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Monday, Oct. 22, 2018
Big Nickel is back, but for how long?
by Randy Pascal

It was back in the middle of February of 1980 that a group of local hockey enthusiasts first welcomed a collection of peewee “AAA” talent to a quartet of Sudbury venues that included Bell Grove Arena (current site of Science North) for the inaugural Big Nickel Hockey Tournament.

There may have even been an atom “AAA” division at that time. No one still associated with the now November tradition in the Nickel City can recall, off the top of their head, though chairman Barry McCrory insists he could still confirm that fact through a perusal of the souvenir program from 1980, a piece of hockey memorabilia that he has maintained for each and every one of the 36 annual renditions of the event since then.

Fact check – sorry, he does not yet have the 37th souvenir program stored away, as that tournament kicks off this Thursday evening at the most appropriately named Gerry McCrory Countryside Sports Complex.

And though the Big Nickel on ice tradition carries countless wonderful memories for a very dedicated group of volunteers, many of whom can count their service to the competition in decades, there is a voice of concern these days in those parts.

Where coming full circle might be just fabulous in certain circles, those who guide the Big Nickel Hockey Tournament through an ever changing minor hockey landscape in Ontario are not anxious to return to their roots. At least not to the days when entries were confirmed only via numerous follow-up phone calls, with pleading and begging all part of the script required to lure the southern Ontario corridor crew some three to four hours north.

The numbers speak volumes. A glance at the 1989 tournament draw shows 36 total entries – a dozen bantam and midget teams, eight peewee squads and a quartet of atom contenders. By the time 2003 rolls around, that number is nearly doubled, with 64 teams on hand, despite having now dropped the atom bracket entirely.

At its zenith, the tournament exceeded seventy teams, forced to scale back largely over the pragmatic limitations of insufficient accommodations in our fair city to host all those who clamored to get in. To be sure, the Big Nickel Hockey Tournament has enjoyed some outstanding heights.

Consider, for a moment, an all-time tournament all-star team that could include the likes of Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, P.K. Subban, Tyler Seguin, Matt Duchesne and Jeff Skinner. Local NHLers Todd Bertuzzi, Marcus Foligno, Derek Mackenzie and Andrew Brunette are merely the tip of the iceberg of those who have cut their teeth matching up against the provincial elite, all while enjoying the comfort of playing at home, in front of family and friends.

The trend, however, is heading in the wrong direction. A field of 50 teams in 2011 has been nearly cut in half, with 28 on hand both in 2016 and 2017. Chat with anyone involved with “AAA” hockey in Sudbury and it’s not hard to find opinions as to the challenges facing McCrory and his Big Nickel co-horts.

Though the geographic realities of requiring teams to drive much further than the vast majority of tournaments they attend has been a hurdle since day one, the competition in attracting those teams has never been greater.

“There wasn’t a “AAA” tournament every weekend back then, that’s the bottom line,” said McCrory. “From Windsor to Kingston, there’s a AAA tournament, whether it be peewee, bantam, or minor bantam or midget, or minor midget that somebody can go to every weekend.”

In an era where parents will budget typically in the neighbourhood of $10,000 for one year of “AAA” hockey expenses for their talented young hockey off-spring, the need to find ways to reduce overall team expenditures is simply a reality of life.

“My buddy coaches Brantford and tells me he’s at six different tournaments and doesn’t stay overnight for any tournament,” said McCrory. Still others opine that competing with much newer and more elaborate rinks in other communities takes away some of the luster the Big Nickel Tournament has established through its commitment to a first class event.

Another faction will bemoan the difficulty in convincing out of town entries to attend, when local “AAA” squads are leaving the Sudbury area, on the very same weekend, to attend hockey tournaments several hours away from home. Truth be told, there is no easy answer.

The group that has welcomed well over a thousand “AAA” teams to Sudbury over the past four decades remains as committed as ever to excellence. “We guarantee four games, with three fifteen minute periods, which a lot of tournaments don’t have any more,” said McCrory.

“There’s an all-star team at peewee, bantam and midget, which comes with all-star jerseys they get to keep.” And there is some help, this year, in terms of the local competition. Both the Nickel City Major Bantam “AAA” Sons and the Sudbury Nickel Capital Wolves have enjoyed a measure of success in early season tournament play to date.

While there was hope that the chance to play against the Telus Cup host team would noticeably increase tournament attendance, there are certainly some teams, including the defending Central Regional Midget “AAA” champion Mississauga Rebels who see the benefit in such a draw.

Those are the things Barry McCrory clings to these days – that, and maintaining a sense of humour. “It’s a lot easier to run with 28 teams than with 78 teams,” he said with a smile. And while we can all smile along, acknowledging many of the obstacles that have led us to this point, with regards to the tournament, the reality is that it will be a shame when the November calendar no longer includes the Big Nickel Hockey Tournament.

Here’s hoping that reality is much further, than closer, despite the current trends.

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