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U18 AAA Wolves in first place - but not yet where they want to be

On the one hand, the Sudbury U18 AAA Wolves currently hold down first place in the Great North U18 League, their 12-4-1-0 record good for a five point lead over the North Bay U18 AAA Trappers (10-5-0-0).

Considering that the local franchise has not topped the GNML regular season standings at year end since the winter of 2017-2018 and has not even cracked the top two the last five years, there is much to like about their current placement.

Even tournament play has been better than years gone bye, the Wolves earning a quarter-final berth in a very competitive Big Nickel Tournament field in November and picking up a 4-2 win last weekend over the Brantford 99ers at the Waterloo Gold Puck, all while playing the Don Mills Flyers, London Jr Knights and Markham Majors tough at the same event.

Which brings us to the flip side of this coin – the belief within this group that finding a way to turn 3-2 (Don Mills) / 2-1 (Markham) / 4-1 (London) setbacks into victories is not an unachievable goal – based on the accumulated talent on hand this year.

“It just seems that at the worst possible moment, we have that key turnover,” noted head coach Brian Dickinson at practice Tuesday evening, his team preparing for a three game northern swing that sees them facing the New Liskeard Cubs Friday night before battling through a two-game set against the Kapuskasing Flyers on Saturday and Sunday.

“Markham, who finished at 4-0, beat us 2-1 – and we were up 1-0 going to the third. We’re very inconsistent right now. We can control a game for 52 minutes and we have an eight minute lull, a lapse, and they capitalize – every time.”

Needless to say, overseeing those 52 minute stretches can be quite delightful in most games.

“When we dominate a team, it’s effortless,” said Dickinson. “Our defensive play in the offensive zone is very, very good. Our goaltending has been excellent; my concern is not there. What we are trying to work on right now is defensive zone coverage.”

As has been previously noted this fall, there are far more of the members of this particular U18 AAA Wolves team who have never previously shared the same dressing room than would normally be the case, part of which is driven by an influx of former North Bay Trappers (and one from the Soo), part of which is the result of the opportunity presented to locals as some traditional AAA talent jumps into the junior ranks while still enjoying U18 eligibility.

“When you are meshing so many kids into one system, it sometimes takes a little longer than we might want,” noted Dickinson, a prelude to explaining the focus of their defensive zone coverage.

“We are trying to incorporate three men down low man on man defense,” he said. “I don’t want guys switching off – it only leads to confusion.”

Now in his third year with the team, associate captain Félix St Onge likely enjoys a better handle than most on the D-zone concepts. The veteran defenseman also recognizes that flipping one goal losses into one goal wins is also do-able with more Sudbury shots finding the back of the net.

“I think we’re playing pretty well, all around,” said St Onge. “There’s just a few chances where we need to bear down, defensively and offensively. We need to focus on burying our chances that we get in those games so that it’s not a one goal game or a tight game.”

And while he acknowledges that bringing newcomers aboard does require a little extra patience when it comes to all paddling in unison, the young man who was recently recognized as the NOHA Official of the Month in November suggested that those who are new to the Wolves have fit in perhaps even better than expected.

“I love the North Bay guys – they’re amazing,” said St Onge. “They know how to play hockey, they understand. It’s nice knowing that I can give the puck to players like that, knowing that they are going to succeed in the situation I put them in.”

Fellow blueliner Rowan Smith, preparing to celebrate his 16th birthday this weekend, is not at all new to the Sudbury hockey scene – though this is his first year with the U18 AAA Wolves, making the jump from the U16 AA ranks last year.

Based on circumstance alone, Smith is also thankful for the opportunity to be put in situations to succeed this year, even if he didn’t see this particular switch coming. “Most of my life, I have played on the right side as a left-handed D,” stated Smith.

“This year, I starting playing the left side and honestly, it makes me feel a lot more comfortable, especially picking off pucks when the other team rims it around.”

And while he concedes that the team can still do more to improve on both sides of the puck, Smith also feels that the pendulum of puck luck is due to swing back in favour of the Sudbury lads sometime soon.

“We actually had lot of chances in most games, a lot of shots,” said Smith. “We just couldn’t bury our chances. We hit so many posts. We’re not getting the bounces.”

Coach Dickinson agrees, it seems.

“When you face talented teams, you’re not going to score seven or eight goals,” stressed the man looking for his first GNML title. “It really is whoever capitalizes on their chances. We hit three crossbars versus Markham alone.”

Three inches the other way and we might be having a different discussion completely. Such is the 2023-2024 season to date for the Sudbury U18 AAA Wolves.