From all corners of the province, they would come: one singular objective, one singular weekend, at a variety of venues across Ontario.
Forty-five of the best "A" and "AA" minor hockey teams, all competing for a treasured OHF (Ontario Hockey Federation) Championship banner. That was the landscape this past weekend for host venues from New Liskeard to Kitchener and Belleville, and countless points in between.
Among the group of contenders were three local teams: the Nickel City Peewee "AA" Jr Sons, the Nickel City Bantam "AA" Jr Sons, and the Copper Cliff Midget "AA" Redmen.
And while it isn't uncommon for local entries to make their way into these provincial playdowns, the special memories that can be created was not lost, in the least, on peewee coaches Rick Poitras, Michel Chartrand and their staff.
With more than 50 years of combined experience behind the bench of various teams, the entire group can lay claim to but a pair of appearances at OHF events, as they prepared to take their Jr Sons crew to Kitchener last week.
"We're looking for a good showing," stressed Chartrand. "We want the kids to go out there and be competitive. Do we want to win? Of course, we want to win. But we also know we are playing the best of the best."
Now in their second year with this particular grouping, the Poitras/Chartrand led management team opted to change things up a fair bit in moving from minor peewee to major peewee, adding seven new faces to the fold of an existing core of talent from the 2016-2017 campaign.
"We were looking for more size this year," said Chartrand. "We didn't have the size last year, and that hurt us when we were playing." That said, the highly experience coaching tandem knew that they would have to give it a little time to pull everything together given the turnover.
"We looked at the first few practices together, assessed how the team was gelling, and gave ourselves to December to get the new kids on board to the system. We're a little more aggressive, and we just don't quit. I think that made the difference in the past few weeks."
Back for a second year with this staff, forward Zachary Chenier recalled the NOHA Tournament of Champions weekend that would see the Nickel City reps capture three games by just a single goal to garner the NOHA bragging rights, including a 3-2 nail-biter over the West Ferris Jr Trappers in the final.
"We were nervous and excited," suggested Chenier. "It's a big tournament and everyone was quiet. We were looking forward to playing North Bay (West Ferris). We were forcing their players more than we usually do - that's how we won. We were up by a point, we were keeping it in their zone, and then the buzzer sounded. We were so excited."
Just two years removed from houseleague hockey, forward Wyatt Letford is extremely thankful for a two year rep hockey stretch that would see him gleen a ton of new hockey knowledge from both Bill Clarke last year, as well as his current coaches this year with the Jr Sons. This, despite acknowledging their approaches definitely differ.
"They do yell a bit more than coach Bill did, and that just gives me a reason to push harder," said Letford. "When I have coach Rick in my ear, he just wants me to go faster, to go harder." Different techniques for different coaches, with a common goal in mind.
"It was a great year," stated Letford. "The amount of stuff that I learned last year, and that I learned from last year to this year, was unbelievable. The team we have is awesome. We work really well together."
Rounding out the 2017-2018 Nickel City Peewee "AA" Jr Sons roster are Zoé Rienguette, André Boulet, Mathieu Guillet, Ryan Ricci, Owen Mckeachnie, Cameron Allen, Cowan Billard, Chris Dore, Drake Jacko, Cole Lamond, Owen Leblanc, Carson Robert, Liam Vallillée, Brady Vandruenen, Martin Wissell and the balance of the team staff - Gérald Viau, Michelle Guilbault, Stephane Robert and Roch Duval.
The beginning of the tournament threw the Peewee Sons for a loop, facing teams that were listed well above them in the provincial rankings. That said, the locals bounced back from tough losses to both the Kitchener Jr Rangers (6-0) and Barrie Jr Colts (9-1), providing a very solid account of themselves in setbacks to the London Jr Knights (2-0) and the North York Knights (6-3).**************************************************
Where the goals of the Peewee Jr Sons might have been modest, the same cannot be said for the Nickel City Major Bantam "AA" crew. "I truly believe that we have a really good chance at winning the whole thing," noted head coach Steve Chenier, making his third appearance at the OHF tournament.
"This is probably the best group I've had in a long, long time. The dynamic is outstanding." Still, the lessons of the past have taught Chenier that he would likely have his work cut out from him, engaging his talented team between the time of their NOHA banner in mid-March to their ultimate end goal almost a full month later.
"One of the biggest challenges is getting the team mentally ready for that long gap between our playoffs and going there (to OHFs)," he said. "There's a one month gap there where you need to keep the kids focused. The other thing I have learned is to make sure we have a complement of extra players." As such, Chenier ensured that affiliates would accompany the team to Burlington.
