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The first year of the GNML and Sudbury BPT goes to nationals

There is absolutely no guarantee that the Great North Midget League 2020-2021 season will take place, in any way, shape or form.

Truth be told, that was probably the outlook for the GNML, as well, even as players, coaches and league administrators first gathered for the inaugural campaign in 1986-1987.

Ironically, some of the very same issues that might top the agenda of current commissioner Albert Corradini in a standard northern Ontario U18 season were also part of the very raison d'etre of this new league.

"It was basically put together to help kids in northern Ontario be able to play major midget instead of going down south all the time," noted Barry McCrory, who co-coached the 86-87 edition of the Sudbury Burgess Power Train midgets alongside long-time friend, Mike Heaphy.

"We wanted to grow midget hockey in the north so players did not have to move away as a 15 or 16 year old."

The league met its goal, at least locally, in a big way that year. While documentation of the early discussions is pretty much non-existent, it does seem that the advent of the GNML coincided with one of the periodic shifts in the Hockey Canada age brackets, allowing teenage boys one additional year of minor hockey eligibility at that time.

At least that's the memory of Sudbury captain and current resident of Welland, Greg Levert.

"A bunch of us had who played midget with Burgess Power Train the previous year had the opportunity to go south and play Junior B hockey, or maybe move up to Capreol (Hawks) or Sudbury (Cubs) with Junior A, or whatever," said the 51 year-old former OHLer, having earned a "cup of coffee" call-up during that memorable season.

"But all of the boys decided to come back for one more year of midget. The year before, we had beaten teams from the Metro Toronto Hockey League, the Toronto Marlboros and the Red Wings, who were among the elite midget teams of the day. We knew that if we came back as a core group and picked up a few other players, that would be a great foundation."

With both the Rayside-Balfour Tigers/Jr Sabrecats and the Valley East Cobras still a few years away from their entry in the GNML, the SMHA reps had the pick of the litter of local talent. No surprise that the team would run the table, posting a record of 26-0-0 that first year in a league that also included entries from North Bay, Sault Ste Marie, New Liskeard, Kirkland Lake, Elliot Lake and Thessalon.
(Thessalon definitely shows in league standings published in the Sudbury Star that year - though few involved have any recollection of the small town ever being represented in the GNML).

"I know that we went undefeated, but it was very competitive," said Levert. "We had a whole bunch of very close games. When we went out of town, we knew stepping into those barns that there was going to be a real buzz in the air. It wasn't like we were blowing teams out of the water all the time."

Sure, midget teams had represented Sudbury, on a provincial level, in the past. This, however, was different. "From a player's perspective, and I think even a community perspective, it was something really cool that we were heading into," said Levert. "We would normally meet these other travel teams in the north at tournaments, year over year."

"To find out we would be in a league with these long time rivals was very exciting to us."

McCrory, for his part, was only just cutting his teeth in coaching. Less than five years earlier, he was closing out his own junior hockey career as an undersized defenceman with the Rayside-Balfour Canadians.

And while he was super keen and absolutely passionate about the game of hockey, a couple of seasons tackling the bench for manager and co-worker Kay Whitmore Sr had not necessarily provided the ideal training grounds for someone whose team would make their way to nationals.

"When I look back now, I was likely not prepared to coach at that level, to handle of lot of what we experienced those first few years," said McCrory. But things improved quickly, especially as the team staff grew to include the likes of Mike Heaphy, Russ Farnel and trainer Norm Larocque in due time.

Travel arrangements that were more than acceptable in that era would now be frowned upon in a very big way. "I can remember us getting ready to go out of town with a couple of 12 or 15 person passenger vans, with a U-Haul behind both for our equipment and luggage," said McCrory.

"Russ would drive one van and Alex McNamara would drive the other, just to help keep costs down."

It was a crew that Levert recalls with fondness.

"I remember these gentlemen really instilling in us the idea that we were playing for a community, that it wasn't just Burgess Power Train," said Levert. "It was just as important for us to represent our community well on and off the ice."

That they did.

After disposing of the North Bay Trappers in the league final, the locals travelled to Oshawa, site of the Central Region playdowns. The championship affair featured a bit of a rarity, as Sudbury upended the host team 6-3 - in overtime! (in those days, teams would play a full 15-minute overtime period, similar to soccer, as opposed to a sudden death format)

At nationals in Ottawa (Air Canada Cup), BPT posted a record of 2-3-0, but were more than competitive from start to finish, dropping a 4-2 decision to the eventual champion Riverains de Richelieu (5-0-0), but blanking the second place Notre Dame Hounds 1-0. The tournament featured the presence of both Rod Brind'Amour and goaltender Olaf Kolzig.

As for the locals, that team featured a roster of: Dino Cirillo, Sean Gauthier, Keith MacKenzie, Neil McNamara, Marc Gareau, Shaun Morris, Guy Mongeon, Jim Smith, Chris Mills, Cliff Bondy, Greg Levert, Steve Boyd, Timmy Peltier, Rodney Lapointe, Carl Noel, Norm Krumpschmidt, Kirk Peltier, Gregg Langlois and Ace Roque.

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