NOJHL team season preview: Cochrane Crunch

SUDBURY, Ont. – In their first five years in the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League, the Cochrane Crunch has won 175 games in total while posting single-season victory totals ranging from a franchise-best 40 triumphs to no lower than 29.

Set for year six in Cochrane, the Crunch under team president, general manager and head coach Ryan Leonard, are looking to continue their winning ways at Tim Horton Events Centre and on the road.

The hopes of another solid run, that has seen Leonard`s side boast a NOJHL championship in 2018 as well as back-to-back Dudley-Hewitt Cup appearances, remains high in Cochrane.

Since their arrival, they have also produced over 30 players who have gone of to the next level in attending school and competing for various NCAA and U Sports programs in U.S. and Canada.

Despite just two skaters and a quality goaltender in Zach Wickson returning for the Crunch in 2019-20, optimism remains high for the squad.

Here`s a look at the Cochrane Crunch through their head coach and GM in this latest NOJHL-produced team season preview.

NOJHL: Ryan, what are your expectations for your club heading into the 2019-20 season?

RYAN LEONARD: Expectations are high as always for the Cochrane Crunch. We have built a winning culture here with the Crunch organization and we would like to continue doing so. We do know that we may start off slow, but as the season grows, so will our team. This is the youngest team we have had in our six seasons here in Cochrane with only three returning vets. So, it will take time, but I think you will see a very exciting team to watch on the ice.

NOJHL: Give us your thoughts on the club as you near the start of another season.

RL: With our club this year, you can expect a lot of speed and a lot of offense. We are not a big team, but very mobile and quick and we will be on pucks all night. We only have two returning skaters and one goaltender back from what was a very veteran Jr. A team last season that was oldest in the league.

NOJHL: How pivotal of a role are you expecting from your three returning players in 2019-20?

RL: We are hoping for a big season from all three. We are looking for leadership and a positive culture moving forward, on and off the ice. We are hoping that Hunter Buzzi can again put up some good numbers and can lead this team to a return to the league finals. With starting goalie Zach Wickson, we are hoping he stays healthy and if he can, he can be the best goalie in the NOJHL. He is quick, big and very athletic for a six-foot-four-inch goaltender. With young forward Owen Perela, we are hoping he comes back and continues his growth. He can be a very effective player if he starts to play a full 200-foot game. Last year he got better as season went on and this season we expect the full package and hope to improve his game as he could have the ability to be an elite player in the NOJHL.

NOJHL: Who are some newcomers you’ve signed that you expect to perform well in the league?

RL: The Crunch have signed a lot of great young talent. Some key players to watch include forward Matt Minichiello, who is very skilled and has very good hands. He scored 39 goals last year in the GTHL for the Toronto Red Wings. He had no problem scoring and setting up nice goals in preseason. Also watch out for Billy Paschen who comes from Chicago and played high school hockey last year. He reminds me a lot of Crunch alumnus Josh Racik. He has great hands, is hard to get off the puck and plays the game hard. He put up eight points in four exhibition games and will be fun to watch.
Young defenceman Chris Lee will be a special player, not only for us, but in the league. The 2001 D-man from Chicago is tough as nails, hits hard, is very patient and very smart with the puck.

NOJHL: Give us your thoughts on the parity in the NOJHL, especially in the East where the division standings were extremely tight last season.

RL: The NOJHL East has been a power of the NOJHL for the past five seasons. The teams compete each night and its a flip of a coin who will win. It helps with the recruiting process, not only for us, but for the schools also as the Crunch alone have eight players off to colleges and universities this season. This year looks like it could be a repeat of last year where five teams only had five points separating first from fifth. The Crunch were first with three weeks to go and finished fifth. That’s how tight it was. Look for the same this year.

NOJHL: What goals do you have heading into the start of the regular season?

RL: The goals for the Cochrane Crunch are always the same. Get better, play harder and get a great seeding into the playoffs. Home ice in the NOJHL East is critical.

NOJHL: What are one or two highlights in your time with the team?

RL: My highlights are winning the league championship in 2018 and hosting the Dudley-Hewitt Cup last season. We are hoping to make it a three-peat and go to the Dudley-Hewitt in Fort Frances (SIJHL) this year.

NOJHL: Any closing comments Ryan to conclude things before we wrap up?

RL: I wish all the teams in the NOJHL the best of luck this season. It`s going to be fun, fast hockey. All of you hockey fans out there in northern Ontario should make sure to get out there and support great Jr. A hockey that’s being played right in your own back yard.