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Mitchell Byrne commits to the Cadets

It's been a few years since Rayside-Balfour native Alain Joanette followed up his local minor hockey career, criss-crossing the country for junior hockey experience before moving on to play four years of NCAA Division III hockey with the St Norbert Green Knights in Wisconsin.

It's a path that Onaping Falls product Mitchell Byrne would be only too happy to duplicate, with a few similarities already in place. Byrne, a 20 year-old forward, has committed to attend Norwich University in Northfield (Vermont), suiting up with the highly successful Cadets men's hockey program in the fall.

Local fans last saw Byrne doing his thing, on the hockey rink, back in the 2010-2011 season, when he teamed with the likes of Cody Gratton, Alex Bottigoni and Alex Battistelli in leading the Nickel City Midget "AAA" Sons to a Great North Midget League championship.

Drafted in the fifteenth round of the 2010 OHL draft by the Brampton Battalion, Byrne realized quickly that his best option might well lie in considering the pursuit of a hockey career at the post-secondary level.

It was this mindset that would take the fourth leading scorer in the GNML out to Rothesay Netherwood School in New Brunswick, a private independent prep school whose hockey team travels frequently to U.S.-based tournaments and showcase events.

"It was amazing, I loved it there," said Byrne of the two-year stint out on east coast. "The hockey was a little bit better than "AAA", but we were down in the States constantly. It was just really good for the exposure."

That said, while some schools had chatted with Byrne, offers were not yet forthcoming. It was time to pack his bags and travel again, several thousand miles to his next destination.

"We were playing at a tournament in Calgary in my second year," Byrne recalled. "Me and my linemate both ended up getting scouted out to Fort McMurray." Byrne would play one year only with the Fort McMurray Oil Barons of the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL), but it was an experience he will never forget.

"It's not really what I thought it was going to be," he said. "It really blew away all my expectations. The fan base there is crazy. It's obviously the best fan base that I've ever played for, and probably one of the best junior "A" fan base in Canada."

Getting off to a quick start to the 2013-2014 season, Byrne attracted some interest. "We were talking with Norwich early, but I was also talking to some other schools, but those kind of went away," acknowledged the AJHL rookie, who finished the year with 23 points, adding four goals in the post-season.

"When I decided, it actually happened pretty quick," said Byrne. "I think this will be a great opportunity for me. They (Norwich) are usually near the top of their division." In fact, the Norwich University Cadets lost 2-1 to the Babson College Beavers in the championship final of the ECAC (Eastern College Athletic Conference), with Babson moving on to the NCAA Division III Men's Ice Hockey Tournament.

With the start of his first university training camp mere weeks away, Byrne is wrapping his mind around the areas of his game that will be critical to a successful transition to the next level. "Smarts on the ice, making the right play in my defensive zone," he noted.

"I'm expecting it to be quicker than the junior league I played in last year." And like Joanette, who won two NCAA titles during his time at St Norbert, Byrne is hoping to help take Norwich to the pinnacle of Division III hockey in the U.S.A.

Interesting side note: Since Division III hockey was first contested in 1984, Norwich has won three championships, losing to Wisconsin-Superior in 2002, while St Norbert has won four times, finishing second on three occasions

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