There may not have been a local “AAA” hockey team that had more on the line during the recent SMHA (Sudbury Minor Hockey Association) / NCHA (Nickel City Hockey Association) talks than the members of the Nickel City Major Bantam “AAA” Sons.
Viewed by many as one of the deeper collections of local top end hockey talent in this area in recent years, the 2003 prospects enter their OHL draft year beginning next fall. While those thoughts may still be sitting in the far back regions of their minds, the fact that rumours were running rampant that the group might be sub-divided just as scouts aplenty were scouring to view their potential proved justifiably to be reason for concern.
Thankfully, when the dust settled, the above-noted minor hockey organizations opted to move to formalize a single “AAA” hockey entity, ensuring the continuity of an annual working arrangement that remains constant, in terms of the teams that are being iced, for the 2018-2019 campaign.
“The news of maintaining one team was welcomed, especially with our age group, to avoid any uncertainty heading into their draft year next year, which can be a trying time for both players and parents,” noted Bantam “AAA” Sons head coach Chris McInnis, no stranger to the landscape of this level of hockey for some time now.
“With certainty in the associations’ direction, and certainty that there will be one minor midget team, the hope is the players and parents can focus on our season the rest of the year without any off-ice distraction.” The 2003 grouping first rose to prominence via the OHF All-Ontario Peewee “AAA” Championships two years ago.
With the then Sudbury Wolves and Nickel City Sons meeting in the league (NOHL) final, both teams secured spots at provincials. Both teams acquitted themselves extremely well against top end Ontario talent in their age group, with the Sons settling for silver medals in the end.
In a sense, this merged squad embodies many of the arguments that are made when discussion of just how many “AAA” hockey teams, at divisions ranging from minor peewee to major midget (possibly atom, as well, down the road), is appropriate.
While the quality of Sudbury and area hockey talent might not equate, year after year, to that of the 2003 youngsters, there is no denying that a single entry from this area will automatically make it tougher for teams from Sault Ste Marie, North Bay and Timmins to compete. Since merging the group roughly eighteen months ago, the bantam Sons has posted a league record of 44-1-1.
The reality for McInnis and company is that there is a need to be somewhat creative when looking at how best to utilize league play to prepare the Sons for the faster paced tournament action where their skills are more likely to be assessed.
“I’m not disrespecting the other teams, but we look at this league as practice for us,” noted forward Cameron Walker quite candidly. “I know all of the other teams have been developing a lot, they’ve gotten a lot better since last year. But we really need to work on trying to get comfortable with the puck, because that’s a lot harder against the Toronto teams – and work on our power play. Those are some things we really need to work on in these games in this league.”
“Every team in our league plays their most competitive games against us, every time,” added McInnis. “They are highly motivated and we are challenged every game to be prepared to meet that determination to beat us. In doing so, we strive for consistency in how we play, to play the same way every game, regardless of the team we are playing.”
Easier said than done, especially when dealing with a collection of 13 and 14 year old boys. “We have to develop better habits here, that will help us in tournaments,” noted forward Chris Innes, moments after the Sons overcame a 3-2 second period deficit last Sunday against the North Bay Trappers in Chelmsford, scoring four times in the third and remaining undefeated thanks to a 6-3 victory.
“When we play here, we can be nonchalant. We need to play here like we play down there.” Both Innes and Walker, interestingly enough, are also central to another main issue in the “AAA” debate. Both athletes suited up with Sudbury at the minor and major peewee levels, but did not crack the merged roster at minor bantam. Both would obviously have made a Wolves team, had one existed, in first year bantam.
If much of this debate centers around how best to develop talent in the long run, both young men offer an interesting perspective, given the benefits they derived from one year spent back with a “AA” team. “Looking back, getting cut, I’m actually kind of happy that it happened, because it made me stronger as a player and an individual,” stated Walker.
“Last year, I found that it was a really good opportunity to be “the” guy. It really helped me, it was a good experience. I wasn’t strong every single game, I needed to be more consistent.” He’s not going to get much argument from Innes, who points with pride at the character traits that allowed him to bounce back into the picture this year.
“Coming back from a big disappointment like that and turning it all around, translating that negative energy into hard work and getting better, having a good work ethic in practices, it really helped,” said Innes.
And while some players might become more involved than others as the “AAA” debate raged on, Walker likely captures the sentiment of the vast majority. “Personally, I don’t like to really look into that stuff much, because one day it’s one thing, the next day, it’s the other thing. I just try and keep my head in the game and play as hard as I can.”
With the prestigious Toronto Marlboros AAA Holiday Classic Hockey Tournament right around the corner, this trio and the balance of the Nickel City roster can turn their attention to the ice. “Everyone is sort of dialing in now,” said Walker. “Practices are starting to get more intense. We’re still not where we want to be, but we’re ready.”
The balance of the Nickel City Major Bantam “AAA” roster includes Jake Marois, Patrick Boivin, Brandon Hass, Owen Jalbert, Mitchell Martin, Bradey Smith, Marco Vigna, Joshua Kavanagh, Max McCue, Jimmy Blanchard, Alex Antoine, Teegan Dumont, Devon Savignac, Ethan Marois and Zacharie Giroux.