The Nickel City Minor Bantam "AA" Jr Sons were a confident group heading into the Regional Silver Stick last month, more than comfortable with the team they had assembled, and already with a pair of tournament victories in southern Ontario in their back pockets.
Still, in order to advance to the International Silver Stick tournament, the crew under the guidance of coaches Rick Poitras and Michel Chartrand would have to find a way to overcome the North York Knights, a team sporting a record of 35-0-0 as they ventured north.
"We knew that we had a pretty good chance to make it to the finals," said Chartrand earlier this week, his lads tackling a demanding off-ice workout with the folks at the Valley East Boxing Club, as they prepare to depart to Newmarket next weekend.
"We felt comfortable that making it to the finals was something that should happen, but we also knew that the #1 team in Ontario was there." Both teams were more than equal to the task of making short work of round robin play, with Nickel City beating the Copper Cliff Redmen (7-0), Don Mills Mustangs (5-0) and Markham Islanders (13-0), while North York vanquished Don Mills (12-1), Markham (14-0) and Copper Cliff (7-0) by very similar scores.
Semi-final play proved no more troublesome, the Jr Sons disposing of the Redmen (8-1), and the Knights doing likewise with the Mustangs (6-2), setting up a final to remember. Tied at 4-4, the teams went to overtime, playing through a scoreless four on four session before removing one skater apiece.
"I only remember hitting somebody, then laying on him and waiting for Carson (Crane) to grab the puck," recalled forward Miguel Renaud. "He gave it to Noah (Kohan) and I don't know what Noah did. He just tucked it in."
"I think that was the slowest puck I have ever seen cross the goal line," noted Chartrand with a laugh. "It took forever." When the dust settled, it was enough to vault the locals to the next level, joining a bracket that also includes the Flint Jr Firebirds, Goulding Park Rangers and York Mills Rangers.
With the merging of the "AAA" teams locally at the minor bantam level, the Jr Sons expected to endure some turnover from the Major Peewee "AA" crew that attended the OHF Championships last April.
"We have nine new players from last year," explained Chartrand. "When we played our first tournament, we actually played teams that we had lost to last year. That was a pretty good gauge for us to see where we are at with this team."
"Our speed, as well as the talent on this team, is incredible," Chartrand continued. "As long as they play together and follow the game plan, we've had success. It's a great group of kids."
Renaud is one of the nine newcomers to the team, many of whom played with the Nickel City "AAA" teams that were iced at the minor and major peewee division the past two years.
"It's a really interesting mix," admitted Renaud. "All of us have our ups and downs. We have a bunch of different types of players: grinders, playmakers, goal scorers and stuff." It has all come together nicely, even as the boys moved forward trepiditiously from their early season success, hoping to take another step forward when they faced the North York Knights.
"We were pretty nervous, because they hadn't lost a regular season game," said Renaud. "It's always fun to win against teams that are ranked better than you. When we won against the Knights, they were pretty bummed. You could tell they weren't used to losing."
With the influx of new talent joining forces with eight players who captured the NOHA banner last spring, captain Carson Crane identified team unity as a key factor when the team first hit the ice a few months ago.
"I just tried to get everybody involved in everything," he said. "I didn't exclude anybody." And much in the same light as Renaud, Crane is cognizant of the importance of putting together a team whereby everyone takes pride in the role that they play.
"You look at Zach (Chenier) and Mathieu (Guillet) and their hard work and effort," he said. "They play the third line and are always working their hardest out there. Whatever they can do for the team, they will do it. They do a lot of the things that playmakers can't really do well. We need that."
In addition to dealing with the changeover in the dressing room, Crane and his mates are also incorporating the introduction of body checking, and the adjustment that needs to be made, both by this offensively talented blueliner and everyone else on his team.
"You can't skate around with your head down, trying to dangle too much," said Crane. "You have to pass really quick. And when you hit, just separate the puck from the guy. Instead of just going for the puck this year, we can actually hit the body. You just don't have to kill him all the time."
As for a prediction to follow-up his call from regionals, Chartrand is willing to show his support of his players. "We always want to try and get at least into the semis, and then anything can happen from there," he said.
The balance of the 2018-2019 Nickel City Minor Bantam "AA" Jr Sons lineup encompasses Owen McKeachnie, Alex Coulombe, Billy Biedermann, Bryson Smith, Cameron Allen, Brady Van Druenen, Kohen Crane, Owen Leblanc, Derrick Lecuyer, Martin Wissell, Zoe Rienguette and Tyler Thibodeau.