It’s nearing forty years since the Great North Midget League first saw the light of day and much has changed – not the least of which is the moniker for the NOHA based loop, now more P.C. denoted as the Great North U18 AAA League.
Teams have come and gone, dynasties have emerged and subsided and the game, in general, has undergone a fairly radical revamp in the overall style of play – but the notion of the last stop on the minor hockey AAA train providing a transition of sorts to those who move on doesn’t differ all that much now than it did back in the beginning.
Some players use it as a springboard; others as their last hurrah – and a quick sampling of local 1989-1990 alumni would suggest the same held true a generation + ago.
“It felt like a pretty big thing, at the time,” said John Arnold, one of the leading scorers with the Sudbury Nickel Capitals that year and a young man who would eventually find his way to an NCAA scholarship with Michigan University. “I remember the stands being pretty full. A lot of people would come out and support AAA hockey.”
“I remember walking into the rink and seeing the standings posted and following the team totals,” Arnold added. “I think at the time, if I’m not mistaken, they would even post the scoring leaders. There was no “on-line” at that time, so you were always following those.”
Simply put, there was something about the range of opponents and the physical distance required to travel to games, the fact that a weekend series often involved three different venues typically separated by 90 minutes or more than would make these young men feel just another step closer to the NHL’ers they so adored.
“It felt more big league,” explained Arnold. “Before that, you were travelling with your parents. I think it did help build me as a hockey player and especially in preparing you for the next level, for having to go away.”
It certainly didn’t hurt that the hockey was good – and it was good in multiple different outposts.
“We had some epic battles with Rayside-Balfour and the Jason Young’s of the world,” recalled Arnold. “And I specifically remember playing North Bay and two players in particular: Jeff Pitawanakwat and Steve Shields, their goalie – and Chris Simon in the Sault, of course.”
Teammate Guy Myre was a new addition to that Sudbury team, the now long-time area resident having played with his hometown Elliot Lake Vikings one year earlier before the full family moved to the nickel city to join his father who had come here for work just as the GNML was being launched.
Part of a struggling team in Elliot Lake that only got worse in 1989-1990, Myre did not easily shed the emotion of previous head to head battles with his new teammates to be. “I remember Mike Heaphy telling Bobby Brunet and I to relax a little at tryouts, that we were both going to make the team,” Myre stated with a laugh.
“I didn’t know anybody so I was playing against them in tryouts the way I had the year before. I had no friends on the team.”
Once the team was selected, things changed.
“Hockey was my bridge to get to know people here,” said Myre.
Where the Vikings were overmatched in the GNML, the Nickel Capitals had the kind of depth of talent that required a little getting used to for the former big fish in a much smaller pond. “We struggled in Elliot Lake; we should never have been a AAA team those last few years but you do what you can do with what you have,” said Myre.
“In Elliot Lake, I was still on the power play and got some time on the PK – a top six guy, so to speak. The coaches here had the ability to make changes if I was going through a funk. But I loved that competitive edge, the way that Mike (Heaphy) and Barry (McCrory) coached the team.”
“They allowed us to communicate with them – but it was clear in what they expected from you.”
While John Arnold garnered exposure to the U.S. school hockey option through coach Heaphy and his nephew, Pat, who had returned from Cornell University, Myre would see his future career influenced, at least temporarily, by Sudbury trainer Norm Larocque as the teenage prospect looked to nursing as a potential future job of choice.
Out in Chelmsford, Matt Mooney was enjoying just one year in the league – and an underage one at that.
With his father (Mike) coaching a very talented Rayside-Balfour Legion Major Midgets team that fell to Sault Ste Marie in the league final, Mooney stepped directly from his major bantam campaign in the GNML to five years in the NOJHL.
That said, impressions were made in that solitary season in the loop for Mooney, the final year prior to the Valley East Consbec Cobras being welcomed to the league and Rayside no longer benefitting from the combined talent of Chelmsford/Azilda/Dowling/Levack and such, as well as Valley East.
“In terms of our team, I remember Andrew Brunette (played for Rayside) and his phenomenal hands,” said Mooney. “It was something I had never seen before. He was big, a little slow, but he could hold guys off and stickhandle around with one hand. The stuff he did with the puck was incredible.”
A seventh round pick of the Owen Sound Platers in 1990, Brunette would rack up an astounding 162 points three years later in the OHL, winning the league scoring title. Shame that those who try and assess minor hockey talent seldom consider teammates as a viable source of information.
“Everybody on our team could see it, but the scouts almost never talked to him,” said Mooney. “I remember talking to a Kingston scout and my whole talk with him was: are you insane?”
Beyond that, Mooney echoed the overarching memories of both Arnold and Myre.
“The Great North was a big deal; it was one of the premier leagues to play in,” said Mooney. “It was a great stepping stone. Before that, it was maybe a tournament or two, going to Timmins or one of those places. Now we’re travelling with a weekend swing, the great northern swing a couple of times a year.”
“Getting to travel, be on the bus, hanging out with the guys – it was a fantastic experience.”
One can only hope that never changes.