Great North Midget League (GNML) teams that can compete for a Telus Cup championship are pretty much built exclusively around a core of strong second and third year midget players. That is a fact that would be difficult to dispute.
In fact, for the most part, this also holds true for many other midget “AAA” hockey associations right across the country.
The challenge, at least in Northern Ontario (and likely in other pockets of the province and beyond), is that the lure of junior hockey, almost regardless of what level of junior that might be, can be a difficult one to avoid.
Make no mistake, there are definitely cases to be made where the fit between the physical attributes and hockey skills of a given 16 year old are far better suited to being developed while competing against opponents that are largely 17 to 20 years of age.
Likewise, there are clear-cut cases where a third year midget can be far better served returning to the minor hockey circuit, for one final year, prior to testing the waters of non face-masked hockey.
Sitting first and fifth, respectively, in the GNML scoring race, Carson McMillan and Tommy Vlahos have had absolutely no second thoughts with their decisions to work together in trying to help the Sudbury Nickel Capital Wolves capture the Central Ontario Regional Midget “AAA” Championship for the third time in the past decade or so.
This in spite of the fact that they come at the debate from very different viewpoints.
Finishing second on his team last year in scoring (Sudbury Minor Midget “AAA” Wolves), all while playing five to six games less than the large majority of his teammates, was still not enough to prompt OHL teams to take a flyer on McMillan.
Certainly, his 5’10” stature entered the discussion. Missing the latter stages of the season with a broken wrist did him no favours. Either way, the long-time Nickel City Sons product was not about to lose any sleep over the rationale.
“If I got drafted, I thought that would be great,” said McMillan, who is currently deadlocked with Nick Davis of North Bay with 47 points apiece, atop the league leaderboard. “When I didn’t (get drafted), I figured I would try and prove them wrong.”
It’s a healthy stubbornness that he has enjoyed since the time he first laced on the skates. “I started hockey at age five or so,” he said. “When I was kid, up to something like minor atom, I couldn’t stop. I would just skate in a straight line all the time and hope to score.”
Though McMillan would refine his brakes well ahead of his teenage years, he also realized early that it was at least as enjoyable cushioning the sudden halting of his body with a crushing hit delivered to an opposing player. Many will suggest he plays much bigger than his frame.
“It’s just a matter of staying strong on your feet, never going down,” he stated. “If there’s a chance for a clean big hit, take it.” Emphasis on the “clean”. In fact, he points with great pride to the fourteen minutes in penalties that accompany his scoring prowess.
These are the elements of his game that he hopes to bring to the attention of those whose job it is to assess hockey talent. And in his mind, playing with the Nickel Capital Wolves is the perfect environment to do so.
“With the team hosting the Telus Cup, it’s a really good chance to showcase yourself,” said McMillan. “I figured we would win a lot of games this year, we were going to be ranked pretty high. Hopefully, we get more exposure from that.”
(Unfortunately, the local product will have to overcome at least one more challenge, having separated his shoulder in a key 2-1 win over North Bay last Thursday night. All indications point to his return in time for the Telus Cup)
One of eleven 2000-born players to dot the Sudbury roster, Tommy Vlahos is back for his second year with the team, amassing 52 points in 35 games one year ago. With five games to play, he should come close to equalling those totals in a much tighter league this year, racking up 43 points through his first 30 games.
To his credit, the well-spoken veteran understands full well that if he is to move on to a higher level of hockey, it will be less about his point production than other key elements of his game. “Every team I have been on, my role has kind of been the same,” explained Vlahos. “I’ve been the guy who kills penalties, works hard, be a really good leader.”
“Even this year, I’m really excited to be one of the older guys, making sure that all of the young guys are good.” Not one to blow you away with his dazzling puck wizardry, Vlahos prides himself on thinking the game through, a skill he developed at a very early age.
“Being able to visualize the play, see what’s going to happen next, before the puck goes there, those were the parts of the game that came fast to me,” he said. In terms of assessing his options last summer, the 17 year-old product of the Nickel Centre Minor Hockey Association was more than happy to put a heavy emphasis on the sheer enjoyment of the game, finding a setting that could deliver just that.
“One of the biggest reasons I came back is the coaches,” Vlahos suggested. “I love the coaches here. Even if we didn’t host Telus, I think I would have still passed on playing junior to come back. I come here and have fun – it’s a great way to play.”
And as for the championship aspirations of he and his teammates, Vlahos sees the pathway as being equally as obvious. “I think we’re just a difficult team to beat when we follow the coaches’ rules,” he said. “Sometimes, we try and do too much, and that’s when we start losing games. When we use our speed, we’re very effective.”
The Midget "AAA" Wolves kept their hopes alive for a first place finish with a 3-0 win Tuesday night over the Soo Minor Midget "AAA" Thunderbirds. Alex Vendette recorded the shutout with a quiet evening of work, as Brett McGlade, Tyler Maki and Vlahos handled the scoring.
With a record of 27-4-0 (54 pts), the Nickel Caps trail the North Bay Trappers by two points, but have a game in hand (and a tie-breaker that apparently goes their way). Sudbury is on the road this weekend, completing a northern swing versus the New Liskeard Cubs (Friday), Kapuskasing Flyers (Saturday) and Timmins Majors (Sunday), wrapping up regular season play next Tuesday against the Sudbury Minor Midget Wolves.