Former Dalhousie University Tigers men’s hockey players and linemates Barret Kirwin and Derek Gentile’s seasons went from zero to 100 real quick in mid-January.
The duo expected to resume play with Dal in early January after their final game before the holiday break, but the spread of COVID-19’s Omicron variant got in the way of that. Atlantic University Sport (AUS) competition was paused until Jan. 19, since extended to February, increasing the time off the ice for both players to nearly two months.
That’s when calls started rolling in from American Hockey League (AHL) and East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) teams, Gentile said.
“All of a sudden, [COVID-19] ramped up in Nova Scotia and there were all these doubts about the season at the flick of a switch,” he said. Gentile signed with the AHL’s Hershey Bears on Jan. 13 and was assigned to their ECHL affiliate, the South Carolina Stingrays. “The phones started ringing at the time because everyone’s having doubts about the season and [teams] were looking to recruit.”
Gentile said he didn’t have any serious thoughts about signing pro until “about 10 days” before signing with Hershey.
Kirwin’s decision also came rather suddenly. As he was weighing his options, Gentile told him South Carolina might present an opportunity for him too. Soon, Kirwin and the Stingrays were in touch.
“It was a bit of a whirlwind,” he said after signing with South Carolina on Jan. 20. “Looking at the East Coast [Hockey League], it was a good opportunity. I think it’s going to be good for my development and hopefully I continue to adjust to the game here.”
Gentile and Kirwin are two of dozens of U Sports men’s hockey players to sign professionally since the holidays. At least 12 AUS players have made the move, including three Tigers as of Jan. 26. The third, Darien Kielb, signed with the ECHL’s Fort Wayne Komets on Jan. 11.
Three of the conference’s top four scorers, one of them being Gentile, make up part of those AUS players to move on. He’s tied with the Saint Francis Xavier University X-Men’s Liam Hawel with 15 goals on the season, while trailing Hawel by three points.
Saint Mary’s University’s Mitchell Balmas and the University of New Brunswick’s Nicolas Guay join Gentile and Hawel at the top of the scoring leaderboard, but have since moved onto AHL opportunities.
Hawel remains an X-Man as of Jan. 26.
Kirwin sits 13th in conference scoring in 2021-2022 and ninth in goals with eight scored. A forward line of Gentile, Kirwin and Shaun Miller played together in most games this season. The former two have combined for 11 goals this year.
Gentile said his play this season has made him hungry for more games and convinced him to “try something new” in the pro ranks.
“This was a career season for me and I didn’t want to stop. With the uncertainty, I owed it to myself to give this a try and keep playing,” he said. “I didn’t have these sorts of opportunities before I came to Dal. What [coach Chris Donnelly] has done for me, the amount I played and the success I had, it speaks to how well they developed and showcased me.”
The feeling of helping the Tigers surge to third place in the league before the break sat well with Kirwin, especially having not played the year before as the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) season was shut down.
The opportunity to play more games despite the AUS season pause, Kirwin said, was a significant reason why he signed with the Stingrays.
“When the season was put on pause, I had played just 18 games in the past two years, which is not a whole lot of hockey for me,” he said, referencing the 18 games in the fall with Dal. “I want to be playing hockey. So far, I’ve enjoyed it [in South Carolina].”
Not easy to say goodbye
Both Kirwin and Gentile were clear the decision wasn’t one they thought they’d make this time a month ago. Nor was it an easy one. It’s never easy to move teams in the sport, especially from a club on the rise at Dal.
“I think it was the best decision for ourselves, but it was a tough decision. We’re very happy with our decision though,” Kirwin said. “We’re going to miss playing with all the guys [at Dal] as it was probably the closest-knit group I’ve ever played with.”
Gentile, like his teammate, said the close-knit complexion of the Tigers made the environment at the rink “so fun to be around.”
“I think of that last game before the break on Dec. 3. You could hear the crowd and it was so much fun. That was the hardest part about leaving,” he said. “I almost wish there was a part of me that didn’t like it so much, then it would have been easier to leave.”
Gentile said he was proud to be a part of a winning team at Dal, adding, “I know the team will win a national championship. It’s just a matter of when.”
Kirwin and he will help South Carolina pursue an ECHL playoff spot or, in the event of a call-up to Hershey, a shot at an AHL championship as the Bears are firmly in a playoff berth.
In the meantime, they are becoming accustomed to the Stingrays’ home city of Charleston, S.C., a two-hour drive south of Myrtle Beach. The most pleasant surprise when they arrived was the number of hockey fans in the city.
So far, Gentile and Kirwin have been able to soak that in, even playing on the same line in some games. As of Jan. 26, Gentile has five points in five games on the team. Kirwin has two points in three games.
“It was an instant bit of comfort,” Gentile said on reuniting with his linemate. “It’s kind of like a twins thing now, we know where one another is going.”
“I know the type of player he is,” Kirwin said of Gentile. “He makes things a lot easier out there.”