Without tangible opposition, school unity and camaraderie were cast aside Wednesday afternoon at the Carmichael Arena.
In spite of an intra-squad setting that did not allow for standard body checking, the St Charles College boys hockey scrimmage/game was not at all lacking in intensity.
It is apparently quite challenging to take the competitiveness out of the local competitive athlete.
"It's hard, sometimes, with a 16 or 17 year old boy, with a lot of testosterone built up, but they've got to know when to draw the line, when to pull back," said Cardinals coach Rob Zanatta.
"It's either that, or we don't play hockey at all - and this is a better option for us."
That truism strikes a chord with veteran SCC forward Jordan Faught.
"It's definitely different, not the same hockey that we're used to," he said. "It really tests your mental game a lot more. You want to go out there and play the body, but you have to stay smart; we have to adapt."
With no sure-fire signs of any kind of 2020-2021 high-school boys hockey season on the horizon, many of those involved with the varsity boys team at St Charles are utilizing the in-house shinny workouts as a means to work on specific aspects of their game.
"A big part of playing a good defensive game is body checking, having that ability to take a guy out of the play," said Faught. "Since we can't do that, you have to be smarter, better with your stick, more aware."
Yet the discrepancies with "normal" hockey extend beyond the physicality that is allowed. The split-squad Cardinals have yet to reach five skaters aside status, which runs parallel to most of what is being seen, these days, in local minor hockey outings.
"We were playing three on three for the first few weeks, so four on four is a step closer to where we want to be," said Zanatta, noting that this week constituted their first crack at those numbers. "We would still like to be five on five, but obviously, we have to wait with the health concerns."
"We understand that completely."
And the truth is that if some form of competition ultimately allows the Cards to suit up opposite from sides representing Bishop A Carter, or Confederation Secondary, or Lively District Secondary, the format at this point remains up in the air.
"We are not sure exactly where to go with the teaching right now, because we don't know exactly where we are going with future competition," said Zanatta. "Our message has been, all along, whether it's three on three or four on four, we are simply lucky to even be playing hockey right now."
Message received - at least on that front, even if the pleas of the coaches to try and avoid incidental contact remain a work in progress.
"We can't complain - we get to play," said Faught. "Some teams are not even allowed to play or skate. At least we're on the ice. It's still competitive hockey, it's still fast. It's still got everything except the body checking."
"You can't beat that."
Perhaps far more than most other schools, the lads at St Charles College are hopeful that some form of quasi-schedule can be some time in 2021. "The team that we have looks really strong - I like where we are going," said Faught.
"It's really exciting getting some AAA and AA kids who have decided to play high school. Seeing that at tryouts was really encouraging. If we were allowed to body check, I really feel that this would be one of the more physical teams that we have had recently. We have some really aggressive players."
"Just the skill, to me, stands out," added Faught. "Some of these guys in grade nine and ten can really play. It's impressive."
It's also not lost on Zanatta, or the remainder of the coaching staff, as he reunites once again with Darren Michelutti, Casey Thompson and Ryan Liinamaa. "We're seeing a lot of speed, there's a little more ice to go around," stated Zanatta.
"Your skill players really shine in this type of atmosphere. We've been doing mostly training and haven't focused much on putting line combinations together, or defensive pairings. That's something that we are going to have to build in and teach, depending on what type of format that we might end of using."
For now, the focus is simply on attempting to sustain status-quo, integrating a mix of regular workouts with something that resembles game play. "At first, we just trained," said Zanatta. "But we wanted to get that sense of competition up a little bit. If you just practice, practice, practice for a month, the boys will get bored of it very quickly."
"We talked to everybody, to Dave Makela (SDSSAA), to Matt Davie (GSHOA), with board officials, health unit officials, trying to figure out what we could do to stay within protocols."
The end result is a product that is not at all bad, even if those donning the scarlet and grey would much prefer to roll it out to opponents who are not also classmates.