handle it the proper way and was always so respectful.”
When asked about the story of the season, Bradley said that he feels the success the organization experienced is going to transcend to even greater things in the future.
“We’re a premier destination now. We cemented ourselves as the place to be in our area. To see the steps that this team has taken under Brandon [Boyd] and the executive, this organization has just kept growing over the last few years. We won two games in the second round last year, and now this year we got to the conference finals. Hopefully, we can keep getting better and taking this organization to the next level.”
Bradley also felt that one of the most important factors in the team’s ability to win their first eight playoff games and advance to the Conference Final were the people in the stands.
“We won 15 games in a row in the regular season. During the grind of a season, especially if you’re going into a quieter rink, it can be tough to generate energy for yourself. We never had to worry about that at home. We knew our fans would be behind us and it was a massive help. The fans may not realize that somewhere in that crowd could be a future Lincoln.”
“Whether it’s a prospective player for next year or a young kid who wants to be a Lincoln when they grow up, seeing us sweep the London Nationals with over 1,000 people screaming and cheering, it’s absolutely massive for this organization and makes this a team that kids want to play for.”
It isn’t just about what those crowd reactions could potentially do to entice future stars to strive to play for the Lincs, but Bradley also hopes that the fans helped make memories for this year’s team that they will cherish forever.
“It also creates memories for our players. Whether it’s Lamoureux scoring the game-winner against Leamington, Schnittker tying Game Four, or Chantler scoring the shootout winner against Sarnia, hopefully, they can look back on those moments in five-to-ten years and think fondly of their time in St. Marys.