Wolf Tracks: Captains who bleed blue

Shane Bulitka, of the Sudbury Wolves, chases down the puck during OHL action against the Barrie Colts at the Sudbury Community Arena in Sudbury, Ont. on Friday December 7, 2018. John Lappa/Sudbury Star/Postmedia Network

Share Adjust Comment Print

Now those are captains. 

As someone who watched hockey in the 1970s, which clearly ages me, it’s probably not all that shocking that I’m one who embraces a little bit of old school in our country’s favourite pastime. 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that smaller, skilled players like Mitch Marner or Johnny Gaudreau can have success on the biggest stage, but even Toronto’s newest multi-millionaire was found blocking shots for the Leafs in last year’s playoffs. It always makes a difference.

For me, it’s those intangibles that make good leaders, not just the stuff that gets recorded on the scoresheet. And the Sudbury Wolves’ new leadership group brings plenty unsung hero qualities to the table. 

Head coach Cory Stillman named veteran forwards Macauley Carson and Shane Bulitka as co-captains this week and fellow overager David Levin as an alternate, along with hard-nosed defenceman Emmett Serensits, who has been a joy to watch develop since the beginning of his career. The four of them have a combined 13 seasons of junior experience.

Carson will be entering his fifth season with the Wolves and was honoured in the spring with a couple of prestigious honours in the OHL coaches poll. He tied for first in the Eastern Conference in the shot-blocking category and was named the second best penalty killer. 

Clearly, the Wolves will need stars like Quinton Byfield and Blake Murray to fill the net at the other end of the rink if they want to have a successful season. But Carson is a great example of a player who does the little things right about 150 feet or so away from the opposition net. He also brings a level of toughness that still matters in 2019, even if fighting has been all but removed from the junior game. As an example, rookie centre Landon McCallum was having a spirited chat with Greyhounds forward Cullen McLean on Sunday during Sudbury’s 6-1 exhibition at the GFL Memorial Gardens in Sault Ste. Marie. Carson drifted into the scene as if to let it be known that he was willing to help resolve their dispute, if necessary. 

It’s a presence that can help younger players feel a little more confident on the ice. 

Sudbury Wolves forward Macauley Carson (14) watches for a shot in front of North Bay Battalion goaltender Christian Propp during first-period OHL action at Sudbury Community Arena in Sudbury, Ontario on Wednesday, February 13, 2019. Ben Leeson/The Sudbury Star/Postmedia Network

Bulitka, in the meantime, is that player who doesn’t necessarily bring you out of your seat every shift, but just quietly goes about his business and does so many things the right way that he’s not only an excellent player, but also a tremendous teammate. He was the team’s plus-minus leader last season and again in their four pre-season games. He can play in any situation, including both special teams, and has played every forward position, too. And you never get the sense that he’s unhappy with whatever job the coaching staff gives him. 

Levin is the third overager with a letter and will be looking to put it all together in 2019-20. The former first-overall selection won over a lot of Wolves fans with his playoff performance last spring after returning from injury. He jumped back into the lineup after a long layoff, threw some big hits to have an immediate impact, dropped the gloves along the way and contributed four goals and seven points in eight games played. If he can bring all of that over a 68-game regular season, he can be a game-changer for the Wolves. When you think of all of the obstacles Levin has had to overcome to get to this point, having grown up in Israel, it would be amazing to see him have a huge final year of junior in Sudbury. The fact that he stayed with the Arizona Coyotes as a camp invite as long as he did is proof that he’s very capable. 

The last of the leadership group is surely the least known, given that Serensits is only entering his third season and is more the stay-at-home, defensive defenceman type that fans don’t always notice. But he’s a perfect example of Stillman’s philosophy that he’ll take good hockey players on his team regardless of where they played or when they were drafted. Serensits, in fact, wasn’t chosen in his original draft year. A total of 301 players were selected in the 2016 OHL Priority Selection, and the Oakville native wasn’t among them. But he stuck with it and was taken by the Wolves in the inaugural U18 draft in the spring of 2017. The 6-foot-1, 180-pounder has worked tirelessly to the point where he’s now considered a dependable veteran on the Wolves blueline and will proudly wear an A on his chest. 

Anyone who watched the Wolves last season would probably not have batted an eyelash had the coach put a letter on Byfield’s jersey. He was a tremendous rookie, will be the team’s engine this season and is eventually going to make a truckload of money playing this game. Just this week, TSN ranked him as the second best prospect for the 2020 NHL draft and he will be the centre of attention everywhere the Wolves go this season. 

But for now, he gets to look up — at least figuratively — to a few teammates who have given a bit more blood and taken on a few more battle scars at this point in their junior careers. 

And for this old schooler anyway, that’s perfectly fine.

Jeff Giffen’s Wolf Tracks column runs weekly during the hockey season.