In house “showcase” tournaments are often the earliest barometer for teams in various leagues, the first opportunity to really gauge the overall competitiveness of their respective circuit, and where exactly they might fit into the grand scheme of things.
With that in mind, it would appear that there are some outstanding races shaping up within the Northern Ontario “AAA” Hockey League, particularly in the peewee divisions, based on action over the weekend from the Gerry McCrory Sports Complex.
A total of 24 games were hosted in all, down slightly following the folding of the Soo Minor Bantam Greyhounds a few weeks back. With the major peewee grouping from the Lock City taking a step back this year, and the balance between the forces of the SMHA and Nickel City hockey even tighter than in prior years, the Wolves and Sons will enter the season with a clear goal to emerge as league finalists six months from now.
Both teams completed the showcase undefeated, with Nickel City winning three of their four games, and Sudbury posting a mark of 2-0-1, while the locals played to a 2-2 draw in their head to head matchup. The troika of Kohen Crane, Cohen Arsenault and Alex Chartier carried the offense through the opening three Nickel City games, accounting for seven of their team’s first eight goals, before Alex Pharand jumped in with a two goal effort to show the way in a 5-1 triumph over the winless North Bay Trappers (0-4-0).
The most encouraging sign, within the major peewee division, is likely the competitiveness of the Timmins North Stars crew, following up a 2-1-0 weekend in Sault Ste Marie in early September with a 2-1-1 showing in Sudbury. In fact, the Sons needed a late goal from Crane to escape with a 2-1 win over the North Stars, while Sudbury and Timmins played to a 2-2 draw as locals Dominic Morris and Bradford Scarpellini traded tallies with Aidan Purificati and Alex Michel.
Morris would hold the hot hand for the Wolves, averaging a goal a game, with the remainder of the team scoring quite well distributed as no less than nine different players lit the lamp for coach Jeff Forsyth and company. Where the major peewee division will always be compared to the landscape for the age bracket at the end of the 2016-2017 minor peewee campaign, the new slate in the younger gathering is always an eye opener for Northern Ontario fans.
Minor Peewee provides the inaugural offering of “AAA” hockey within the NOHA, a chance, this year, to get a very early read on where the power lies in the distribution of the 2006-born talent in these parts. The crystal ball in this division, however, remains quite hazy, at least at this time.
The North Bay Trappers emerged as the only undefeated team, leading the league with a 2-0-1 record in mid September. But a 3-2 win over the Soo Greyhounds, a 4-4 tie with Sudbury and a 2-0 win over Nickel City suggests there will still be plenty of shuffling in the ranks between now and March.
The Sons, for their part, bolted from the gates, bouncing the Wolves 5-1 on Friday afternoon as Caden Dubreuil showed the way with a pair of goals and an assist. A shootout, of sorts, in game two, as coach Kyle Doherty sees six different players find the back of the net in a 6-4 win over the Greyhounds, with Cody Woods enjoying a three point game (1G-2A) for the winners.
The whitewash in the finale at the hands of the Trappers might have pleased the staff as much as anything, as a much tighter defensive contest would see North Bay holding on to a slim 1-0 in the final minute of play, before Nolan Newton iced it with an empty-net goal.
And while coach Barry McCrory and the Wolves still have some work to do in limiting the goals against, his team did manage to grab the only point away from the Trappers, as Mateo Signoretti scored twice while Joe Gouchie backstopped the team with an impressive 36-save performance.
Playing essentially for bragging rights, the Nickel City Minor Bantam Sons swept a pair of encounters from the North Bay crew, chalking up victories of 6-2 and 4-1 in the division that isn't. Wilson Farrow scored three times for the locals, with Samuel Assinewei adding a pair of goals.
With the minor bantam division a “no go” in the NOHL this year, Sons’ coach Trevor Blanchard indicated that his team has added a couple more tournaments to the slate, effectively piecing together a season that will see his lads finish with almost the exact same number of total matches as initially anticipated.
The drama in the major bantam division lies solely in the race behind the powerhouse Nickel City Sons, as coach Chris McInnis’ troops have set a very realistic target of completing the NOHL schedule with an undefeated mark. Three straight wins over North Bay (6-1), Sault Ste Marie (7-0) and Timmins (4-0) would suggest the team is well on their way, with their best competition of the year surely to be found in out-of-town tournament play.
“We have some new kids and are starting to get to know each other,” suggested forward Ethan Marois, one of ten different Sons to score this weekend as he finished the three game set with three goals and an assist. “Offensively, we’ve got some skill and we’ve got some skill on defence too – we’re a pretty solid team.”
Still, there remains work to be done, especially in terms of competing with the upper echelon of teams in the province. “Guys are getting stronger, so we need to play more physical, faster,” said Marois. “We were happy to compete with some of the top teams, like the Nats (Toronto Nationals). Against them, everyone has to play a perfect game, no one can be off – and our compete level has to be high.”