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Tuesday, Apr. 23, 2019
Perspectives on the Minor Midget AAA journey
by Randy Pascal

After spending the better part of the past six months trying to prove their mettle against the very best minor midget “AAA” teams in the province, the Sudbury Minor Midget Wolves finally enjoyed the chance to assert a little dominance in their own backyard.

The locals captured the NOHA Tournament of Champions over the weekend at the Gerry McCrory Sports Complex, doubling the Thunder Bay Kings 4-2 in an event that also included the North Bay Trappers and Sault Ste Marie Thunderbirds.

Mitchell Martin scored a pair of power play goals to lead the way, as the Wolves netted all four of their tallies with the man advantage. Skyler St Pierre and Joshua Kavanagh capped off the offense for the winners, with Alex Atwill handling the entire attack for Thunder Bay, burying a pair of markers.

Sudbury advanced to the finals thanks to an 8-4 decision over North Bay, as Cameron Walker and Zacharie Giroux recorded two goal efforts, joined on the scoresheet by Alexandre Antoine, Joshua Kavanagh, Devon Savignac and Skyler St Pierre.

Local product Nolan Moxam scored twice for the Trappers, with Colin Burrell and Clarke McMillan registering one goal apiece. The remaining semi-final would go right down to the final buzzer, as a frantic Thunderbirds rally came up just short, the Kings moving on thanks to a 3-2 win.

Thunder Bay goals by Jeremy Dunmore, Shaymus Stevenson and Alex Pineau were offset by just a lone strike from Ethan Novello, when Stephen Pszeniczny made things interesting, jamming home a rebound with less than 13 seconds to play. One last rush would see a pair of T-Birds somehow sneak in behind the Kings' defense, as goaltender Julien Lefebvre was forced to make one final key save for victory.

Though the Wolves, one of the top 2003-born teams in Ontario, were favoured entering the playdowns, and the level of opposition is certainly not on par with the top-end minor midget tournaments they have attended, there is still plenty at stake when vying for bragging rights in the north.

“This might not be the same competition as the Marlies, the Whitby tournaments, but we still come here to play hard and do our job here,” said defenseman Brandon Hass, who hails from French River. In fact, with a bevy of OHL scouts on hand, the reality is that these draft eligible players clearly want to show that they have managed to move the needle, in terms of their skill development, over the course of the year.

“At the beginning of the year, I wasn't really that good at skating backwards and controlling the puck, but it got way better over the year,” said Hass. “I've definitely improved on that, but I've got to keep going.”

The reality, for many of these players, is that simply dealing with the pressure and expectations of their most important season of “AAA” hockey can easily sap the fun from their game. Hass, for one, has seemingly handled it well.

“Honestly, sometimes I've had up and down games, but I always try and work through it,” he said. “Sometimes, it wouldn't always go my way, but luckily, our team always helps to keep our spirits high.” Helping to assist in navigating this challenging path is Sudbury head coach Vagelli Sakellaris, a high school teacher who jumped on board just before Christmas, along with former OHLer Trevor Blanchard, as the Minor Midget Wolves dealt with a mid-season coaching change.

“We're trying to make these kids better players, each and every game,” said Sakellaris, a former “AAA” player himself. “We try and play at a high level, all of the time. We don't want to see the lapses in effort and focus. We try and keep them playing at a high tempo, with speed and intensity, and try and get the best out of these kids.”

That approach really doesn't fluctuate a whole lot, right across the spectrum of this age bracket in the north. “I would like to think that I use my past experience to kind of help them,” said Thunderbirds' head coach Jamie Henderson. “At the end of the day, we're trying to get better.”

“We talk about a process. We talked about it in August when we first made the team. We talked at the banquet last night that even though there's a lot of pressure, no one is going to have their career start or finish this year.”

Therein, perhaps, lies the biggest challenge, dispelling the notion that the minor midget draft year is an “all or nothing” venture, where players either find themselves selected by a junior club, or begin the process of planning their beer league pathway.

“Some players are going to be a little more ready, right now, but that doesn't mean you're going to be the best player at twenty,” said Henderson. “It's a journey. We have more than a few guys here that I think have a bright future, because we're just as proud about the guys who maybe aren't going to be hockey players.”

“We have a lot of great student athletes,” he added. “It's been a fun group.”

Maintaining a healthy perspective has undoubtedly been key to the likes of Saultite Stephen Pszeniczny. While the talented teen has garnered some attention this year, this latest showcase event would see him unable to put his skills on display at his natural position. It was a test that he would take in stride.

“I've never played defense before, but this weekend, we're short with injuries,” said the well-spoken lifelong forward. “It's different, but I kind of like it. It's nice to show that I can play both positions. I may not be the best defenseman, knowing all of the plays and all that, but I try and do the best that I can.”

In fact, Pszeniczny suggested there might actually be some subtle bonuses in dealing with this temporary shift. “I noticed that I have a lot more time, a lot more skating room back there, so if I need to take it back, I have more time to regroup for the team.”

And his is a team with a vastly different background than the Sudbury crew they were chasing. “Since the beginning of the year, I thought we've made a big progression,” he said. “We had eight or nine players playing “AA” last year, so to have this team come up to almost .500 in the league is pretty good.”

That is good to hear, in a year which can easily become far too all-consuming.

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