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As Bulls’ season opens, young players look to have an impact

Belleville Bulls practice [1]

Bulls head coach George Burnett addresses his team at practice this week. Photo by William Proulx

By Cam Kennedy [2]

BELLEVILLE – After a strong finish to what was a rebuilding campaign last year, the Belleville Bulls [3] look poised to compete in a tough Eastern Conference of the Ontario Hockey League [4] this year.

A younger presence is featured on the Bulls’ roster this season as five first-year players will skate for the team.

Entering his 11th season with the team, head coach and general manager George Burnett says he is looking forward to what the younger players can contribute. “We had a great draft, and we think our young kids will make a big impression early,” Burnett said. “We believe that all five of the first-year players are guys that are going to have an impact in our lineup throughout their first year.”

One of the younger players who is off to a great start is Matt Luff, a 17-year-old winger from Oakville, Ont., who tallied four goals in the pre-season. Luff says he felt there was a bit of an adjustment to make as the pre-season began: “You’ve got to get used to the speed, size and the skill of everyone. I just have to go out there and work hard and make sure I’m moving the puck, not holding onto it too long – that helps out a lot.”

Some of the first-year players look to the older group on the roster for advice, Luff said.

And giving advice is something that newly acquired forward Brett Gustavsen has no problem doing.

At 20, Gustavsen, who came from the Ottawa 67’s [5] over the summer, is entering his final season in the OHL. He is the lone over-age (final-season) player on this year’s squad.

“Being an older guy, that’s part of the job,” Gustavsen said. “When I started, the older players did that work for me. You learn a lot over the years and now I have to share my experience with the younger guys.”

But in addition to the mentoring he does, Gustavsen plays an important on-ice job.

“Everyone has a role, and I think mine is to just be physical, stir the pot a little bit on the ice and offensively put up some numbers,” he said. “I think if everyone plays their role then we’ll have an outstanding season.”

While some changes in the roster have taken place, the Bulls will have a familiar face back in the crease this season. Charlie Graham returns to the team with high praise for the teammates who play in front of him.

“I think just as a group we’ve grown – we learned a lot of experiences from last year,” Graham said. “I think our defence looks pretty solid, and our forwards look pretty promising as well.

As for his own play, Graham said that consistency is something he would like to build on this campaign: “As a goalie, I think any time you can give your team a chance to win every game, that’s a huge asset.”

Graham is joined in puck-stopping duties by first-year goaltender Connor Hicks.

The Bulls’ defensive core has two new faces. Jack Hanley and Cole Candella, both 16, are looking to make an impact in their first year in the OHL. Both had strong pre-seasons, Burnett noted.

Up front, the Bulls hope that winger Remi Elie and newly named captain Jake Marchment will provide some firepower. A nucleus of second- and third-year players returns with David Tomasek, Michael Cramarossa and Chad Heffernan looking to also make an impact on the scoreboard.

The year begins for the Bulls Friday night as they open the season in Guelph against the Storm [6], last year’s league champions. The home opener is Saturday night as the Bulls square off against the Sudbury Wolves [7]at the Yardmen Arena.

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