With his appetite whetted for the next level, Brandon Bodnar wants to get his fill of the savoury taste of the Junior ‘A’ hockey life.
The 17-year-old goaltender from Fort Frances has a prime opportunity to earn a berth on the roster of the Fort Frances Lakers, who will hold their main training camp from Aug. 27-29 at the Ice for Kids Arena.
“I hope my chances are pretty good,” said Bodnar, who spent the last two seasons with the Kenora Thistles of the Manitoba ‘AAA’ Midget Hockey League (MMHL).
“I’ve just got to go to camp and do whatever I can to grab a spot and hopefully play well,” he added.
Bodnar had a front-row seat to the Lakers’ Dudley Hewitt Cup run, as he suited up as the backup to Pierce Dushenko for the last two games of the tournament after Nathan Park was lost to a knee injury in the final round-robin game.
“I had been an ‘AP’ (Associate Player) with them since the beginning of the season,” explained Bodnar.
“I practiced with them whenever I came home from Kenora.
“Those were the biggest crowds I’ve ever played in front of, or at least, sat on the bench in front of,” marvelled the netminder about the beyond-capacity crowds of between 1,300-1,500 that jammed the stands at the IFK for the semifinal and final.
“I had lots of excitement and lots of nerves, but I was more excited to get in there if I had the chance.
“I wasn’t worried too much (about holding his own). I played in a pretty good league for two years.”
With the Thistles last year, Bodnar went 14-9 with a 2.90 GAA and a .917 save percentage with one shutout as Kenora squeaked in as the eighth and final seed into the MMHL playoffs.
Its reward was a difficult best-of-five first-round matchup against the top-ranked Winnipeg Wild.
But Kenora proved to be no pushover, losing in four hard-fought games.
Bodnar started and lost Game 1 3-2, making 30 saves, then watched netminding cohort Brock Aiken backstop the Thistles to a 4-1 win in Game 2.
“I was kind of surprised I didn’t start Game 2,” confessed Bodnar, although he emphatically added, “Brock and I are good friends.
“We played together before in Thunder Bay for a year and we just want the best for each other.”
With Aiken in goal again, the Wild blanked the Thistles 2-0 in Game 3, leading to Bodnar getting the call in the must-win Game 4.
The local talent made 24 saves, but it wasn’t enough as Winnipeg prevailed 3-0 to knock Kenora out of the playoffs.
“We kind of underachieved during the season, but we played really good against (the Wild) in the series,” analyzed Bodnar.
“The series could have gone either way,” he added. “We just couldn’t put the puck in the net and ended up on the losing side.”
Kenora then took part in the Midget Western Regional Championship in Dauphin, Man., against the MMHL champion Pembina Valley Hawks, the MMHL’s Parkland Rangers and the Regina Pats Canadians out of Saskatchewan.
The Thistles beat Parkland 5-2 in their opener, with Aiken in goal, then turned to Bodnar against Pembina Valley.
Bodnar was outstanding with 35 saves to hold the Hawks to a 1-1 draw.
Aiken got the nod for the round-robin finale against Regina, with the Thistles only needing a win or a tie to clinch a spot in the final against Pembina Valley.
But Kenora let a 3-1 second-period lead slip away and surrendered three unanswered goals to fall 4-3 to the Canadians and finish in third place at 1-1-1 — losing a tiebreaker with Regina (1-1-1) based on the head-to-head matchup.
Bodnar will look to put last season’s disappointment behind him as he makes his bid for at least the No. 2 role behind the returning Dushenko.
“I think I bring a calm and cool aspect to the team,” he said.
“I believe I can give confidence to the guys that I can make the key save and come up big for them when they need it,” added Bodnar.
“(Lakers general manager and head coach) Wayne Strachan talked with me amd basically said, ‘Gear up for camp. Show us what you’ve got.’”