Carleton Place Canadians continue to bring championship hockey to small Ontario community

Daniel Nugent-Bowman

Jason Clarke didn’t have to think too hard about putting in an application when the then-Central Junior Hockey League wanted a 12th team in time for the 2009-10 season.

Clarke saw first-hand how his Junior B Carleton Place Legion Kings were supported by fans at home and road games and by sponsors.

Founding the Carleton Place Canadians just made too much sense.

“We made the jump to (Tier II) Junior A and haven’t looked back since,” said Clarke, the team’s owner, coach and general manager.

In just seven short years, the Canadians are firmly entrenched in the town of roughly 10,000 people, 50 kilometres west of Ottawa. They’re also firmly established as the best team in the now-Central Canada Hockey League.

The Canadians, national finalists in each of the last two seasons, won their third straight CCHL title last month when they defeated the Ottawa Junior Senators in seven games. They are now in Woodstock, N.B., for the Fred Page Cup – a four-team eastern Canadian championship. The tourney runs from Wednesday to Sunday with the winner moving on to the national event, the RBC Cup.

“It’s been a real community effort in order for this franchise to have some success,” Clarke said. “It’s even more special being from Carleton Place and winning championships in your home rink.”

The Canadians entered the Junior A loop in the midst of a four-peat by the Pembroke Lumber Kings, who were owned, managed and coached by Sheldon Keefe – the current bench boss of the AHL’s Toronto Marlies. Clarke is quick to credit Keefe for sharing information on how to operate a junior team in a small community.

It wasn’t long after Keefe left Pembroke in December 2012 to coach the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds that the Canadians assumed the throne.

Clarke said the secret to building a successful franchise is creating a structured environment and finding players with strong character who are willing to go beyond the call of duty on and off the ice. Hard work and dedication are regularly preached.

When it comes to recruiting players, Clarke invites them to a playoff game to show how the community embraces the team. The recent track record hasn’t hurt.

“When you win a couple championships, you may get the odd player you may not have gotten before,” he said.

The Northern Ontario native has played well enough this season at the Tier II junior A level to be on the radar of NHL Central Scouting as its fourth-ranked North American netminder.
The Northern Ontario native has played well enough this season at the Tier II junior A level to be on the radar of NHL Central Scouting as its fourth-ranked North American netminder.

That’s how they got promising netminder Colton Point, who recently earned CCHL playoff MVP honours. Point emerged on the Canadians’ radar because his goaltending instructor in North Bay, Ont., Mike Lawrence, is friends with Eli Rassi. Rassi is the goalie coach for the Canadians.

Point visited Carleton Place during a post-season game against Pembroke and was amazed by the atmosphere.

But it was two years ago – before he even thought about a junior hockey career – when the Canadians were put on his radar. Ben Auger, Point’s goalie partner with the North Bay Trappers midget AAA team and a hockey nut through and through, first pointed out the Canadians’ success. It was during that 2013-14 season that the Canadians set a CCHL record with 54 wins en route to their first league title.

“All he would talk about is the Carleton Place Canadians,” Point said of Auger. “When I heard they were interested in me it blew me away. I had heard all these stories about won much they have won.”

Point was also drafted in the 14th round by the OHL’s Erie Otters in 2014.

He played another year with the Trappers – where he stopped 107 shots in a triple-overtime playoff win – before attending Erie’s training camp at the end of last summer. But because the starter’s role belonged to overager Devin Williams, Point was told he could compete for the backup’s job.

So it was off to Carleton Place.

Point has improved mightily this season, jumping to fourth in NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings for North American goaltenders for the 2016 draft. He was 17th midway through the season. North American Central Scouting, an independent service, slotted Point 139th overall – right in the middle of the fourth round – in its May list.

The 6-foot-3, 220-point goalie has committed to Colgate University for the 2017-18 season. But his superb play – and the likelihood of an NHL team preferring him to play in the OHL next year – has fast tracked that commitment to next season.

“It’s the extra effort that he puts in with our goalie coach,” Clarke said. “He goes in and does an hour of video and an hour of on-ice practising every Saturday. That’s one of the reasons why he’s had a lot of success this year and why our team’s had a lot of success this year.”

Point is quick to credit Rassi for his breakthrough campaign. The 18-year-old said Rassi prepared him “perfectly” for the World Junior A Challenge in December. He then went 12-3 with a 1.82 goals-against average and .933 save percentage in the CCHL playoffs.

“It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made with my hockey career,” Point said. “Jason really preaches culture and the whole team really embraces it. That really helps drive us to continue winning.”

With Point providing the puck stopping, the Canadians are hoping the third time’s a charm when it comes to winning a national title.

The Canadians managed to finish first in the regular season despite missing as many as eight players for two months. That third straight championship followed.

But first they must get through the Fred Page Cup tourney once again.

“If we play the way we know we can play, we’re a pretty tough team to beat,” Clarke said.

They’ve proven that much over their short Junior A history.