Cape Breton Eagles soar to top of QMJHL standings
Success comes a year after significant changes for team, including new majority owner
They are no longer the "Screaming" Eagles, but Cape Breton's QMJHL team has soared out of the gate with four straight wins to start their season.
Now known simply as the Cape Breton Eagles, expectations are high for the team to have a big year on and off the ice.
"It's pretty exciting when you have a team and a group of guys like this," said Sydney, N.S., native Derek Gentille, now playing in his fifth season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
"I'd be lying to you if I said I wasn't a little bit excited about it."
Gentile is one of two Cape Bretoners on the team, the other being Jarrett Baker of Black Rock, Victoria County. They're joined by four other Nova Scotians and a new coach who is also from Nova Scotia.
Jake Grimes of Dartmouth, N.S., took over the head coaching duties after the Eagles parted ways with long-time coach Marc-Andre Dumont after last season.
"It's early in the season and we're just going to continue playing our style of game," said Grimes, who was an assistant coach with the OHL champion Guelph Storm last season. "We are just going to keep working at piecing together a better hockey team all the time."
The hiring of a new coach is one of many changes within the Cape Breton organization.
Following the 2017-18 season, Cape Breton native Gerard Shaw was named team president. Then Irwin Simon was named the new majority owner of the Eagles and immediately promised an increase in the team's operating budget.
"I think they were all great changes for our team," said third-year forward Egor Sokolov. "All the little details and meetings, it's all to help us improve and it means a lot."
Sokolov, a 6-4, 230-pound forward from Yekatarinburg, Russia, is among the league leaders in points. He had three assists on Saturday night when the Eagles came back from a 5-0 deficit to beat the Saint John Sea Dogs 6-5 in their home opener at Centre 200.
The Eagles' other import player, 17-year-old Ivan Ivan of the Czech Republic, is also off to a good start.
Major junior hockey came to Sydney in 1997 after the franchise moved to Cape Breton from Granby, Que. The Eagles have never won a Quebec-league championship but the talent pool in place this season could change that.
"You don't get too many good cracks at winning a championship and there are many guys who never get a shot," said Gentile, who left Cape Breton Island to attend a prep school in New Brunswick following his last year of bantam hockey five years ago.
"It's always in the back of your mind that you could actually bring home a championship back to your hometown."
Cape Breton will face a tough test this week as they hit the road for a three-game trip through Quebec that starts Wednesday night in Rimouski. The Oceanic are led by Alexis Lafreniere, projected by most NHL scouts to be the top pick in the 2020 NHL draft.