Chris Willsie one of the junior hockey club's co-owners steps in behind the bench
September 14, 2023
By Rob J. Ross
DORCHESTER, Ont. - A new head coach and new captain lead the Dorchester Dolphins into their 11th season in junior hockey.
The Dolphins hit the ice for the 2023-24 Provincial Junior Hockey League season, hosting the Lucan Irish, Friday, at the Flight Exec Center. On Sunday, the Dolphins visit the Aylmer Spitfires for a matinee game.
Chris Willsie, one of the team's owners, is the man behind the bench, with long time assistant coach Chris Masse and first year assistant, Bob Leeming. Mark Steele remains as general manager.
"Friday will be emotional and exciting because it's our home opener and hopefully we have a big crowd and that usually feeds into the player's energy. Then we make sure we carry that into Sunday," said Willsie, who makes his debut as official head coach. "There's a fine line between excitement and anxiousness. I think I'm excited. I want to keep that excitement level as high as I can, while still being focused on the task at hand. I'm really looking forward to it."
Paterson MacNair is the team's captain, with alternates Jordan Daer, Tristan Gerth and Jared Humphries.
The soon to be 21-year old MacNair led the Dolphins in scoring last season, with 17 goals and 25 assists.
Daer, 21, led the defence with seven goals and 24 assists.
Gerth returns to the Dolphins after two seasons with the St. Thomas Stars. The now 20-year old defenceman played in Dorchester during the 2019-20 season.
Humphries, a 19-year old forward, had seven goals and nine assists last season.
Over recent weeks filled with exhibition games, inner squad scrimmages and practices, the Dolphins determined their opening game roster.
"There's still summer rest, so the cardio needs to be worked on a bit," said Willsie at a recent practice. "We've have some things we're working on and still figuring out. "I like the dressing room and the guys seem to have a lot of energy. We were flying around the rink. It's always good when they are excited to be at the rink."
Along with MacNair, Daer and Humphries, the Dolphins have several returning players, including veteran forwards Josh Short, who had a team high 27 goals, Austin Connors, Tage Gallant and Nicholas Shearer, fourth in points last season with 31 in 34 games.
Jack Uniac, Cole Smale and Caleb Haalstra are back on the blueline.
Deklan Jermol returns as the number one goalie, with Connor Nelles.
Five players hail from Dorchester, Connors, forward Logan Corbeil, forward Cole Webster and rookie forwards Mavin Smith and David Johnston. Haalstra is from Belmont and Smale from St. Thomas.
Smith and defenceman Evan Sawyer, who played 36 games last season, are the youngest players, at age 17. Johnston turns 18 in October and forward Cooper Kilbourne is 18.
"I'd like to see us, pulling in the same direction and having each other's back and not pointing fingers. Taking responsibility," Willsie said. "Off the bat, we want to see them working hard and at least attempting the things we're trying to teach that may be different then in the past. Sometimes it's easier to do the thigns you've done in the past, so we don't expect them to master it in the first 10 games, but attempting it and make progress.
"There should be a marked difference between game 10 and game one."
The Dolphins visit
Exeter and Thamesford next weekend before returning home to face Aylmer,
Co-owner also now head coach
Chris Willsie is in a unique position.
The Dorchester Dolphins' co-owner is now the head coach of his team in Provincial Junior Hockey League club.
Willsie moves into the head coaching position after the trio of owners decided to have Mark Steele focus solely on the general manager duties.
"It's such a big job to be a GM," Willsie said. "There were so many things that Mark has to look after."
Steele coached the Dolphins for five seasons, one lost to the COVID pandemic, compiling a record of 95-49-5-2. His best was the 2018-9 season, finishing first in the Yeck Division and advancing to the final.
But the Dolphins have been ousted in the quarterfinals the past two years.
"I don't think it's about a new voice," said Willsie. "A new voice is ok for a couple weeks, but if it's not saying the right things or giving any real coaching, it's just a flash in the pan."
Steele remains as GM, but wanted Willsie as head coach.
The pair know each other well, for 30 years in fact. They were teammates with the Port Stanley Lakers junior team in the early '90s.
"It wasn't my intention to be the head coach as part of the ownership when we brought the team to Dorchester," said Willsie. "It's a weird dynamic being one of the owners, but I wanted to stay hands off, if Mark had a guy in mind. He approached me. Mark said he would stay on as GM, if I would be the coach."
Willsie who has a resume of coaching minor hockey, including Dorchester's U18 team last season, took a few weeks to consider the commitment to the junior club.
"It'll be interesting coaching people who have come from different levels of hockey," said Willsie. "At the end of the day, it's hockey and it's relationships."
During the 2017-18 season, Willsie did get an unexpected taste of coaching junior hockey, stepping in during a medical leave for then Dolphins' head coach Tim Flynn.
"I remember thinking, I don't know if I can coach this level, but in the first five minutes behind the bench in my first game, I realized the players make the same mistakes the peewees do," Willsie said. "They (juniors) move a little quicker and have more talent, but what it boils down to is, it's hockey and a lot of the same things that are applied at the minor level are applied at the junior level."
As an owner Willsie knows well the expectation to succeed in Dorchester. After winning three division titles in their first five seasons, the Dolphins now entering their 11th season, only one appearance in the division final in the past five years.
"I wouldn't want it any other way. I want to be in a situation where we're expecting wins," said Willsie. "The players should want to be playing for a team that expects to win. Embrace that and try to deliver. Hockey is fun and you want to have fun while playing, but winning is a lot more fun than losing. Go with that attitude and embrace the expectations."
Defence will be stressed, but Willsie will allow creativity in the offensive zone.
"I have my own style, up tempo, aggressive, but we have to remember our own end," Willsie said. "It starts with the goalie out. Once we get the puck, I want the guys to be creative. I want to be a hard team to play against and a relentless forecheck in their end."
Willsie is an co-owner of Lind Lumber in Dorchester and lives in town with wife, Bonnie, sons Sam and Jack and daughter, Dora.
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