The Kingston Frontenacs have changed all that they can — what they can't alter is the past.
The burden imposed on the major junior hockey club in the city that purports to be hockey's birthplace has always been different from other puck precincts. In Peterborough or Sault Ste. Marie, there are constant comparisons with powerhouses from the 1980s and '90s whose legend only swells with time. With Kingston, it's a case of a franchise which cannot act like it's been there before because, well, it hasn't. It musst be said that six games into the franchise's 40th season, optimism surrounding the Todd Gill-piloted Frontenacs hardly feels forced.
The Frontenacs are competitive despite icing one of the Ontario Hockey League's least seasoned lineups. Gill is giving ample ice to 17-year-old draft prospect and No. 1 centre Ryan Kujawinski, and 16-year-olds such as defenceman Roland McKeown and forwards Sam Bennett and Spencer Watson. Even after an 0-for-3 Thanksgiving week, the Frontenacs (3-3-0-0) already have more wins than they had through the first seven weeks of Gill's first season.
In a sense, that winless week helped Gill — the former Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman who's invariably described as "no-nonsense" — deliver some reinforcement. For all their upgrades in talent, they are still a young team that can be a little sloppy defensively.
"Offensively I have no issue," Gill says. "It's the young and old mistakes we're making that are costing us hockey games... We have a lot of work to do. We're kidding ourselves if we think we're going to win 50 games every year. We have to earn everything we get. [Last Saturday's 3-2 loss to Sudbury was] the first time playing 3-in-3 for eight or nine of them and when you're tired, you make mental mistakes.
"We're doing a lot of good things," adds Gill, who came over from the Junior A Brockville Braves in 2011 when former Leafs teammate Doug Gilmour moved upstairs to become Kingston's GM. "We weren't just rewarding ourselves by converting our chances."
Too much success too soon can sometimes be counter-productive for a maturing group. McKeown noted losses last week to veteran teams such as the Brampton Battalion and league-leading Oshawa Generals prevented a false sense of security.
"It's better to learn now rather than in the 30th game or the 60th or playoffs," McKeown says. "We need to know what it takes to win."
Devoted OHL fans know full well that Kingston has not won a playoff series since 1998. Only four players who dressed in Saturday's loss to the Sudbury Wolves were even alive in spring 1993, when the club last reached the OHL semifinals.
Even that one championship banner hanging at 1 The Tragically Hip Way for regular-season division title in 1994-95 feels more ironic than anything hometown icon Gord Downie ever put into lyrics. That team failed to win a playoff round, losing to rival Belleville after getting a bye into the quarter-final. It might seem symbolic to someone with a long memory that Kujawinski was born right around that time (March 30, 1995) wears the same No. 17 that David Ling sported as the star of that '95 team. However, the players are immune to that. Here for today, you know.
"It's a great vibe," says McKeown, who was the No. 2 overall pick in the OHL priority selection draft. "I wasn't part of the past, that doesn't really get dumped on us. I love it and couldn't be happier to be here."
Trying to break with the past has involved changing the team's crest, jettisoning the circle-K logo for a bigger, bolder K. Kingston has increased its full-time staff by 50 per cent and hired its first executive director of business operations, Justin Chenier, providing a much-needed link between the hockey and marketing side of the franchise.
Prior to that, Gilmour landed a motherlode of blue-chip talent. The Frontenacs essentially traded up after the fact with respect to the 2011 OHL draft. They drafted Max Domi No. 8 overall, knowing they would have to trade him to London Knights and get a compensatory first-round pick in 2012. In January, they acquired Kujawinski, the No. 4 pick, from the Sarnia Sting. The combination of bottoming out with a 19-win season, the extra first-rounder from the Domi deal and other trades gifted Gilmour and Gill with four of the first 24 picks in April. Those four selections, McKeown, Bennett, defenceman Dylan Di Perna and right wing Spencer Watson, all look like keepers.
"They're a much faster team and the beauty of it is that Gill is not shying away from playing the younger guys in crucial situations," says Tim Cunningham, a former Queen's University coach and the analyst on TV Cogeco Kingston. "You look at Sam Bennett, he's taking faceoffs in big situations. they look like kids who have played in the league for a while. You really have to hand it to them, they've brought in the right personnel.
"There's certainly more talk around town about them," Cunningham adds. "Now they have to convert that into people buying tickets. There are a lot of positive things to talk about. I think the credit goes to Todd Gill and how he handles the kids. He's proven winner if you look at what he did in Brockville. He's a no-nonsense guy and these kids are responding."
There are two big challenges ahead. One is convincing potential ticket buyers these aren't the same old Fronts. The other is making the four-year-old K-Rock Centre a destination despite its oversized 5,700-seat capacity and issues with the building's operator, which was dressed down for poor customer service before Kingston city council renewed its agreement last month.
The announced crowd of 2,525 last Saturday was loud and engaged. The team has a little sizzle to it.
"With that team that they have there, they're certainly going to find a way to do it [increase attendance], whether it's this year or the next couple years," says Sudbury Wolves coach Trent Cull, who played for Kingston in the early '90s. "It's a young team, exciting team, very skilled, a lot of skating."
'Still a stigma'
The K-Rock Centre is typical of many new CHL arenas: built for big-ticket events, but too big on most nights in a city of 120,000 people. However fair it is, issues with the building and the cost of a night out at a game stick to its main tenant.
"That's external — the Frontenacs have no control over that whatsoever but the people don't separate that," says Dave Bradley, an original Kingston season ticket-holder. "They associate the two. As far as the team goes, they're fun to watch. I'm getting my money's worth every game last year and this year. That's all you want.
"I see a team that doesn't run out of gas in the third period," adds Bradley. "They're well-conditioned compared to what they have been before Gill took over. Gilmour's made some good trades, we scratch our heads sometimes but for the most part they've been good. Their practices are not the hour practices, three-hour practices and they're dragging ass by the end."
"I think there's still a stigma on the franchise," he says. "It's going to take more than a year or two, at this level, of playing really good hockey to get those extra fans."
Kingston has seen teams that were laden with NHL draft picks. In 2010-11, they all but imploded during current Florida Panthers defenceman Erik Gudbranson's third and final junior season. Their 2006-07 team was highly touted but crumbled. Leading scorer Bobby Hughes quit during the intermission before overtime in a playoff game — and was back for the next match. Getting rid of that can engender as much goodwill as improving their record.
"The old, very selfish culture they had here has been completely eradicated," Cunningham says.
A playoff spot seems like a reasonable benchmark. Keep in mind Kingston has a grand total of 23 games' OHL playoff experience, 17 of which captain Cody Alcock accrued four seasons ago with Belleville. Nights such as last Friday's 6-4 loss in Oshawa hint at their potential; they went toe-to-toe with a team with four high NHL picks. That was respectable considering defenceman Miko Vainonen, a Nashville fourth-rounder, is the only drafted Frontenac.
"We battled hard against them, just a few mistakes cost us," says Kujawinski, who has eight points through the first six games. "But I think we're right up there with them and we'll have some good battles this year.
"We've had good start. We got a lot of confidence knowing we can play with these teams. We just have to keep going and keep getting better every day in practice."
Like Bradley said, that's enough for now. Represent the city first, then reach for the top.
"I'm not worried about the work ethic," Gill says.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.
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