With 21 of the 38 total entries in the 2023 Big Nickel Hockey Tournament bunched together in the U18 AAA bracket, the division was sure to garner plenty of attention this past weekend – and deservedly so, as it was home to some outstanding matchups along the way.
But from a strictly local perspective, the spotlight would shine most brightly on the U14 AAA grouping, with the Sudbury Wolves emerging victorious, posting their second consecutive shutout of the Ottawa Jr 67’s in the final Sunday afternoon in a 5-0 win.
After starting the event with three straight “W’s” – beating Ottawa (4-0), the Upper Canada Cyclones (5-0) and the Soo Jr Greyhounds (7-1) – the defending All-Ontario U13 AAA silver medal winners last spring in Thunder Bay overcame a stumble in their final round robin affair (losing 4-1 to the Oshawa Generals), sending the home town crowd home happy the very next day.
Goaltender Nicholas Rocca remained flawless versus the team from the nation’s capital, earning a pair of shutouts and sharing the Top Goaltenders award for this age group with teammate Ty Imbeau. With Sudbury maintaining control of the play for stretches on end, the 12 year old grade 8 student at St Benedict Elementary knew that maintaining focus, even in those quiet times, would be key.
“It’s just a matter of staying loose at the other end,” said Rocca. “I like to skate around.”
A bit of a break from the mold of ultra-tall puckstoppers, the youngster who has donned the pads for the past four years has been forced to ad-lib a little in terms of effective puck-tracking as he deals with larger bodies in his line of vision as the kids get older.
“I kind of have to look through their legs a little bit,” he said with a laugh. “Sometimes I try and push them out of the way or tell my D to try and move them.”
With six goals in five games, Dacey Dupuis was named divisional MVP, joined on the scoresheet in the championship affair by Sudbury teammates Jackson Mead (two goals), Nicholas Christakos and Cooper Niquet while Ryan Thompson of the Wolves shared the Frank McCool Team Player Award with Ashton McAlear from Ottawa.
Hopes for a pair of local entries in the Sunday gold medal games were extinguished earlier in the morning when the Nickel City U15 AAA Sons saw their four game tournament winning streak halted with a 4-3 semi-final overtime loss to the Soo Jr Greyhounds.
The Sons looked strong throughout days one and two, taking down Okanagan Hockey Ontario (5-1), Canadian International Hockey Academy – CIHA (7-0), the Ottawa Jr 67’s (6-2) and the Central Ontario Wolves (2-0). Turns out the NOHA was very well represented in this particular collection of teams, with all four northern entries making their way to the final four.
An overtime goal by MVP Cedar Montreuil propelled the North Bay U15 AAA Trappers past the Soo Jr Greyhounds 2-1 in a contest that would see North Bay netminder Grayden Joseph turn aside 30 of the 31 shots that he faced, his team managing 16 shots in goal total for their part.
In a short tournament format, it’s not always a guarantee that the best two teams will meet in the final. A hot goalie, one bad bounce at the worst possible time and shorter game times than usual often conspire to create upsets that can make for great Cinderella stories.
When it came to the 21 team U18 AAA division in the 2023 Big Nickel, it would be hard to argue against the Waterloo Wolves and Ajax-Pickering Raiders being clearly the class of the field. Both teams boasted unblemished 6-0 records entering their Sunday showdown and were meeting in a tournament championship contest for the first time this year after clashing twice in similar circumstances in 2022-2023.
Make it 3-0 for the Wolves in the head to head battles as Waterloo built up a 4-1 lead and held on as Ajax-Pickering tallied twice in the dying minutes to make things close, falling 5-3 in the end. “They’re a heck of a team,” offered winning coach Brian Burnley quite graciously following the final.
“They’re fast, they’re skilled and they’re very well structured. We know we will see them again.”
With both teams blessed with speed to burn, the chess match became intriguing, especially given the extra room that Ice #1 of the Gerry McCrory Countryside Sports Complex provides. “We ended up going with a less aggressive style,” Burnley noted. “They’ve got really structured neutral zone play so we clogged up the neutral zone and were trapping them to stop some of their sets coming through.”
