Ending Jr. Hockey on a high note with the Morrisburg Lions

Four Morrisburg Lions players completed their Junior Hockey playing careers at the end of the 2023-24 playoffs.The quartet of players posed for this photo prior to the start of the playoffs. Pictured above (l-r) Curran Gilmour, Rylan Iwachniuk, Justice Brownlee, and Alex Bergeron. (The Leader/Blancher photos)

MORRISBURG – The close of the 2024 playoff run by the Morrisburg Lions marked a milestone for the team in advancing to the National Capital Junior Hockey League semifinals. It also marked a significant milestone for four players on the team as they conclude their junior hockey playing careers.

One of the benefits of playing in the NCJHL is that the Jr. C league allows up to four 21-year old players on each team. In Jr. A and Jr. B hockey, players age out at 20. Morrisburg Lions’ players Justice Brownlee, Rylan Iwachniuk, Curran Gilmour, and Alex Bergeron, each were able to play one last season. The Leader talked with three of the four players, along with their coaches, discussing this milestone, playing for the Lions, and what’s next.

Lions’ captain Justice Brownlee opened scoring in the first period with this shot past Cougars’ goalie Tristan Paquette. Brownlee would go on to score both goals for Morrisburg in the 5-2 loss Friday night. (The Leader/Blancher photo)

Justice Brownlee – #16

Brownlee is the veteran of the team, signing with the Lions on his 16th birthday. Across four seasons and 117 games, with a gap for the cancelled 2020-21 COVID season, Brownlee totalled 166 points (83 goals and 83 assists) in regular season play. He also had 14 goals and seven assists in 15 playoff appearances. A native of Cornwall, Brownlee was named captain of the team in early 2024 having served as one of four alternate captains at the start of the season. He also won the league’s Best Defensive Forward award in 2024.

For Brownlee, playing in Morrisburg was about a promise he made when he signed in the summer of 2019.

“I promised [GM] Kevin [Casselman] and [then] coach Ken [Turnbull] at the time I would try my best to bring a championship this organization and I couldn’t break that promise.”

While the league championship alluded Brownlee, he said there are a number of accomplishments that he is proud of including the Lions winning their division this season, and getting to the league semifinals. Since joining the league in 2015, the Lions had not gone past the first round of the playoffs until this year.

Brownlee leaves the Lions as its top goal scorer, breaking the record for the team, a personal goal for himself, and winning a league award this year.

“Scoring two goals in my last game for Morrisburg, it felt cool to go out like that,” he added.

Playing for Morrisburg meant a lot to Brownlee, especially seeing the progress the organization has made, and support from the community.

“When I started five years ago, we barely had a crowd in the stands,” he explained. “In this last year, we were playing in front of 700 people. I’ve seen from the start how awesome the Morrisburg community is.”

Brownlee said there were lots of ups and downs, which he said is normal of any team that is rebuilding. Through all of it, having fun was important.

“I was okay with rebuilding. I wanted to go out there and try my best to put Morrisburg on the map. No matter what, win or lose, we always made sure we were having a blast out on and off the ice.”

Narrowing down a favourite memory out of five years with a team is difficult for anyone, but Brownlee shared one.

“One is from two years ago when we played South Grenville in the playoffs and the opposing crowd was chanting my last name. I saw my dad tearing up in the corner.”

Brownlee’s father Jeff, along with his aunt Rosan have been his biggest supporters in his hockey pursuits. “I don’t think my aunt has missed a game since I’ve played junior,” he said. “It’s awesome because no matter if I played bad or good, she always said I played awesome.”

While Brownlee’s junior hockey days are now over, there are still plenty of hockey plans ahead.

“Yea, I believe I will be playing somewhere next year in the Eastern Ontario Super Hockey League,” he said.

“Justice is a champion,” said Lions’ Associate Coach Steve Iwachniuk. “I’ve known Justice a long time now and he has had some pretty tough assignments through the years playing hockey. He just kept showing up to the rink and working as hard as he could. Justice brought leadership, belief in showing by example – and he definitely did that all year round.”

Assistant Coach Jamie Smith agreed.

“He always gave it his all, it was automatic for him. Justice brought strong leadership, a competitive edge, experience, positivity, and he was a great team player.”

Asked what advice he would give his younger self, he said “I would tell my younger self that no matter what the score is, or the time, try your best no matter what because these years just fly by.”

Lions’ defenceman Curran Gilmour turns the puck during the Lions game against the South Grenville Rangers February 4.

Curran Gilmour – #14

From Iroquois, Gilmour signed with the Lions in 2022 and previously captained the Richmond Royals in the EOJHL. Prior to that, he played for the Athens Aeros. Known as a hard-hitting defenceman, Gilmour had nine goals and 24 assists across 58 regular season games with Morrisburg. He also had eight assists in 14 playoff appearances. Gilmour served as an alternate captain for Morrisburg last season.

To say hockey is in Gilmour’s DNA is safe statement to make. His dad Dale played Jr. B hockey, his mom Carrie played university hockey with Concordia, and all four of his siblings have or currently are playing competitive hockey.

Gilmour said returning to Morrisburg to finish out his junior hockey career was the “perfect match” for him.

“Many things about playing for the Lions drew me to return home, but ultimately it was playing with guys I grew up with, being able to look around the rink and in the stands and see friends, family, and people I’ve know my whole life there to support the team.”

Gilmour said the progress the team and organization has made over the last two seasons is what he is most proud of.

“Specifically this year breaking the hiatus of second round playoff appearances, regardless of the outcome of the series.”

