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The kids thrive as real hockey returns

The exhilaration of simply being back on the ice playing “real” hockey was palpable all across the Gerry McCrory Countryside Sports Complex as 16 teams gathered this past weekend for the NOHL (Northern Ontario AAA Hockey League) Showcase.

It wasn’t long, however, before the “we’re just happy to be back” feelings would give way to the natural competitive instincts of the youngsters. Thankfully, there was plenty of competition to be found across four divisions of play.

Few coaches left the weekend any more pleased than Sudbury U12 Nickel Capitals’ bench boss Joey Dupuis. Given the limited lead-in time to the quasi-tournament that his team enjoyed, it would be hard not to be ecstatic about a 3-0-0 performance.

The 2010 locals were impacted notably by the handful of recent COVID-outburst at Sudbury and area schools, forcing a ten day delay before completing the team tryouts. “We finished our tryouts Thursday night, had our first practice together Friday night and started the Showcase on Saturday,” said Dupuis.

Throw in the fact that this team represents basically the merging of two previous squads from the SMHA and Copper Cliff and one could see where victories over the Nickel City Sons (4-3), the Soo Jr Greyhounds (8-1) and the North Bay Trappers (7-2) were more than this staff could have asked for.

“We quickly went through systems Friday night and then we relied on the familiarity of some players having played together before,” said Dupuis, who was joined by Mark Saini and Craig Thompson behind the bench. “Mark and I believe in both a skills focus and instilling good habits. That’s definitely what carried us through the weekend.”

Scoring wise, it was Bradley Eady (4), Ezio Cusinato (3), Dacey Dupuis (3), Preston Hebert (2), Jacob Roy (2), Luca Saini, Eliam Charette, Ryan Thompson, Devun Panella and Tayden Smith hitting the sheet for Sudbury.

The close Nickel City matchup with the Nickel Caps was squeezed between a pair of blowouts as the Sons stomped North Bay 9-2 (Nicholas Christakos, Samuel Frappier, Jackson Mead – all with two goals) but fell 10-0 to the Jr Greyhounds. Eli Chapman of SSM topped all scorers in this division with six goals on the weekend.

At the other end of the age spectrum, Sudbury 15U head coach and former GNMLer/NOJHLer Jordan Kuruliak was equally as pleased as coach Dupuis as he made his debut as the main man on the bench. “I’ve spent the past ten years with Peter Michelutti (Jr), watching him run a bench,” said the father of two.

“I took a lot from him. Even with Craig Maki in our major peewee year (2019-2020), I learned a lot. And when I go to a hockey game now, I watch the bench more than I watch the game. I’ve always been interested in coaching.”

There’s still plenty to learn but a 2-1-0 start is nothing to sneeze at, featuring a 5-4 overtime win over the Nickel City Sons and a close 3-1 loss to the 3-0-0 Soo Jr Greyhounds, easily their closest game of the weekend.

“I was happy with our speed, our work ethic, but we’re still stuck in our bubble hockey (individual) play,” said Kuruliak. “With bubble hockey, there was no body checking, the guys were comfortable going end to end and not using their teammates. With body checking back in, it’s a lot more chip and go, give and go’s with your teammates, and finding open ice.”

“If we can break those bad habits, I think we can play with any team in the league.”

Grant Booth scored the game-winner in the opener, with Max Campbell netting a hat trick and Carter Carriere rounding things off. Anthony Bertrand replied with a three-goal effort of his own for the Sons, who also received a goal from Lucas Dubois.

The Nickel City squad was absolutely decimated by injuries – they were down as many as six regulars by Saturday afternoon – beaten 9-3 by the Sault and 3-1 by North Bay, with the Nickel Caps also knocking off North Bay in overtime by a final count of 5-4 (Carter Bubalo with GWG; Adam Urso with two goals).

The U13 Division featured the closest scores of the weekend, with the tone set early as the Nickel City Sons rallied from a 3-1 second period deficit to edge the Sudbury U13 Nickel Capitals 4-3 in the early game on Friday.

Olivia Carriere, Carter Mullen, Eric Thibeault and Tyler Huffman found the back of the net for the Sons, who would subsequently suffer a pair of setbacks to the Soo Jr Greyhounds (6-4) and the North Bay Trappers (7-3). “I was coming in pretty far to the left and did a turnaround and a backhand – I didn’t think it was going in,” said Mullen, whose goal triggered the comeback.

A 12 year-old grade 7 student at A.B. Ellis Public School in Espanola, the young forward was understandably excited to get back into game action, even if it might take a little while to be at 100%.

“Skating was hard, it’s hard to get right back into shape,” said Mullen. “I’ve been running and doing a few workouts, but not really going to gyms very much.” Down a pair after two periods of play, the Nickel City lads and lasses opted to stay the course, understanding that solid defense can create quality offense.

“Our coaches told us to continue to protect our zone, don’t give up pucks at our blue line, to get more shots on net – stuff like that,” said Mullen. No local team was more snake-bitten than the Sudbury U13 Nickel Caps as coach Andrew Dale and company went 0-3-0, losing all three games by just a single goal. Dominic D’Angelo (3) and Mikael Guerin (2) were the top guns for the SMHA reps, while Adrien Potvin and Eric Thibeault racked up two tallies apiece for the Sons.

Last but not least, it looks like we have the makings of a very good local rivalry at the U14 age brackets as both Sudbury and Nickel City posted records of 1-1-1 at the Showcase, playing to a 3-3 tie to break the ice on Friday. Xander Strojny rifled home the hat trick for the Sons, with Lincoln Lachance, Mason Walker and Ashton Pitawanakwat countering for the Caps.

Nickel City head coach Jason Young certainly can’t complain about the balance of his attack as no less than eight other players joined Strojny in picking up goals on the weekend: Dylan Rousselle (2), Bryson Villeneuve (2), Hudson Goulet (2), Martin Brassard (2), Russell Ranger, Kohyn Eshkawkogan, Caleb Mead and Ryker Young.

Pitawanakwat added another three goals in the final two games for Sudbury, with Maksim Beljo (2), Jameson Fabbro and Mason Walker also chipping in. Jr Greyhounds sniper Nik Rossetto might be one to watch in upcoming games, compiling no less than ten goals as his team went three for three in the win column.

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