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ODR allows for extra skill development - even in a lockdown

That goodness for the ODR.

For those in the over forty age bracket who haven’t kept up with the lingo, that would be ODR as in Outdoor Rink.

Long a favourite of local youngsters dating back to times when the nearest playground ice surface signalled your first introduction to competitive hockey, the hallowed Canadian tradition took on even more importance in Ontario in January, with indoor ice options scuttled thanks to the latest lockdown.

Turns out it’s not just the casual skaters within walking distance who are enamoured with the venues that dot the entire Greater Sudbury region, numbering ice surfaces more than forty strong.

These treasured locales became the go-to, apparently, for the AAA minor hockey community, one of the consistent outlets that was raised as we caught up with a handful of players representing both the U16 and U18 Nickel Capitals recently.

“I really like the Copper Cliff outdoor rink - even though I live in the Valley, it’s still worth the drive to go out there,” noted 15 year-old forward Aleksander Duguay. “The ice there is amazing.”

Teammate Tyler Thompson counters with a New Sudbury option that also features plenty of lure, according to the same-aged blueliner. “I like the Matson (Road) ODR, just off Maley Drive,” he said. “Sometimes people from Hanmer will come in to Matson; that’s where we get everybody together.”

In smaller groups, Thompson will venture out of the city and skate in the backyard pond of U16 AAA sniper Nolan Newton, along the French River. But when it comes to the in town options, the young hockey prospect is not sure he completely envisions the stories of just how great it was when playground teams regularly battled it out in the frigid outdoor cold.

“It doesn’t really seem ideal, but I imagine that it could be fun,” said Thompson. “I don’t know how that would be for the parents, sitting outside to watch the games.”

Playing one age bracket higher, U18 AAA rearguard Cameron Allen is much more secretive about his ODR happy place, thankful for the opportunity to better his game without running over a million and one younger kids. “It’s a very very quiet outdoor rink,” said Allen, your trusty scribe sworn to secrecy.

“If I ever need to work on things, I just go over there. The ice is always good.”

For his part, U18 cohort Brady Bouchard, having spent the 2020-2021 season with the Hill Academy, returns to take advantage of a nearby friend (and his property) who recently made his return to the north. “We go to Alex Pharand’s,” said Bouchard. “We go there all the time. The rink is on his property - we call it The Barn.”

(After being selected in the first round of the OHL draft last spring by the Hamilton Bulldogs, Pharand was recently acquired by the Sudbury Wolves at the trade deadline.)

“There’s lots of good three on three games there.”

Fact is that whatever the location, the ODR has kept the momentum going, despite the restrictions that just expired, as hockey players everywhere looked to maintain the excitement that they felt back in the fall, returning for the ice in a real hockey setting for the first time in 18 months.

“It took a few games to get back into the groove,” said Thompson. “It’s different when you are just practicing. But I liked that I was able to get back into it, talking with my buddies, just having a fun time on the ice. It’s a sport that I love.”

So when news came of a short hiatus to start the new year, Thompson switfly moved into Plan B mode. “The first thing I thought of was working out of my house, staying in shape that way,” he said. “I have a treadmill in my garage which helps out a lot for conditioning, stamina and all that.”

And when it comes to his on-ice skills, well, just refer above.

“I would go to the ODR to practice my skating, my shooting, my puckhandling whenever I could,” stated Thompson. “Guys on the team would text our group chat and we would get together at the outdoor rink and practice.”

Under the guidance of head coach Jordan Cheechoo, the U16 Nickel Caps were gradually getting a better feel in identifying a path to development, heading into what they anticipated would be a much shorter holiday break.

“I didn’t start the season off too hot,” acknowledged Duguay, who added a power rack in the garage to his workout routine this year. “Around Christmas, I started to come around. At our two tournaments, I thought that I started to personally bring my game together the way I hoped it would be.”

“I just want to bring that into the new year, with the re-start happening hopefully really soon.”

Having added some downhill skiing to his regimen and noticing already the additional strength in his hips and core, Cameron Allen falls directly in line with Duguay, anxious to shine now that he has found his pre-pandemic game - and then some.

“I think the hockey started a little bit slow - kids were kind of rusty, it was hard to get back into game shape,” said the native of Valley East. “About a month or so in, it started to pick up a lot - games were really fast and kids were getting very creative, once the conditioning kicked in.”

While he has always been comfortable in a leadership role, Allen has noticed a very natural fit with his innate competitiveness more recently, something of a win-win on the character side, if you will.

“I was captain of my AAA team in major peewee,” he said. “That year really got me started to pick up on things that I never really used to think about, given my letter. My mentality has always been that I really want to win and I hate losing and I think that translates to my team and I show it - and that makes me happy.”

For Bouchard, by comparison, part of that epiphany occured last year, with the environment at the Hill Academy campus in Caledon adding a little extra motivation to the mix for the young prospect who can play both defense and forward, but is certainly a little more at ease with the former.

“My coaches and teammates (at Hill) were really good to me,” said Bouchard. “Playing with that type of talent and seeing what they did to get into the right mindset before and after games, it really taught me that I need to pull up my socks and start taking the game more seriously.”

But first, we need the games. Then these youngsters and many more can start to take it more seriously, whether that is in the traditional indoor setting or the the ODR, the saving grace for hockey players of all skills, in Ontario, in the past few weeks.

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