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NOHL Showcase shows some reasons for optimism - even if much work remains to be done
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No one in the NOHA (Northern Ontario Hockey Association) is suggesting that the north has suddenly become the shining beacon of hockey development for the province and the country.

One and all are keenly aware that there is ample room for improvement in terms of providing a much better template that allow all youngsters who first lace up the skates to develop to their full potential in outposts ranging from Powassan to Wawa – and everywhere in between.

There is absolutely no denying than numbers are nowhere close to where they used to be – the reasons for which are many and could easily fill the contents of an entire column of their own (and likely will – some day).

That said, for those who bothered to take in some of the NOHL (Northern Ontario AAA Hockey League) Showcase at the Gerry McCrory Countryside Sports Complex this weekend, there were undeniable reasons for optimism, clear-cut evidence that elite hockey excellence can and is still being produced, in pockets, in northern Ontario.

“I remember when we were at this age, we were nowhere near where these kids are at in terms of their foot speed, their skating, their shooting, their passing – all of it,” noted North Bay U12 AAA Trappers head coach Justin Carré, not long after his team edged the Soo Jr Greyhounds 2-1 in what was perhaps the highlight outing of the event.

Just the ramblings of another delusional hockey parents whose offspring have finally earned that extra “A” on the arm of their new coat, you ask?

Then you need to be aware that Dr Justin Carre holds a PhD and specializes in the study of Social Neuroendocrinology, his interest in academia often merging with his lifelong love and fascination with hockey and sport in general. He was also a key contributor to the Rayside-Balfour Sabrecats team which lost in the final of the 2000 Royal Bank Cup in Fort McMurray, moving on from the NOJHL to an NCAAA hockey scholarship at Canisius College.

Yep, the 42 year old native of Azilda knows a thing or two about this game.

“The kids now days are faster, they’re stronger,” said Carré. “They use their bodies really well. There is no body checking now until U14, but at U12, there is still a lot of body contacts. The kids are learning how to play their angles.”

While the NOHA does not contest AAA hockey below the U12 level (where much of the remainder of the province does), ostensibly to help promote a wider spectrum of overall growth in young players at the ages of six to ten or so, Carré is confident that his team, as well as both Sudbury and Sault Ste Marie will all more than hold their own as they test themselves this year against the very best teams in Ontario.

“We actually went to two AAA tournaments last year as a AA team and we fared pretty well (6-2),” said Carré. “The difference when you are talking about those top five or six teams in Ontario is just puck movement. Those kids know how to move the puck, they know that the puck moves faster than anybody can skate.”

And just to show that we are still talking about 11 year olds, the Trappers team which looked so good in beating Sudbury 8-3 in their opener and then slipping past the Greyhounds then proceeded to drop an 8-4 decision to the Wolves and lost 4-1 to the Sault on Sunday.

Yes, there remains work to be done.

For Sudbury U14 AAA Wolves' head coach Gerry Dupuis and company, much of that work needs to be done off the ice. In his first year behind the bench of the squad that captured silver at the all-Ontario championships last spring, Dupuis was more than happy with the on-ice effort that produced a three game sweep over the Soo Jr Greyhounds (10-2, 5-3, 9-1).

Therein, however, lies the problem.

There are currently just two NOHA AAA entries in this age bracket and for a number of very valid reasons, Hockey Canada limits tournament and game play in the youth ranks. The Wolves were able to bump their season quota from five to six tournaments and were OK’d to do both the Showcase and the Red Wings tournament this month, but the option of filling in much of the balance of their calendar with weekend “friendlies” against OMHA opponents has not gone well.

“We’ve reached out to about ten teams or so but their schedules are so filled up there is no room for exhibition games,” said Dupuis. While they continue to turn every stone in finding meaningful games, the team staff will focus on the controllable, looking to raise the standard for a squad which have their sights set on participating in the newly-created OHL Cup next spring.

“This weekend went well,” stated Dupuis. “I was very impressed with the way that we skated. The puck movement wasn’t quite there, so that’s something that we will start working on more.”

And, of course, U14 is the first year that body checking is allowed, which brings about a whole other layer of teaching for Dupuis and his cohorts. “The kids were a little excited in that first game, running around and looking for a big hit,” he said. “There was progression as the weekend went on.”

“They realized that they still have to skate and move the puck and that it’s not all about contact at this level.”

The U14 AAA Wolves are off to the Toronto Red Wings Early Bird Tournament this coming weekend, facing both the Southern Tier Admirals and the Markham Waxers on Friday.

The 2023-2024 edition of the Sudbury U14 AAA Wolves is comprised of Nicolas Rocca, Ty Belanger, Owen Angus, Ezio Cusinato, Greyson Hnatiuk, Warner Bain, Zacharie Paul, Nicolas Christakos, Dacey Dupuis, Noah Barriault, Bradley Huffman, Tayden Smith, Ryan Thompson, Jackson Mead, Cooper Niquet, Malik Jakubo, Seth Verbiewski and Ty Imbeau.

Much like the Trappers’ U12 crew, the Sudbury U13 AAA Wolves experienced a bit of a roller coaster weekend, blowing out North Bay in game one, surrendering a third period lead in a 6-4 loss to the Sault in game two, stopping the Thunder Bay Kings 3-1 in game three and overcoming a two goal deficit to toppled the Kings 4-3 in overtime in their finale.

And much like coach Carré, Sudbury bench boss Joey Talbot suggested that in some ways, minor hockey is clearly far ahead of where it was twenty years ago. “When you look at the kids now, skill-wise, where they are at 12 years old is incredible to where I felt that we were when I was 12 years old,” said the 43 year-old Wahnapitae native who lit the lamp more than one hundred times as a member of the Ottawa 67’s before playing university hockey at Western and professional hockey for eight years split between Alaska (ECHL) and England (EIHL).

Talbot also agrees that there is still plenty of work to be done.

“These kids need to start to understand that you can be a super-skilled player, but if you don’t know how to play the game properly, that skill goes to waste,” said Talbot. “Right now, that’s probably the next step for them. Little by little, they are going to have to learn to put that skill to use in a team game where I only touch the puck for a minute a game or so.”

Hockey in the north is not perfect – a long way from it – but the sky is also not falling on elite hockey in these parts.

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