“In the third period, we kind of locked everything down – but as we saw, that didn’t quite work out as planned in the last minute.”
Tournament MVP Colin Slattery netted his fourth goal of the weekend for the winners, joined by Noah Vandenberg (2), Sam Ratcliffe (Frank McCool Award winner – with Rocco Bigioni from Ajax-Pickering) and Jack Clarke.
Overall, coach Brian Dickinson and his staff likely walked away pretty pleased with the play of the Sudbury U18 AAA Wolves, posting a 3-1 record in round robin play to secure a berth in the quarter-finals but eliminated Saturday night thanks to a 4-1 loss to the Elgin-Middlesex Canucks.
In the U13 division of four, the Sudbury U12 AAA Wolves stepped in to round out the bracket but were clearly in tough, going 0-4. Meanwhile, the Grey-Bruce Highlanders rebounded from a 3-2 preliminary round loss to the North Bay Trappers, running away by a final count of 7-1 in the rematch on Sunday.
And finally, with the Big Nickel celebrating its 43rd anniversary this year, locating stories that capture the tradition and lore of the event is easy as pie when one talks to the locals who are tournament regulars. But it seems that the specialness can extend right across the province.
Steve De Melis was a goaltender with the Richmond Hill Vaughan Kings back in 1992 when he was named MVP for his tournament winning team that fall. Thirty years later, having not visited Sudbury in the interim, the father of current Mississauga Senators’ netminder Andrea (De Melis) was back in town.
At the urging of Mississauga head coach Scott McCrory, a man more than slightly aware of the family connections that Big Nickel hockey can provide, De Melis brought along the MVP award, the ceramic dolly that was just one of the unique aspects to the northern showcase, a special feature that further helped in attracting top end teams, province-wide.
“I told Scott (McCrory) that this is the only trophy from my minor hockey days that I distinctly remember,” said De Melis, his other recollection from that trip being a win posted over opposing goalie and future NHLer Marty Turco from Sault Ste Marie. “It’s the one trophy that I did not throw in a box with all of the other trophies.”
“It is very, very distinct – which is kind of why I appreciated it a little bit more.”
Following are the individual award winners from all four divisions:U18 AAA Division
MVP - Colin Slattery (Waterloo Wolves)
Frank McCool Award - Sam Ratcliffe (Waterloo Wolves)
Frank McCool Award - Rocco Bigioni (Ajax-Pickering Raiders)
Top Goaltenders - Liam Hughes / Liam Conway (Reps Hockey Club)
Top Goaltenders - Reid Thomas / Daniel Giusti (Ajax-Pickering Raiders)
Top Scorer - Blake Wright (Ajax-Pickering Raiders)
U15 AAA Division
MVP - Cedar Montreuil (North Bay Trappers)
Frank McCool Award - Wyatt Jarrett (Soo Jr Greyhounds)
Frank McCool Award - Kory Corauelle (North Bay Trappers)
Top Goaltenders - Grayden Joseph / Bruce Laronde (North Bay Trappers)
Top Scorer - Wyatt Jarrett/Adam Pszeniczny/Jacob Vincent (Soo Jr Greyhounds)
Top Scorer - Cedar Montreuil (North Bay Trappers)
U14 AAA Division
MVP - Dacey Dupuis (Sudbury Wolves)
Frank McCool Award - Ryan Thompson (Sudbury Wolves)
Frank McCool Award - Ashton McAlear (Ottawa Jr 67's)
Top Goaltenders - Ty Imbeau / Nicholas Rocca (Sudbury Wolves)
Top Scorer - Dacey Dupuis (Sudbury Wolves)
U13 AAA Division
MVP - Gryphon Turner (Grey-Bruce Highlanders)
Frank McCool Award - Avery Wathke (Grey-Bruce Highlanders)
Frank McCool Award - Easton Assinewai (North Bay Trappers)
Top Goaltenders - Aleksander Ord / Matt Cloutier (North Bay Trappers)
Top Scorer - Easton Assinewai (North Bay Trappers)
Top Scorer - Brayden Foulds (Barrie Colts)