Local junior hockey prospects are not all that fussy when it comes to the particular destination of choice that allows them to pursue their dreams of a professional career in the sport. It's simply an added bonus when those dreams can be chased much closer to home.
Preparing for the upcoming OHL training camps, a trio of Sudbury natives will not have to venture very far at all as they hit the ice later this month. Valley East native Bradley Chenier is the furthest along of the three, entering his second full year with the North Bay Battalion after recording seven goals and eight assists in 68 games with the team last year.
"I was kind of happy with my season, but I expected more from myself," said the 4th round selection in the 2015 Entry Draft. "There were little mistakes that I made throughout the season, half board play, a bad chip, not a deep enough dump that causes a bad chance and an odd man rush."
"Just little things like that which can make a difference in a game. It was a good learning experience. Going into this season, I know what to do, what not to do." Guiding Chenier through the process is arguably the most well-established coach in the entire league, as Stan Butler readies for his 20th season at the helm of the good ship Battalion.
"He's an honest guy, which you need, sometimes," said Chenier. "He's a guy that doesn't beat around the bush, he tells you what you need to know. For a player, that's something you need. You don't want to be baby fed all the way through. You want to know what you did wrong in order to improve, and move on from it."
Chenier and his North Bay mates are coming off a tough 2016-2017 season, from a team perspective, decimated by injuries and ultimately missing the playoffs. One of only four players on the team to dress for all 68 regular season games, the 18 year old product of the Nickel City Sons program took advantage of the opportunies that would arise simply due to the volume of walking wounded last year.
"It really opened up a position on the PK (penalty kill)," he said. "I played it a lot last year. I really took it personally, to be that guy they choose to put out there with their bigger guys out. They relied on me, which kind of pushed me as a player."
As for the upcoming season, no surprise that Chenier is chomping at the bit. "I'm really excited for this year," he said. "There's a lot of change, a lot of moves, and I'm excited to see what we can do. I'm just looking for more consistency, throughout my whole game."
"I've got to be a 200 foot player. I can't just rely on defense or offense. I've got to play a full game, maybe chip in a little more offensively." That willingness in being able to contribute in whatever way possible also created an opening for a long-time teammate of Chenier's, also now with the North Bay Battalion.
Fellow Valley East native Daniel Walker was selected in the 10th round in the same year that Chenier was nabbed six rounds earlier. Racking up 24 points in 49 games as a member of the 2015-2016 Powassan Voodoos, the 6'4" forward ended up dressing in no less than 56 games with the Battalion last year.
"It was a lot of fun to play at that level," he said. "It was definitely a change, going from junior "A" up to that kind of speed. It sucks that a lot of our guys got injured, but I was lucky that I got the opportunity to play a lot of games, to play multiple positions and have a different view of the game."
In fact, Walker would see action in roughly 16 to 17 encounters as a member of the blueline brigade in North Bay, a position that he had never played throughout his lengthy minor hockey career in Valley East and with Nickel City.
"I guess I was a bigger body with a long reach, that sort of thing," said Walker of the decision to convert him to a temporary defenceman. "I didn't look too bad, I guess. I don't think their plan for this year is defense, but certainly, if guys get injured, I don't mind going back there to help the team out."
Still, there is no denying that Walker was drafted with the wish for a reasonably skilled forward with size, a vision that he would love to fulfill in the 2017-2018 campaign. "For the past five years, I had played at centre, then I got moved to the wing, which really didn't bother me too much," he said.
"I got the puck on the move a lot more, instead of having to come from the corner." In fact, given a growth spurt of some three inches since his draft year, Walker has found all sorts of manners in which to morph his game.
"Last year was different," he said with a smile. "Even in junior "A", I hadn't hit a lot, hadn't really brought the physicality to my game. I usually resorted back to skill and shooting. But when I wasn't scoring and I wasn't getting a lot of points, I figured I had better help somewhere else."
"I blocked shots, I hit, I brought those elements into my game." Yet as he looks toward his third OHL training camp, Walker is anxious to show that his bread and butter from his minor hockey days, the skill set that showed potential to OHL scouts, remain to be unearthed at the next level.
"I think I need to show that I still have that ability to score," he said. "Going the whole year without getting a goal was pretty tough. If I can show in camp that I still have that ability to score, that I still have a good shot, that I'm able to use it, then hopefully they will still see that in me."
It is a skill-set that sounds awfully similar to that which 17 year old forward Brett Jacklin hopes to showcase at the Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds' tryouts in less than a month's time.
A 10th round pick of the Hounds in 2016, Jacklin compiled 18 goals and 8 assists in 56 games with the Elliot Lake Wildcats of the NOJHL last year. It was exactly the next phase in his development that the Sudbury native hoped for when he signed on with the Cats.
"I think it was a big step for me, choosing junior route instead of major midget," said Jacklin. "For me, I think, it paid off well. It really helped me playing with older guys, building up my speed more quickly. I feel that I improved a lot, just my puck protection, being harder on the puck, with older guys trying to knock me off."
At the end of the day, Jacklin would love nothing more than to follow in the footsteps that Chenier and Walker imprinted one year ago - and he believes he has the game plan to do just that.
"I have to show my goal scoring ability and my shot, using that every chance that I can," he said. "The pace will be faster, there's more compete, but I think I'm ready to go." And if confidence plays a big part in the process, the Sudbury Minor Hockey Association "AAA" talent from minor peewee right through to minor midget should be well equipped for the challenge.
"I think this is the year that I'm going to make the jump to the OHL," he said. "I'm really looking forward to it, and I'm going to give it my all."