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Turnaround season results in all-Ontario berth for U15 AAA Sons
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The 2022-2023 NOHL (Northern Ontario AAA Hockey League) season would see the Nickel City U14 AAA Sons post a league record of 3-22-3, finishing well back of both the Soo Jr Greyhounds and North Bay Trappers, the top two teams battling neck and neck for the NOHA banner.

By the end of the 2023-2024 U15 AAA campaign, the Sons had substantially narrowed the gap, still trailing their northern rivals but with the parity between the trio much more evident as the Soo (35 pts) finished just ahead of both North Bay (33) and Nickel City (29).

On the last weekend of March (2024), the transformation of the Nickel City U15 AAA Sons was complete.

Suiting up with essentially the same roster as the previous year (just two lineup changes of note) and facing northern teams with essentially the same lineups with which they dominated the locals one year earlier, Nickel City was crowned NOHA champions, earning an OHF Championship berth that seemed all too unlikely back in September of 2023.

"I think we identified that there was room for improvement with the culture that we had," noted coach Trevor Blanchard, earning a great deal of accolades for his work in his first year with this crew this past winter.

"We really worked hard on that throughout the season. At the start of the season, our kids found ways to lose instead of finding ways to win. We completely reversed that and helped them believe that they could battle through adversity and win hockey games."

Drilling down more deeply into the numbers, it was apparent that a jump in competitiveness was a realistic goal. Of their 22 league losses the year before, no less than 12 were games lost by two goals or less.

At the recent NOHL playdowns, the Sons bounced the Trappers 7-4, edged the Jr Greyhounds 2-1, thumped the Timmins Majors 9-2 before getting past the Soo for a second time, 3-1 in the gold medal affair.

And while the notion of very general talk of adherance to systems within minor hockey teams can sometimes be quite confusing, both coach and players alike had no issue pinpointing exact areas of the game where changed occured.

"We really tried to work the systems," noted forward and offensive catalyst Leighton Pelletier. "In our defensive zone, we always had one guy sagging in front of the net so there wouldn't be an open guy for one timers and stuff."

"We started playing a 2-1-2 on the forecheck, moving to 1-3-1 if we had a one or two goal lead. We had systems for our forecheck, our back-check, our power plays and our penalty kills - and that really helped us in the playoffs."

"We instilled a system where we demanded solid puck management," coach Blanchard expanded. "That was in all three zones, making sure we made strong plays and put the puck in areas where if benefitted our team if we had to give up control of the puck."

"That took a long time to instill - we're still working on that. And we really focused on being a tougher team to play against."

Of course, there is nothing better than results to build buy-in and while Blanchard and company espoused a patient approach to the year, purposely avoiding top end tournament play before Christmas, players could sense the change as far back as the fall.

"It's been a while since we've won anything," suggested Pelletier. "The last time my team won anything was the 2019 (Regional) Silver Stick (when he was still playing U11-AA hockey). This feels pretty good."

Blanchard, for his part, could not be more proud.

"We worked on our preparation and we saw it in the final few practices leading up to the weekend and throughout the whole weekend," he stressed. "The kids were so much more focused; I think that is just maturing as hockey players."

"Our execution was just much more consistent on the weekend," he added. "The preparation allowed for the execution, and the execution and hard work created the result that we were looking for."

"It was so nice to see the hard work come to fruition and the kids get the moment they deserved."

The Nickel City Sons will travel to Ottawa next week as the All-Onatrio U15 AAA Championships run from April 17th to the 21st. Rounding out the field are the host Ottawa Valley Titans as well as the Don Mills Flyers, Thunder Bay Kings, Quinte Red Devils, Ottawa Myers Automotive and Sun County Panthers.

The 2023-2024 edition of the Nickel City U15 AAA Sons features Landen Lake-Rego, Leighton Pelletier, Mikael Guerin, Robert Landry, Sam Piette, Tanner Morris, Carter McAllister, Harry Yeamans, Carter Brownlee, Gillis O'Daiskey, Grady Dale, Carson Jewitt, Hunter Currie, Janssen Fransen, Ty Dubreuil and goaltenders Tyson McMahon and Owen Lamothe.

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