Much like their peewee brethren, the bantam Jr Sons would see their lineup undergo a fairly significant shift from their minor to major years, with Chenier and assistant coach Mark Gobbo rotating more than a third of their roster from the prior season.
"We actually have all played with each other before, well most of us anyways, so we kind of know how we play," explained offensive dynamo Nolan Moxam. "Even though there is a bunch of new guys, I still felt as though we grew as a team throughout the course of the year."
A former member of the Nickel City "AAA" Sons through his peewee-aged years, Moxam understands fully the level of competition that he and his teammates are likely to face at the OHF Championships. He also understands just how well prepared this team is to play up to that level.
"We've gone to some of the bigger tournaments down south, the International Silver Stick and others," he said. "We've played against teams that we have to play well against in order to compete with them. I don't think there's a team that's going to be down there that we can't compete with."
"We have to be working our butts off," Moxam added. "If we're not going to give it our all, there's no point in even showing up." The 2017-2018 Bantam Jr Sons feature Zack Primeau, Evan Nicholls, Jordan Michaud, Mederic Bourdon, Everett McDonald, Alex Doiron, Tyler Roussel, Jacob Gaudet, Billy McIntyre, Nolan Moxam, Colin Burrell, Cedrick Jutras, Ben Lacroix, Jordan Faught, Tyson Belland, Bradley Brunet, Jordan Trottier, Sam Dewit, Hunter Clark and staff members Steve Chenard (head coach), Mark Gobbo (ass't coach), Brennen Petersen (ass't coach), Randy Moxam (trainer) and Shannon Primeau (manager).
Off to a decent enough start on the Friday, the Bantam Jr Sons had a forgettable Saturday, missing out on the semi-finals altogether. The team opened with a 2-2 tie against the Burlington Eagles, were edged 2-1 by the Vaughan Panthers, came out flat in a Saturday morning 7-1 loss to the London Jr Knights and closed off with a 5-3 defeat at the hands of the Northumberland Nighthawks.**************************************************
Nearing the end of their minor hockey careers, the Copper Cliff midgets will likely enjoy the OHF experience more than most. In fact, part of the keys to the team success this year has been built around striking the proper balance for a group of players who bring along a different perspective than their younger counterparts.
"We're a little older now, getting to our last few years of (minor) hockey," acknowledged 17 year old blueliner Alex Barry. "We do want to put in the hard work, but that's not all we're here for. We want to have fun. That's what has made our team special."
"We got the job done when we needed to, so it worked out nice." In fact, the Redmen could not have picked a better time to really start finding their game. After not losing a single regular season game in Nickel District Minor Hockey League competition this winter, the Copper Cliff clan found themselves trailing the Sudbury Minor Midget "AA" Wolves two games to none in the league final.
Mid series, the team travelled to Hearst for the NOHA playdowns, captured that tournament impressively and then returned to sweep the Wolves aside with three straight wins, each one via the route of a shutout.
The combination of the streak they are enjoying, along with some out of town showing earlier in the year, had the locals feeling pretty good about themselves as they left for OHF championships last week.
"When we go down south, our team is very competitive," said forward Nathan Stagg. "I think as long as our team shows, from goaltenders to forwards, we're going to give them trouble, if not beat them and have a chance to win this thing."
Joining Barry and Stagg on the Copper Cliff midget roster are Dylan Federowicz, Kam McCue, Noah Lagrandeur, Joshua Boucher, Eric Bourassa, Ethan Bronicheski, Bryce Brunet, Brennan Charbonneau, Jakob Fahey, Ethyn Kaboni, Chase Kanasawe-Jacko, Cody Lauzon, Lindon Shanks, Jamie Wahamaa, head coach Brian Stagg, assistant coaches Bobby Brunet and Ray Jones, manager Darren Bronicheski, and trainer Sam Merotto.
The midget Redmen proved to be the only local team to advance to the final four, posting a record of 1-2-1. The NOHA champs edged North Toronto Hockey 4-3 on Friday morning, and play the Belle River Jr Canadiens to a 4-4 draw just a few hours later.
The sledding was tougher on Saturday, as Copper Cliff was knocked off by both the Ted Reeve Thunder (7-0) and London Jr Knights (6-0), putting together a better challenge in a Sunday morning 5-2 semi-final loss, once again against the Thunder.