As a top-line defenceman for the Lions and also alternate captain, Gilmour said he could not narrow down one or two things he enjoyed most of playing for the Lions. “I enjoyed all of it, all the roles and opportunities I was given. Playing in Morrisburg for the last two years has been an abundance of fun and good memories. I am beyond thankful for my time with the team.”

His favourite memory centered on this year’s first-round playoff win at home against rivals, the North Dundas Rockets.

“The atmosphere after the game with the fans, then after the game celebrating the win with friends and family,” Gilmour said.

While hockey may be in his DNA, he said ultimately his family has been the most important part of his hockey journey.

“Top to bottom, they have been my support system all the way through,” Gilmour said. “My family has had my back and supported my every step.”

Coach Iwachniuk said Gilmour brought leadership and experience to the team.

“He has been vocal on and off the ice and our guys needed that,” the coach explained. “We need guys in the room to step up and he was always one of those who did.”

Coach Smith added that Gilmour was a positive influence on the Lions’ younger defencemen.

“On the ice, this great young man brought experience and knowledge, a positive attitude and strong leadership on and off the ice.”

He added that Gilmour played the game with an edge “and a very competitive attitude.”

While junior hockey is complete and there are other playing opportunities available to him, Gilmour said his future plans are not yet set.

“Honestly, the end of junior hockey is still setting in, and I haven’t thought too much more on future plans.”

Shorthanded? No problem! Morrisburg Lions’ forward Rylan Iwachniuk (#9 right) shot low, and through the five hole on North Dundas Rockets goalie Jason Van Wieren, scoring a definitive short-handed goal in the second period of Tuesday night’s playoff series opener. (The Leader/Blancher photo)

Rylan Iwachniuk – #9

Iwachniuk joined the Lions in 2022 having previously played for the Cornwall Colts, Char-Lan Rebels, and the Nepean Raiders. From Ingleside, Iwachniuk played mostly as a defenceman in his first season with the Lions, and as a forward in 2023-24. In 68 regular season games, he scored 24 goals and 80 assists, tallying 104 points. He played in 14 playoff games for Morrisburg adding another seven goals and 11 assists. Iwachniuk served as an alternate captain for the Lions in 23-24.

He said the biggest draw at first playing in Morrisburg for the Lions was being close to home after two seasons with the Raiders.

“It’s been so much fun to see how the crowds have just continued to grow since the start of last season,” he said. “It’s always a good feeling to have the fans come up to you, have a conversation, and sign some autographs for the kids. It truly makes you feel like you’re an NHL player.”

Iwachniuk is not the first player with his last name to suit up for the Lions. His father Steve, who has been Associate Coach of the Lions since November 2022, played for the Lions in the late 1990s.

“It’s been obviously been very cool to have followed in my dad’s footsteps,” he said adding that they have compared experiences playing in junior.

Iwachniuk’s favourite memory over his two years in Morrisburg was Game Two of the 2022-23 first round playoff series against the Clarence Castors in Morrisburg where he scored four consecutive goals.

“That doesn’t happen to me everyday,” he exclaimed. “We ended up going on to win that game in overtime and I just remember the instant cheers from the boys and the fans – it felt like the roof blew off the arena.”

He said he had a very similar feeling in the 2023-24 playoffs against the North Dundas Rockets when he scored the game winning, series clinching goal. “I will never forget the pure joy from all the team and the unreal atmosphere.”

Along the way, he said there have been many people who have helped him over the years.

“I wouldn’t be where I am without my parents (Steve and Julie Iwachniuk), the sacrifices they’ve made to take time off work and drive me all over literally North America,” he said.

“Also the support that I’ve had from my grandparents, sisters Cayden and Madyn, my girlfriend Delaney, and all my other family members.”

Coach Smith spoke of Iwachniuk’s commitment to the team.

“I believe this young man will play hockey sick or not, broken bones or not. He is very dedicated to whomever he plays for,” Smith said. “Rylan brought a strong physical presence and experience whether playing forward or defence.”

Coach Iwachniuk said he was grateful to have had the opportunity to coach his son the past season-and-a-half.

“It was a lot of fun to coach Rylan. He is a hardworking dedicated young man and would play hockey seven days a week if he could. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to coach him in his first year of minor hockey back in IP, and now his last in junior hockey in Morrisburg. It’s been a fun ride, and I am very proud of him.”

Rylan told The Leader he is not sure what is next for him with hockey but still wants to be involved in the sport.

“Whether that is continuing to play, or possibly get into the coaching world. I have some choices to make and some opportunities to play in the EOSHL – but I’m going to take some time and really figure out what’s next for me.”

Forward Alex Bergeron (centre, #17) charges for the puck in the second period of Game Five of the playoff series. (The Leader/Blancher photo)

Alex Bergeron – #17

Bergeron, from Ottawa, joined the Lions in September 2022 after a season with the Nepean Raiders and two seasons in the Raiders U18AA team. The right-shooting forward made 65 regular season appearances for Morrisburg across two seasons, scoring 34 goals and 30 assists for 64 points. In 15 playoff games, Bergeron scored six goals and tallied another 15 assists.

Bergeron was unavailable for an interview due to travel.

Coach Iwachniuk said that Bergeron has a great attitude and always showed up to the rink to work hard.

“Alex brought hard work, dedication, experience and a high compete level to the team,” the coach said. “He challenged our defence to move the puck quickly and he loves to jump into the open ice to score goals.”

Coach Smith said “Bergy” always came to the rink with a smile on his face.

“He brought speed and one heck of a shot,” Smith said. “During practices he was always the fastest guy on the ice. He practiced hard, then took it to the game.”

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