New-look Nats ready for return

The London Nationals, off for the last 18 months, return Friday with lots of new faces but the same goal: win a GOJHL championship.

A lot can change in 18 months. Just ask the London Nationals. The last time they played meaningful games in the GOJHL? It was March 2020, and the team was in the midst of a playoff run before the world shut down due to COVID-19. They’re back now, but it’s a new-look Nats squad in 2021 – from top to bottom. At least one thing remains the same though: the franchise’s goal to win a league championship.

The Nationals will drop the puck on their 2021-22 season Friday night (Sept. 24) on the road against the St. Thomas Stars, and there will be a lot of new faces for Nats fans at the Joe Thornton Community Centre – and at the Western Fair District when London plays its home opener next Wednesday against the Komoka Kings (Sept. 29, 7pm).

That includes a new head coach, after long-time bench boss Pat Powers stepped down during the offseason. Colin Martin is the man in charge now, and he’s excited to lead his charges into a brand new season of GOJHL hockey.

“Were feeling good. A lot of these guys are hungry to win and hungry to get back playing,” said the 30-year-old Martin, who brings with him a successful playing and coaching resume in the region. “I think the biggest thing for these guys, and the coaching staff, is that we’re happy to have a season. We’re excited to get started.”

They’ll get started Friday night, officially, though they’ve been together for over a month now, including playing a slate of four preseason games, during which the Nats went 3-1. That last game, a 5-3 London win over the Pelham Panthers on Wednesday, went just two periods due to a power outage (because, why not, after 18 months off due to an unprecedented pandemic …).

Two of those goals were scored by Jeff Burridge (he had six goals and an assist in the Nationals’ four preseason games). He’s one of the team’s more experienced players, and the 20-year-old London native was named team captain in late June.

“Jeff Burridge is a leader,” Martin said. “He’s played major junior hockey and he has the experience and knowledge to bring to the younger players on the team.”

In addition to the franchise’s front office and leadership changes, the Nationals have only one returning player this season from 2020, Noah Arsenault. The rest of the roster is completely new. Despite a lack of existing team chemistry, coach Martin isn’t concerned.

“I’ve been impressed with how quickly the guys came together. I really think the guys are becoming good friends quick here,” he said. “Having COVID last year, and not much human interaction, it’s really cool how these guys have come together and are slowly becoming a family.”

That Nationals family not only has a new look on the ice, but it’s seen changes off it as well – and not just with Martin behind the bench. The team underwent an ownership change, with Paul Duarte now the man in charge, and Tim Simmons was named the team’s new general manager (he’s served in various capacities within the organization for years).

Back on the ice, the team has eight 20-year-olds, Burridge included, so there’s certainly major junior experience suiting up for the Nationals this year. Martin sees that as an advantage.

“I feel like all eight are showing leadership qualities and bringing their past experiences in to help our team win.”

Martin expects the offense to be the team’s biggest strength this year. As a team, the Nationals scored four or more goals in all but one of their preseason games, outscoring their opponents 14-9 in the process (their lone loss was a 3-0 shutout by the Strathroy Rockets).

In addition to Burridge, Martin expects big things offensively from players like Zach Power, Michael Elliston and Lucas Chard. During the preseason, Jack Bunker, Ryan Nichols and Jacob Julien each had a pair of goals.

Offense aside, Martin is confident the team will hold their own defensively as well.

“We have an older team, so I think we’ll be able to play a full game especially in our own end,” he said.

After a strong preseason showing, the teams’ confidence level is high. And their expectations, of course, are to compete for a championship, something Martin says won’t happen without hard work.

“We just have to make sure we come to the rink ready to work every day,” Martin said, “and hopefully our goals become reality.”