BY TERRY BRIDGE
KITCHENER – The world junior hockey championships are a magical time of year for most hockey fans, but the tournament means something extra special to Daniel Dekoning this year.
Erie Otters goalie Oscar Dansk is heading to the event – hosted in Ufa, Russia – with Team Sweden. While he’s gone the Otters called on Dekoning, their 16-year-old draft pick from Listowel, to fill the vacant roster spot. Dave Brown, the team’s assistant manager of hockey operations, called recently to notify him that of the handful of goalies they have in their system, they wanted Dekoning to get this coveted opportunity.
“Experience is the main reason I’m up, they want to just get me the OHL experience I need for next year,” Dekoning said while taping his goalie stick outside of the visitor’s dressing room at the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium last Friday.
“They want to develop a young guy, and I’m the youngest guy in the system.”
Dekoning was on the bench as the Otters won all three of their games last week: in Niagara over the IceDogs on Thursday, and a home-and-home weekend set with the Kitchener Rangers. Prior to Friday’s game in Kitchener, Dekoning talked about what it was like to take in his first OHL game as an active player, and what he expected at the Rangers’ sold-out rink with several people from North Perth in the stands.
“It was a great experience [in Niagara], so many fans. Tonight will be crazy,” Dekoning said. “Putting on the jersey was pretty cool.”
Sunday night he was watching from the stands at the Woolwich Memorial Centre in Elmira as the Listowel Cyclones, his junior team until this call-up, lost to the Elmira Sugar Kings. The OHL is currently in a holiday reprieve. Dekoning will head back to Erie with his teammates after the break – they don’t play again until Dec. 28 in Owen Sound – staying with them until the world juniors end in early January.
There’s no guarantee he’ll see any playing time before Dansk gets back.
“They haven’t really said much. We’ll see, I think they want to try to get me into games,” Dekoning said.
At the very least, facing OHL-calibre shots in practice and warm-ups and acclimatizing to larger crowds will be beneficial to his development.
Starting goalie Devin Williams allowed just seven goals against over the three-game win streak. The Otters (11-19-2-3) are last in the 10-team Western Conference, but boast an exciting young group headlined by Connor McDavid, the only 1997 birth year playing in the league.
“I remember playing minor midget against him, him scoring 30 seconds into the game,” Dekoning recalled. “I knew at that moment he was going to be something special. He’s something else, that’s for sure.”
Dekoning’s first practice with the club was Dec. 10. A mini-camp after last spring’s Priority Selection and main training camp in August has helped ease the transition.
“I was a little bit nervous, but it’s just hockey. You don’t think when you get on the ice,” Dekoning said.