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Weekend hockey news, on a whole variety of different levels
2020-11-04

Labour Day weekend traditionally marks the start of the hockey season in Sudbury.

As the Sudbury Wolves exit their training camp festivities, eyes typically turn to the NOJHL (Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League) and the GNML (Great North U18 League), both have whom have usually targetted mid-September as the start-up date for regular season play.

By then, a number of the top end minor hockey teams (the AAA boys and U18 AA girls) have often already attended their first tournament of the year, giving us a sneak peak at the season that lies ahead.

Very gradually, over the course of the next four to six weeks, hockey at pretty much every level locally will wipe the sleep from its collective eyes, marking the dawn of a stretch of six months of more where games can be found right around every corner.

And though 2020 bears absolutely no similarity to all of the above, it was interesting to note, this past weekend, that there was far and away more hockey news that impacted Sudbury players, parents, fans and administrators than anything we had seen in September or October.

And it wasn't even close.

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Lisa MacLeod sort of set the tone for the weekend, jumping deep into a hornet's nest on Friday with her comments regarding the unlikelihood that a return to action of the Ontario Hockey League, in early February, would be accompanied by Return to Play guidelines that allowed for body checking in those games.

And while a subsequent tweet some 24 hours later by Premier Doug Ford may have quelled the public outcry, to a large extent, much of the damage was done. Social media ran on overdrive as junior hockey fans, en masse, wasted little time voicing their outrage.

Normally, I tend to avoid these rabbit-holes, staying clear of being sucked into the cesspool of public debate that is Twitter and the like. Friday, however, was not normal, as I took the bait - hook, line and sinker.

Within minutes, I knew that I had made a mistake - and it had little to do with the fact that I both understood the frustration of OHL fans and agreed with the larger message at hand.

The issue, however, was the manner in which the hockey faithful tried, ever so fervently, to make their case. It's not as though there were not some very compelling reasons to counter the statements that MacLeod had made. One of those reasons, however, and the one sentiment that seemed to prevail in most circles, was that her comments were without merit solely based on the fact that OHL hockey, without body checking, is simply not hockey, at least not hockey as players, coaches, fans et al have come to know it.

That might be true, and while I suspect that the job description that is covered as Ontario's Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture is likely excessively varied and all-encompassing, nowhere (to my knowledge) does it include a mandate to "ensure that junior hockey continues to look like junior hockey that folks have become accustomed to".

Thankfully, in relatively short order, far more compelling arguments were being made, not the least of which circles back to the science of COVID-19, the very premise upon which the Ford government have predicated much of their response to the pandemic.

At a time when everyone seems to agree that much remains to be learned about the very nature of the virus itself, it seems highly inconceivable that the people entrusted with studying the deadly villain have ascertained, with any degree of certainty, that a hockey body check carries substantially more risk than any of the other inevitable episodes of contact that will take place in a typical minor hockey game.

The mere fact that not all provinces even agree on whether body checking should be allowed, at this time, in their Return to Play guidelines would indicate that there is little consensus in the scientific community. Throw in the rather strange timing of making such a pronouncement, a full three months ahead of the proposed OHL return date, and you have the makings of a very strange fight to pick, at this time, for one Lisa MacLeod.

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In terms of hockey that actually is being played, this past weekend would see a good chunk of the local minor hockey associations jumping into the three on three (or four on four) game option, which looks very much like the standard spring tournaments of the same genre that would take place in Sudbury, Sault Ste Marie, and elsewhere in the province.

Yes, players and coaches are still adjusting to a game that promotes continuous flow, with teams required to exit the zone on off-sides, icings, goals and goaltenders freezing the puck. The serving of penalties is substituted with immediate penalty shots, and game times are reduced to one hour, broken into two 22 minute straight time periods.

While it may be true that the majority of teams (at least in the games I witnessed) treated these matchups more as pick-up games, fairly relaxed in nature, with most players happy to be involved in competition of any kind on the ice, there were some definite teachable moments for coaches at the higher levels, where the intensity was ramped up that much more.

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That intensity is also what is likely to be expected as the U16/U18 crew moved forward with the OHF (Ontario Hockey Federation) initiative to allow hubs to contest modified five on five hockey with the blessings of the NOHA (Northern Ontario Hockey Association).

In terms of the Great North Midget League, the Sudbury Nickel Capital Wolves have been paired with the Soo Jr Greyhounds, accounting for a total of four teams (each standard squad can be broken into two groups of 11 players - ten skaters and a goalie).

The Sudbury U16 Wolves (formerly minor midgets) and their North Bay counterparts are also partnered off, as are the North Bay Trappers and New Liskeard Cubs, as well as the Timmins Majors and Kapuskasing Flyers.

Team selection for the GNML squads is slated to take place between November 16th and December 1st, with game play following immediately thereafter (though each team has committed to maintaining at least three hours of straight skill development practice ice time per week, in addition to their game slots).

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And while Sudbury U16 head coach Ryan Yurich may not yet have selected a single player for his team, the former NOJHL netminder has already brought aboard his first addition to the SMHA representatives. Former Telus Cup champion Justin Lockeyer, back in Sudbury after pursuing his career as a golf pro in southern Ontario, has jumped aboard as an associate coach.

Considering the hockey pedigree of the talented Manitoulin Island native, the young talent on hand may wish to heed the words of wisdom in terms of his biggest regret. "When I was playing, I wish that I had tried harder off the ice, definitely spending more time in the gym, and working on my weaknesses, becoming a more well-rounded player," said Lockeyer.

"I could always get points, I was always a good goal scorer, but I could have worked a lot more on my defensive game."

Whether his regret is greater than that which Lisa MacLeod might feel after last weekend, well, I will let you debate that between yourselves - just not on social media, please.

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