Photo Credit: Vivid Eye Photography
Callum Cheynowski grew up in the Niagara Region as native of Welland, ON but even he did not see his hockey career coming full circle as quickly as it has, currently playing in his first full Ontario Hockey League season.
On January 9th 2024, Cheynowski was acquired along with forward Masen Wray from the Brantford Bulldogs in exchange for overage defenseman Daniil Sobolev, as the Bulldogs looked to bolster their backend with another veteran. Cheynowski played 18 games last season with the Bulldogs earning a taste of the OHL, before dressing in 25 games this season, accumulating five assists in a limited role for a strong Brantford club.
The former Southern Tier Admiral and Thorold Blackhawk was excited to hear the news that he would be coming home to play in front of more friends and family at the Meridian Centre. "They were all excited to hear that I was coming back home knowing that I'll get to play in front of them now, it's been a good feeling for me," said Cheynowski following practice this week.
The 17-year-old left shot defenseman still recalls fond memories of growing up here in the Niagara Region, going to IceDogs events. "I remember coming to a lot of IceDogs games when I was younger back at the Jack Gatecliff and then coming to the pregame skates here at the new Meridian Centre rink as I got a bit older," Cheynowski reminisced. "It's exciting to now say that I'm playing for the Niagara IceDogs while being back home on this rink. I can't wait to keep building with this group," he said emphatically.
Stepping into bigger shoes
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Cheynowski knows that he has an opportunity for a bigger role with the young IceDogs club still trying to build into a competitive team within the OHL but knows he still has to remain focused on the hard work within improving his own game. "I'm obviously excited but I have to take advantage of this opportunity that I've earned here by just coming to the rink everyday and putting my heart and soul into being a Niagara IceDog," Cheynowski said humbly.
Niagara's head coach Ben Boudreau is excited to bring Cheynowski in the fold due to their previous connection, having been a graduate of the Boudreau hockey school, which runs in Niagara during the summer months. "We knew him from joining the hockey school that we have every single August. As a young kid, a local Niagara guy who is one of many that go through this program but you remember from just your interaction with him on a daily basis," Boudreau said. "Callum is a great kid who is quiet but can give you a good hard time but skilled on the ice."
You never know here those interactions will lead one day and then before you know it you're acquiring him at the trade deadline as the head coach of the Niagara IceDogs to have him on your bench and lineup card, coming full circle from the hockey school," Boudreau reflected on. "It was a pretty cool connection to make with Callum and continue it on here in the OHL."
Boudreau also speaks to the impact that Cheynowski has already made on the club, having only played in four games since the trade deadline transaction. "Since acquiring him we're a .500 hockey club and we haven't been a .500 hockey club all year so we like the impact he's had through four games," Boudreau added.
"We know who he is as a person and character, comes from a good family and is a local product so there's a little bit of pride when you put on that IceDogs logo as it is with most local products," Boudreau said passionately. "For a kid like Callum I don't think there's any limit to his game and the more he plays, the more confidence he gains everyday in earning a bigger role on this club."
Homegrown Niagara talent
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Being a Welland native, Cheynowski worked his way up the Southern Tier Admirals program from 2019-2022 and gained a fan along the way in then Admirals head coach Marcus Quinlin, who spent three seasons with Cheynowski during that time.
"Elite players make other players around them better and Callum did that for us with the Southern Tier Admirals," said Quinlin. "He always made teammates around him better by holding himself to a high standard, raising the standard and pace of our practices. Callum elevated our team play exponentially as it translated over to games,"
Quinlin, now a head hockey instructor for the Ottawa Senators hockey programs as well as skills development for U12-U18 teams in AAA organizations of Eastern Ontario, including the Ottawa Myers Automotive AAA and Eastern Ontario Wild AAA; says that Cheynowski's commitment to the game helped him stand out from the pack while with the Southern Tier Admirals.
"Cheynowski's commitment to constantly work on his craft and the willingness to always put in the work always shined through," said Quinlin. "Callum was the top defenseman in our league and a great leader who led by example with the way that he played. On top of that, he's still a great kid and teammate who does really well in school (being a past recipient of the OHL Scholastic Player of the Month) and did a lot of volunteer work in the community when we had him in our program," Quinlin made a point to bring up.
Cheynowski credits his progression to now becoming a full-time OHL player to the time he spent with Quinlin, being engraved in the Southern Tier Admirals culture. "He was great and coached me to be a leader on that team and really step up for the guys,' said Cheynowski. "Coach Quinlin pushed me in a good way when it came to big moments like playoff games, which will help me grow into that with this group," Cheynowski said emphatically. "I really push myself to be better everyday and that's my mindset when I arrive at the rink."
The 6'1, 191 pound defenseman was eventually taken in the third round, 63rd overall, of the 2022 OHL Priority Selection draft by the then Hamilton (now Brantford) Bulldogs, large in part to his development and success as a member of the aforementioned Welland-based Southern Tier Admirals club.
The long-term plan
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Cheynowski's new bench boss in Niagara knows that there's still room for growth with the young defenseman's game but is impressed with what he's seen so far in an IceDogs uniform through two weeks, with regards to his strengths as a puck mover from the backend who has quick feet and speed to transition up and down the ice at a quick pace.
"Well you're going to be able to see him get the puck through and he can find a way to sift pucks through to the net and get it up the ice to the forwards," said Boudreau. "The one stat that really matters is shots on goals, the second chances and the points start getting up. When you can do that on a consistent basis, you'll become an offensive defenseman and he can break pucks out and make great first passes, something that I feel we're missing on our backend right now. He brings a different element which is big for us right now," Boudreau stated at length about his new defenseman's game.
Niagara's head coach also noted that Cheynowski has had no issues fitting in with the locker room, despite coming over from a rival Brantford Bulldogs club. "He's a great kid, he's a dog for sure and someone you want to be able to grow with. We all really like him as a part of this core group that we're building here and excited for his future with the Niagara IceDogs," Boudreau finished.
Cheynowski says that coming down to Niagara has been a seamless transition thanks to the support he's received from not only friends and family but his teammates within the IceDogs room. "The guys were all welcoming considering we've had a few battles so far this season while I was still a member of the Bulldogs but we'll see this Thursday, I'm excited to go to battle against those great guys with my new group here," Cheynowski said with a smile on his face, given that the IceDogs will welcome the Bulldogs to the Meridian Centre this Thursday evening.
"Offense is one part of my game but I'm also trying to work on my defensive game as well with a bigger role and responsibility here," Cheynowski said, now being tasked with top four minutes on a nightly basis in Niagara. "That first pass out of the zone is a big strength of my game but working on my 200-foot game is what I continue to try to work on everyday at the rink and under this coaching staff," Cheynowski finished as he looks forward to the next few years of his development as a hockey player and as a young man back in the Niagara Region where it all began for him 17 years ago in Welland, Ontario.