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Tuesday, Apr. 23, 2019
A northern Ontario appeal to the Big Nickel Tournament
by Randy Pascal

Sure, some may still long for the Big Nickel tournaments of years gone by.

Flashback to 2002. The Peewee division, alone, would assemble what would become a fairly noteworthy class of hockey talent in the form of: Steven Stamkos, Matt Duchesne, Alex Pietrangelo, Torey Krug, Michael Del Zotto and goaltender Michael Hutchinson.

These days, the challenge to attract the provincial elite, other than in the major midget division, has become a reality for tournament chair Barry McCrory and his core of very dedicated volunteers. In order to alleviate some of the depletion of entries, while also providing a close to home option for every level of “AAA” hockey in northern Ontario, the 2018 event expanded to include five divisions, with both a minor and major aged option for peewees and bantams alike.

In many ways, the four brackets contained within these age groups have created an ideal appeal for teams from across the north, with representatives from the likes of the Thunder Bay Kings, North Central Predators, Ontario Hockey Academy, Eastern Ontario Wild and Upper Ottawa Valley Aces all right in the competitive mix with the kids from Sudbury, Nickel City, Timmins and North Bay.

In fact, it would likely be fair to say that no organization has benefited more from an increased stability in their own backyard and the shifting landscape of the Big Nickel Tournament than the slate of teams proudly donning the colours of the North Bay Trappers. All four of their squads that made the trek west along Highway 17 (major midgets, major bantams, minor bantams, minor peewees) were still alive and fighting on Sunday morning.

“It's a credit to our kids and our association for persevering,” noted Major Bantam Trappers coach Scott Huycke, whose team would go on to register a 4-1 win over the Thunder Bay Kings, claiming the Big Nickel banner in the process. “This is our seventh year where we have had a full program running and it's starting to payoff.”

“We've seen kids getting drafted, and the kids see that and want to be part of that. It's been fantastic for development, as a whole, for sure.” Ironically, the 2018-2019 edition of his team has been supplemented with an influx of Sudbury and area talent, including Ben Harris, who scored a pair of power play goals in the final (Todd Violette and Nico Laforge added the others).

“I've been extremely happy with my guys,” noted Huycke, before the championship encounter. “They have played their butts off, for sure. We stress that it starts in our own zone. The boys have stuck to the plan, keeping it simple and getting pucks out – but not just getting them out.”

“If there's a play, make a play and have good exits from our zone,” added the man who has been involved with the North Bay “AAA” program each and every one of the past seven years. “If we're in trouble, then whatever it takes to get it out. From a defensive standpoint, we've been playing very well, really good team defense.”

Quite likely the team to beat in the Great North Midget Hockey League, the Major Midget “AAA” Trappers came up just short in their final, beaten 4-3 by the Toronto Nationals. Joseph Martino, Daniel Torrealba, Elias Cohen and Joshua Sinonen scored for the Nats, with Justin Dauphinais, Joe Jordan and Noah Lagrandeur countering for coach Guy Blanchard and company.

But it wasn't only North Bay reps that were carrying northern pride into the Sunday afternoon affairs. Tyson Scott completed his hat trick, in overtime, lifting the Timmins Minor Peewee North Stars past the Upper Ottawa Valley Aces, 4-3, and into the gold medal contest. While his team would fall, 4-0, to the North Central Predators to close out the weekend, Timmins coach Steve Vachon could not say enough about his team and the experience they enjoyed.

“My team is playing their best hockey,” he stated. “Obviously, there are spots where we are not as strong. The focus, for eleven year olds, is sometimes hard to keep for an entire weekend. But the Big Nickel is always one of the most organized tournaments that we go to, and the bonus, for us, is that its close to home.”

“Last night, we watched Sudbury (Nickel Capitals) play the Don Mills Flyers and it's possibly one of the best games that my kids will watch all year, because we were on right after,” Vachon continued. “They get to learn something from that.”

As recently as just a few years ago, Timmins struggled to ice anything other that a Major Bantam team at the “AAA” level. This year, the North Stars delegation is covering off three of the four divisions of the Northern Ontario “AAA” Hockey League (NOHL), much to the delight of the long-time coach. “Population wise, Timmins is a “AA” center, so a lot of people would argue that we should simply play there, go after banners and championships,” he said.

“But I have always been a firm believer that if you are going to do “AAA”, you have to do it right, and doing it right is having a team at every level. Even if you're off by five goals at the beginning of the year, you are going to continue to tighten that gap by the end of the year. Perhaps it will take you until next year to tighten that gap, but by the time you are at major bantam, that gap won't be there any more.”

“We're pushing our kids.” The one and only Sudbury and area entry to a final would also come up a little short as the Upper Canada Cyclones defeated the Nickel City Sons 5-3 in the Minor Bantam showdown. Alex Pharand scored twice for the Sons, with Dominic Morris adding the other goal. The Cyclones made it a pair of banners returning south when their Major Peewee crew doubled the Eastern Ontario Wild 4-2 on Sunday.

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