There were some very interesting takeaways from the NOHL (Northern Ontario “AAA” Hockey League) Showcase weekend, hosted in Sudbury from September 14th to the 16th. For starters, across all four divisions, from minor peewee to major bantam, covering a total of 16 teams, there appears to be no embarrassingly huge discrepancies in talent between squads representing Timmins, Sault Ste Marie, North Bay, Nickel City and Sudbury.
That's a huge step forward for a loop that regularly featured at least one division where double digit margins were common and the playing of the game was often a mere formality in terms of deciding a winner.
There is also a nice, healthy mix in terms of early divisional front-runners, with the Soo Greyhounds showing the way in a pair of age brackets, followed by one each for both the Nickel City Sons and North Bay Trappers.
And while the Timmins North Stars might not be at the very top of any one grouping, it's more than a little encouraging to see the group represented in three of the four divisions, and more than holding their own in most games, especially at the peewee levels.
After stepping away from “AAA” hockey altogether last year, the 2004-born Saultites are back in full force, reclaiming their perch at the summit of the standings that they enjoyed, on a northern Ontario scale, from the time these lads were atoms.
Former NHLer Jeff Toms guided the major bantam Greyhounds to a record of 3-0-1 in Sudbury, as a surprisingly pesky Nickel City crew managed to take the Sault right to the brink before falling short on a pair of occasions. Devin Mauro scored with just nine seconds to play, allowing the Hounds to salvage a 3-3 tie in their opener with the Sons, and Christian Omollo netted the game-winner with 35 seconds to play Sunday afternoon as the rematch produced a 4-3 win for SSM.
Making the jump from the “AA” ranks to the “AAA” level, the coaching tandem of Steve Chenard and Mark Gobbo now have to find a way to solve the Nickel City issues when they face North Bay, losing twice and trailing the Trappers by three points in the standings.
Coach Dale Lafrance and the Nickel City Minor Bantam Sons might well be out in front, so far, posting a 3-0 record in the early going. But a goal differential of 15-9 suggests that this is a division that is still very much up for grabs, with the Soo Greyhounds (2-2-1) and North Bay Trappers (2-1-0) sure to be right in the thick of the race to the very end.
The Sons edged North Bay 6-5 in their Friday opener, received a two-goal effort from Alex Pharand in doubling Sault Ste Marie 4-2 the next afternoon, and closed out the weekend with a 5-2 win over Timmins.
A balanced attack on Sunday would see Kyle Dessureault, call-up Kohen Crane, Brady Bouchard, Alex Chartier and Sam McCue all find the back of the net for the winners, with Andrew Marois turning aside 19 of the 21 shots that he faced between the pipes for Nickel City.
Things get even more interesting in the younger age categories, where the North Bay Major Peewee Trappers emerged unscathed with a 4-0 record on this opening weekend, but only for a couple of close calls along the way. Mathieu Turgeon and Jesse Lefebvre scored second period goals just 18 seconds apart, lifting North Bay to a 2-1 win over Timmins on Friday, with coach John Couch and company needing a pair of second period tallies from Nate Gravelle to slip past the Nickel City Sons by the exact same score the very next evening.
With a record of 2-1-1, the Sons received multiple goals from Caden Dubreuil (3), Nolan Newton (3), Yves Doiron (2) and Ethan Morris (2), with Tyson Rismond, Nolan Lafrance, Jacob Hayes and Dylan Dutrisac also finding their way on to the scoresheet over the weekend series.
Former Sudbury Wolves' blueliner and Sudbury Major Peewee Wolves' head coach Rob Dmytruk has nowhere to go but up with his young crew as the team remains in search of their first win of the year (0-4-0), preparing to host North Bay for a three game set at the end of the month at the Gerry McCrory Sports Complex.
Last but not least, the minor peewee five team loop is shaping up to be an early battle between the Sault and North Bay, with the Timmins North Stars in the mix, especially when standout goaltender Alexander Hall is really on his game. Coaches Mike Brunette (Sudbury) and Jay Lagadin (Nickel City) will both have a chance to work their magic in developing their newly formed teams, in order to close the gap by season's end.
For now, both are playing catch-up to a very balanced Greyhounds team as well as the defending OHF Atom “AA” host squad from North Bay, as former Sudbury Wolves' forward Marc Long returns the bulk of a roster that was quite competitive with the best of the field at provincials last year.
Throw in the fact that he also inherited some top end talent in the form of defenceman André Mondoux, who played up one year ago and drilled home no less than six goals over the weekend, most on slapshots that simply overmatched the young opposing netminders, and one can see the makings of an age group that will be fun to follow moving forward.
Topping the scoring parade, on a local level, were the Nickel City pairing of Nolan Schiewek and Liam Nootchtai with two goals each, while Sudbury forward Ian Burnett exploded with a four goal performance against Timmins, while teammate Grant Booth, also with a year of “AAA” hockey already under his belt, finished the weekend with two goals and two assists.