During their 17 year tenure in the Great North Midget League, the Valley East Consbec Cobras never did manage to capture a league championship - at least not per se, anyways.
That would come, of sorts, in March of 2011, by which time the Cobras had combined forces with the former Rayside-Balfour Sabrecats, merging to become the Nickel City Midget AAA Sons and producing a squad which reeled off nine straight wins in their run to an elusive title, sweeping past the Kapuskasing Flyers in the league final.
All of which is not to say that the Cobras could not assemble an absolute myriad of incredible moments, a testament to all those who ensured that the Ray Plourde (Confederation) Arena based offering was up and running, every September, for the better part of two decades.
We are talking about a team, after all, that would play back to back games against a local rival, both of which were highlighted by a goaltender physically scoring a goal.
It was November of 1996 and mere days after netminder Mark Henderson whistled the puck from one end of the ice to the other, capping off a Sudbury Cara’s Nickel Capitals victory. His Valley East counterpart, Kyle Loney, returned the favour, recording the sixth and final goal in a 6-3 doubling of the Caps, the disc entering the net with but one second showing on the clock.
Yep, the Cobras could certainly boast a flair for the dramatic, from time to time.
Long-time local coach Steve Richardson, who was there at the start and again at the end, and for several seasons in between, suggested there would be drama, even as talk first began of Valley East becoming the third local entry to a league that already included franchises in both Sudbury and Rayside-Balfour, with the new group eyeing the 1990-1991 campaign as a starting point.
“We knew that it was a no from Rayside and Sudbury, and I definitely understand why, but it turned out that we did not need their votes to carry the vote,” said Richardson. “Do you think the Sault wanted Sudbury to be all one team?”
In fact, it was something of a glut of local talent that truly opened the door to the discussion in the first place. Despite being recognized as an “A” hockey community in the eyes of the NOHA (I believe the threshold was a population base below 15,000 at the time), Valley East had assembled midget AA squads in the late eighties that dominated across much of the province.
While they might not all have been part of the exact same team in the exact same year, prospects such as Greg MacMillan, Dan Giroux, Derek McLoughlin and John Sauve, among a host of others, had given rise to the notion that the amalgamated team from Hanmer and Val Caron, mixing in kids from Val Therese and Blezard Valley, could more than hold their own against other AAA teams in the north.
Given that reality, it was important that they might have the same opportunities to advance in hockey as the talented teens from larger centres. “We needed to be able to advance these kids,” said Richardson. “Our only options were to create a junior B team or go AAA. We were looking for options for these guys to play the top level of hockey that they could.”
“We”, at that time, was a gathering of folks that included a very engaged sponsor in the form of Rick Walker and the Consbec crew, as well as the administrative detail that came courtesy of Dan Lafrance and Martin Healey.
Though he would age out of the midget ranks before the Valley entered the Great North loop, John Sauve soon returned, working primarily as a goalie coach even as he attended Laurentian University. “I had to help out a team for one of my courses and I really enjoy goaltending coaching, so I started initially with Confederation Secondary, my old school," said Sauve.
For the next ten years or more, he would be a mainstay with the team, cycling through carousel of coaches that included Steve Blinn (“very technical and great with the kids”), Kevin Kemp (“not as technical, but the kids would do anything for him”), Steve Richardson (“extremely knowledgeable, always trying new things - I learned a lot from him”), Brian McGillis (“really thought outside of the box, working in different looks on the power play, things like that”) and Darryl Lafrance (“it was his first crack at coaching, just back from East Coast; kids loved him - he was so close in age”).
To this day, Sauve recalls with fondness the “northern swing”, that ever so memorable trek that might include stops in New Liskeard and Kirkland Lake, in Kapuskasing and Timmins. “Back then, there wasn’t as much junior hockey, so midget hockey was often the biggest ticket in town,” said Sauve.
“When you went to New Liskeard, they would have 500, 600, 700 people at the game. It was fantastic to be part of that. Even as the opposing team coming to town, the adrenaline would get going, playing in front of all those people.”
Still, one of his favourite memories came from an appearance in the finals, a matchup with the juggernaut that was the Soo North Stars awaiting them. “I remember playing a game in Val Caron Arena, and that place was packed,” said Sauve. “I’ve played many games and coached many games in that arena, throughout my life, but I have never seen as many people in the rink as when we played Sault Ste Marie.”
“It was wall to wall people, around the board, almost from right next to the benches all the way around the glass. We had fans from the Sault, fans from the Sudbury team that we had knocked out, fans from Chelmsford, coaching staffs and parents from other teams, and then our own parents and our own fans.”
“It was something to see.”
In a league that is as much about the connections that you make as anything else, both Sauve and Richardson could provide a never-ending list. Naturally, Sauve will migrate towards the goalies that he partnered with so closely, the likes of Kyle Loney, Brock McGillis and Tyler Beskerowany.
“It was a little different for me coaching him (Beskerowany),” noted Sauve of the young man who would go on to be drafted in the second round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft by the Dallas Stars. “I had never had such a tall goalie before.”
Richardson, for his part, would turn his attention to the men of the opposing benches.
“You look at someone like Mike Mulryan in Timmins, always looking out for what’s best for the league,” he said. “Timmins was always competitive. The community was cyclical, but somehow they would field a team, every year, that was competitive.”
And competition it was that drove the Valley East Consbec Midget Cobras to initially enter the Great North Midget League, creating an avenue to the next level that is still recalled by hundreds of former players, thankful for the experience.
The Cobras would feature no less than seven players drafted into the OHL at the completion of their first year in the Great North league - following is a complete list of players that were drafted from their teams (based on collecting the info the best of our abilities): Sean Blanchard (1st rd - 94); Justin Levac (2nd rd - 05); Jamie Haines (2nd rd - 07); Kiley Hill (3rd rd - 91); T.J. Warkus (3rd rd - 98); Eric Larochelle (3rd rd - 00); Neal Martin (5th rd - 92); Elliot Richardson (5th rd - 07); David Frawley (6th rd - 00); Ryan Crouch (6th rd - 04); Jeff Walker (7th rd - 91); Derek Chartier (7th rd - 94); Jordan Carroll (7th rd - 07); Brad Domonsky (8th rd - 94); Greg Tymchuk (8th rd - 95); Serge Savard (9th rd - 95); Stephanie Ethier (9th rd - 99); Ricco DiCarlantonio (10th rd - 98); Alex Fiset (10th rd - 06); Shawn Healey (12th rd - 91); Darry Lafrance (12th rd - 91); Shawn Sirman (12th rd - 06); Geoff Morris (13th rd - 94); Jeff Ewin (13th rd - 97); Alain Chevrier (13th rd - 99); Kevin Quackenbush (13th rd - 00); Kyle Hope (13th rd - 03); Marty Galipeau (14th rd - 91); Dan Quigley (14th rd - 91); Kris Purawec (14th rd - 03); Tyler Beskerowany (14th rd - 06); John Carr (15th rd - 91); Michael Ceming (15th rd - 92); Murray Hancock (15th rd - 93); Ryan Leblanc (15th rd - 98); Scott Ransom (15th rd - 99); Neal Ross (15th rd - 03); Dale Dubreuil (16th rd - 93); Phil Lavallee (18th rd - 95); Brock McGillis (21st rd - 99)