The London Nationals, perennial contenders in the GOJHL, began a new era in 2020-21 when Paul Duarte became the team’s new owner.
Through the decades, the London Nationals have seen many different team names, players, arenas, coaches, and staff come and go as one era transitioned to the next. Now, a new era of ownership has begun. When they return to the ice following COVID-19, the annual powerhouse Nats of the GOJHL will enter a new phase under new owner Paul Duarte.
A London businessman and paralegal, Duarte admits that buying the team wasn’t an overnight decision.
“I had heard through the London hockey grapevine that the Nats were for sale approximately five years ago. The rumour was true, but it was more than I could bargain for at the time,” said Duarte, who inherits a Nationals team that has won six Western Conference titles since 2012.
Duarte had spent time in various capacities with other Junior B teams in the area, including in St. Thomas and Komoka. His nephew, Tyler, had also previously played for the Strathroy Rockets from 2010 to 2015, which is when the new owner says he became a full-time fan of the league. A year-and-a-half ago, Duarte made the leap.
“In July of 2019 I was approached to meet Mr. (Ken) Eansor, and we hammered out a deal in February 2020,” Duarte said. “We didn’t announce it initially, though, in fear of it being a distraction as we were starting playoffs.”
Unfortunately, those playoffs came to an abrupt halt for the Nationals after a 4-3 win over the LaSalle Vipers in Game 1 of the Western Conference semi-finals on March 11 when the sports world shut down due to COVID-19.
Prior to that, it had been another very strong season for the team. Losing just five times in regulation, the Nats posted a 42-5-1-2 regular season record before sweeping the Sarnia Legionnaires in a best-of-seven series to open the playoffs.
Cal Davis led the league in scoring with an even 100 points (30 goals and 70 assists). Max Vinogradov, who became the franchise’s all-time leader in games played during the 2019-20 season, tallied 87 points of his own (35 goals, 52 assists), while Michael Boushy matched Vinogradov’s team-high 35 goals and finished with 76 points.
The team hasn’t seen any activity on the ice since, outside of a handful of reduced roster scrimmages in the later months of the year.
“COVID has been difficult for the athletes, psychologically speaking,” said Duarte.
There have been multiple target dates set by the GOJHL to potentially start the 2020-21 season but those have since passed, and the potential of hockey being played before the fall of 2021 is looking bleak.
With an eye to the future, Duarte doesn’t intend to drastically alter the team’s philosophy or on-ice mission, but he does see some areas he’d like to improve.
“The Nats need to be more involved in our community so that young players look up to our athletes and dream of being a Nats [player] before they are a Knight or a Mustang,” said Duarte. “I wouldn’t change a thing to the team, but I think our league can do better marketing our product. I would invest in marketing a lot more.”
That marketing would highlight the high talent level and competition within the league, Duarte says, which he believes a lot of people are unaware of.
“Top major leagues value our development to prepare athletes for NCAA hockey in the U.S. and OUA and Major Junior hockey [in Ontario] without having to go out of the region or province,” the owner said.
Even though Duarte is the newest member of the London Nationals family, he says he’s been welcomed with open arms and is looking forward to a time when seeing a capacity crowd at the Western Fair Sports Centre comes around again.
“I’m so blessed to have elite players, staff, coaches, billet families and volunteers, in addition to the overwhelming generous sponsors,” said Duarte. “None of this is possible without great people like the Nats Nation family.”