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Emotions run high as divisional AAA titles garner dedications

It was late winter / early spring of 2019, the last time NOHA AAA championship teams were crowned that would represent the north at all-Ontario playdowns.

That’s a lot of time to reflect on the meaning of the regional tournaments heading into play in Kapuskasing, Levack, Sudbury, Powassan and Sault Ste Marie this past weekend.

Perhaps that’s why dedication games seemed to be the theme for at least a handful of teams or individuals as play wrapped up throughout the day on Sunday.

The Soo Jr Greyhounds entered the U14 AAA tournament in Levack as favourites, finishing ten points ahead of the Nickel City Sons, who were themselves 11 points better than the Sudbury Nickel Capitals.

But where just making it to the final and losing to the Hounds might normally provide small consolation, 2022 is nothing if not different. With a U14 OHL Cup unveiled for the first time, the Sunday morning semi-final between Sudbury and Nickel City took on far more meaning than usual, the NOHA awarded two entries to the event.

That, it seemed, spoke volumes to Nickel Caps goaltender Ethan Philippe.

“I was a player when I was tyke, but my uncle (Steven Philippe) passed away when he was 16, and he was a goalie,” said the Sudbury netminder who turned in a truly memorable performance, backstopping his team to a 6-2 win over the Sons, making it four victories in ten attempts for the Caps this year.

“I wanted to kind of fulfill his dream, so I started to play goalie and have been doing it for four or five years.”

Sudbury got off to a quick start, up 2-0 after one when Philippe came up with a critical breakaway save in the second. “If he’s at the hash marks and he’s starting to do something with his stick, he might shoot,” suggested the smaller than average puck-stopper who has focused heavily on playing outside of the blue, discussing his approach to the one on one showdown.

“Once he gets past the hash marks, then I just stick with the guy.”

In the end, the Greyhounds did defeat the Nickel Capitals, but it did little to take away from the sense of accomplishment that coach Dale Lafrance and company enjoyed, battling their way to one more tournament appearance this year.

Perhaps a secondary theme from the weekend was the #1 ranking that several of the Lock City teams achieved in regular season play, including the Great N orth U18 AAA League champion Soo Jr Greyhounds, who enjoyed a four point separation on the North Bay U16 AAA Trappers, with the Sudbury U18 AAA Nickel Capitals another point back.

There was already very little to choose between the top entries, a fact that was only reinforced by a couple of other factors in play: a smaller rink and shorter games. “We talked about this the last time we were up in Kap,” said Hounds head coach Jamie Henderson, a couple of days removed from his team chalking up a dramatic 4-3 gold medal game victory over Sudbury, with Jacob Smith jamming home a rebound of a shot from Gabe Palumbo with just 33 seconds to play.

“This league has always been known for being more physical and that’s not the game we play. We knew that we would need a little different style up there. We had to simplify things.”

Winners in three of their five games this weekend, including the final, the Sooites also played to a 2-2 draw with the U16 AAA Nickel Caps and dropped a surprising 2-0 affair to the New Liskeard Cubs before being pushed to the brink by coach Brian Dickinson’s crew.

“Sudbury gave us everything that we could handle,” said Henderson. “They tied it up late (under 9:00 to play) and then really took it to us the last six or seven minutes. At that point, they were so all over us that we were really just trying to make plays, get pucks out of our zone.”

With his team advancing to the Central Region Championships in Toronto in April, the current SSM crew will have a chance to compete for a berth at nationals, a chance that bypassed the 2002’s and 2003’s altogether. “Last year, we had a really strong team,” said Henderson. “It kind of felt a bit like we were almost playing for those two teams too.”

Nowhere, however, were emotions running as high as at Gerry McCrory Countryside Sports Complex. Yet another Sault team had made the final, this time in the U15 AAA division, facing a North Bay squad that featured about a dozen players who were former teammates of Noah Dugas, the young Trappers player who passed away in November of 2020 from a brain clot.

In their opening game of the season, the team welcomed the Sudbury U15 AAA Nickel Capitals to town for a jersey retirement ceremony and a celebration of life. “I think at the time, it provided a little bit of closure for some of his teammates,” said North Bay head coach Scott Huycke. “But he was never forgotten. Everything that we did was dedicated to 7N1D.”

The challenge, come Sunday, was to summon the motivation of their fallen teammate without becoming so emotional as to detract from their performance. “I knew that I wanted to mention it; I was trying to find a way because I had never had the opportunity to coach Noah,” said Huycke.

“A few hours before game time, I received a text from the Dugas family. They talked about the idea of living in the moment and playing in the moment – and it was perfect.”

The Trappers responded with an inspired effort, receiving goals from Briir Long, Hudson Prisco-Duquette and Bryden Shank, edging the Hounds 3-2. “We’ve had some good games this year and we had some that we would rather forget about,” acknowledged Huycke. “Down the stretch, we were trying to find consistency.”

“On Sunday, in that championship game, the boys played a complete game. They played with emotion, controlled emotion.”

The Soo Jr Greyhounds did manage to secure both banners from the former Peewee age brackets, blasting Sudbury 10-1 in the U12 AAA final and trimming North Bay 3-2 in overtime in the U13 AAA affair.

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