Perry Bergson/ The Brandon Sun

Courtesy of Perry Bergson, The Brandon Sun

Brandon Wheat Kings defenceman Jonny Lambos certainly had some built-in motivation to keep training as the COVID-19 pandemic put people into a spring lockdown.

The 19-year-old defenceman’s younger brother is 17-year-old Carson, who patrols the blue-line for Brandon’s Western Hockey League arch-rival Winnipeg Ice. Since the Ice finished one point ahead of the Wheat Kings when the season was paused and later cancelled — and the teams seemed destined to meet in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs — what might have happened was certainly a topic of conversation between the brothers.

“It definitely was, especially early in the off-season,” Jonny said. “They finished one point ahead of us so he was trying to hold that over my head. That series would have been a bloodbath. It would have been a lot of fun to be a part of so it’s unfortunate it didn’t end up happening.”

It didn’t take him long after the season ended to get back to work with Carson, who is two years to the day younger than Jonny. Following a brief break after the season ended, they kept busy together.

“At the start I had to work out at home and me and Carson would go to soccer fields and do workouts on the track or in the field,” Jonny said. “Eventually when things started opening up again we went back to training in the gym and then skating. In the summer, we were expecting to start in October, so we were sort of getting things ramped up in July and August. Obviously we had the news that things got pushed back so we took a little time off. You don’t want to burn out by the end of the year.

“In September and October we’ve been ramping it up again hoping to get back to Brandon as soon as possible.”

Happily, the benefits of being together certainly outweighed the drawbacks for the competitive pair. Lambos said having a built-in workout partner was a great advantage.

“That was huge for me for sure,” the five-foot-10, 175-pound defenceman said. “Doing those workouts at home or in the field or on the track is a lot different than being in the gym with a group of guys all working to the same goal. I think it helped both of us to stay motivated to have each other pushing one another to work hard.”

He also started taking some science courses at the University of Manitoba, spent time golfing, and worked on skill development with youngsters at the Rink training centre in Winnipeg.

“That’s been really fun,” Lambos said.

He had a long off-season he could use to improve. With the WHL resuming operations on Jan. 8, it will be nearly 10 months since he last played a game.

He admitted the long wait has occasionally weighed on him.

“At times, especially when we heard that things were getting pushed back, I remember feeling a bit down for a couple of days,” Lambos said. “You get super excited to go back to Brandon be with the guys and prepare for the season when our team is supposed to be very successful. We did a good job, I think, with our training in keeping it competitive.”

Lambos made the drive out from Winnipeg a couple of times to work out with his Brandon-based teammates. But he’s eager to get back in the dressing room with the returning veterans.

“I’ll be super excited to get back with the group,” Lambos said. “I thought we had a really tight-knit group. Everyone got along really well last year so I look forward to that again.”

In September, he was able to participate in a four-on-four league that allowed him to at least get a taste of hockey competition. Attending a Manitoba Junior Hockey League game proved more difficult than expected, however.

“It’s been brutal,” Lambos said. “I went to watch an MJHL game and it was so hard for me to watch these guys competing against each other and go to battle with their team and know that we’re not able to be doing that right now. It’s heartbreaking but obviously we’re doing everything we can to get prepared for when we do get the call to start again.”

Lambos will get a chance to play some real games soon after he joins the MJHL’s Steinbach Pistons today. The WHL allowed its players to head to Junior A on Friday under the proviso they be released back to their WHL clubs on Dec. 20. The WHL is now set to open its season on Jan. 8, with training camps starting after Christmas.

Expectations are high for a Wheat Kings team that returns 20 veterans, although at least three returnees will lose their jobs when the organization cuts down from six 20-year-olds to three to meet the league’s overage limit.

Lambos noted the team showed steady improvement under first-year head coach Dave Lowry and assistant coaches Don MacGillivray and Mark Derlago, posting an outstanding 20-5-3-0 record after Dec. 28.

“There was a shakeup with some of the coaching staff and management, but I think at that start it took a little bit for us to get used to the new systems and the little differences between the way that Dave Lowry wanted us to play versus our previous coaches,” Lambos said. “After a while, we all figured out the system and everyone was able to find their role and I think what really helped was that everybody found their role and accepted it and got into it and took pride in doing the best that they could in their role. I think that’s what made us successful.”

However, the 2019-20 season didn’t end how the Wheat Kings hoped.

On Wednesday, March 11, the National Basketball Association suspended its season after Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus. The next day, the WHL paused its season and the NHL also suspended operations.

“It was heartbreaking for sure,” Lambos said. “I remember how well our team was doing in the second half and then there was that night where the NBA got shut down. I remember me and Vinny (Iorio) were hanging out in the basement at our billets and we were on our phones and saw the NBA got shut down and just said to ourselves ‘Oh boy, this could be something that spreads over to hockey.’ Obviously we didn’t want to see it happen but unfortunately it did.”

It was a tough way to end a year of steady improvement for Lambos.

In his rookie season in 2018-19, he was a frequent healthy scratch. In 43 games, he managed a pair of assists and 27 penalty minutes.

In the 2019-20 campaign, however, Lambos was in the lineup 62 times, scoring five goals and adding 10 assists with 72 penalty minutes. He said confidence was a big part of his improved play.

“I think in your first year, being in and out of the lineup, it’s hard to keep that confidence,” Lambos said. “Last year I was able to stay in the lineup for the year, and with that comes confidence because you know what’s expected of you every night and you know after doing your role earlier in the season that you know what you’re capable of and able to bring that every night.

“You know what’s expected of you and that you’re going to be put out in certain situations and relied on.”

Lambos was paired with overage defenceman Dom Schmiemann in early November, and the pair played most of the season together.

Now he’s looking for even more.

“My goal is to take hockey as far as I can, and in order for me to do that, you have to take big strides in your game every year,” Lambos said. “I think the work I’ve put in during the off-season of the ice and especially on the ice, I think I’m trying to add more of an offensive element to my game while taking pride in my defence. You want to build on your strength and bring your weaknesses up to match your strengths.”

Lambos, along with his former Rink Hockey Academy teammate Ty Thorpe, was part of a blockbuster deal with the Victoria Royals on Jan. 10, 2018 when Brandon sent its captain, hometown player Tanner Kaspick, and prospect Cameron MacDonald to the Victoria Royals for a pair of first-round picks and the two young prospects.

Lambos, who was selected with the 49th pick overall in the third round of the 2016 draft, attended a pair of camps with the Royals before coming to Brandon.

Now he can’t wait to get back, but how things will change to accommodate the pandemic safety measures remains a bit of a mystery for the players for now. While Lambos expects it will be a very different year, it’s a price he’s willing to pay.

“Even right now things are different from what we would have called normal last year,” Lambos said. “I think at the end of the day, we know that if we’re going to start playing hockey again that we’re all going to have to make some sacrifices in terms of maybe some normalcy in our lives, but I think that’s something every player is willing to do in order to get back playing hockey again.”

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