Niagara-on-the-Lake native Josh Frena’s first Junior A hockey goal was more than just a goal.
It was a picture-perfect shot by the 21-year-old, playing in only his second game for his hometown Niagara Predators.
With the score tied 2-2 in the third period, defenseman Logan Baillie fed the puck to Thomas McGrath up the left side at centre ice. The big forward tipped it ahead to Frena, who was skating toward the visiting St. George Ravens’ defensive zone.
Frena accelerated down the left wing toward the St. George net, with teammate Nicholas Nicoletti accompanying him on the right side in a two-on-one attack. The 6’5” forward moved in on goalie Justin Sheets and flicked a quick wrist shot on the short side, top shelf past the helpless netminder.
It put the Preds ahead for good and cemented the team’s first victory of their 2023-2024 Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League (GMHL) season.
“You can just see the pure joy and excitement in his face as he goes to give fist bumps to his teammates”, said play-by-play announcer Nathan Whale during the team’s livestream broadcast.
Frena was still buzzing in the locker room following the 5-2 win.
“It was awesome,” Frena told The Local after the game, a massive smile on his face. “My first junior goal. It was pretty sweet.”
Frena gave credit to McGrath for making a nice play to get him the puck.
“I just picked it up and I saw daylight,” he said. “I looked over at Nick and I saw him covering the pass. I took the shot, I saw his (Sheets’) blocker go up and watched it go in the net. It was pretty awesome.”
What made it even more rewarding for Frena was that he was able to pick up his first GMHL goal in front of a home crowd, including his Mom, Tracey. And it was in the same arena where he grew up playing in the NOTL Wolves minor hockey system.
“I was pretty proud,” Tracey says. “I was so happy for him. Josh lives and breathes hockey. It was great for him to get that first goal so early in the season, to get that off his back. He was pretty pumped.”
Josh had been away from the game since the pandemic hit. At the time he was a member of the Wolves under-18 (midget) team, whose season was cut short by COVID-19. Having been concentrating on his education at Niagara College since then, hockey was put to the side for three years.
“He was one of those who was so impacted by COVID,” Tracey says. “He was in grade 12 (at Eden High School), there was no graduation, no prom, they never got to finish their hockey season. He had a good team, his last year of midget, and it was done. And there were no sports at all.”
Exposed to the Predators by his older brother Michael, who was the team’s play-by-play announcer for their first two years in NOTL, Josh got the itch to get back onto the ice.
“He told me he thought he could probably play at that level,” explains Tracey. “Then, I never thought of it for a long time until one day this summer he was packing his hockey bag to go and try out for the Predators.”
She had watched her youngest child grow stronger over the summer, and saw his confidence increase as well. When he got word that he had made the team she said he came home beaming with happiness.
The extended family, including aunts, uncles and cousins, was at the Meridian Credit Union Arena for the team’s season opener on September 15. But Tracey was the only Frena able to witness Josh’s first goal live last Friday.
“I taped it (the live stream) and stuck in our family group chat,” she laughs.
Josh told The Local three weeks ago that he hopes this season with the Preds helps him further his hockey career, either at a US college or professionally in Europe. It’s a dream Tracey and her husband Mike fully support.
“I would love that for him,” she says. “That’s his passion, and you always want to see your kids do what they’re passionate about. If this could open doors for him, that would be great. He’s still young, he has plenty of future ahead of him.”
Predators’ head coach Kevin Taylor was also pleased with Josh’s goal.
“He picked the short side, it was a nice shot,” Taylor said Friday. “It was good to see him get his first goal.”
Taylor was pleased with the entire team’s performance overall, though they gave up the first goal to the Ravens just 31 seconds into the game, and were down 2-1 heading into the third period, when they scored four unanswered goals.
Besides Frena, Nicoletti had a goal and an assist for the Preds, while Isaac Locker had a pair of goals and an assist and Reese Bisci added the team’s fifth marker. Niagara goalie Zane Clausen stopped 47 shots for his first win of the season.
The Preds were scheduled to travel to Windsor to face the Aces last Saturday, but that team announced it was folding due to its lack of success in recruiting a sufficient number of junior capable players, according to the team’s Instagram account.
The schedule for the rest of the GMHL’s South Division is currently being revamped to make up for the games lost due to that decision.
Next up for the Predators - a visit by the 0-4 Toronto Flyers this Friday, September 29 at the Meridian Credit Union Arena. Game time is 7:30 pm.