The Highway 69 South/400 Highway corridor is about to receive a steady stream of traffic from these parts, thanks to the International Silver Stick tournaments scheduled this month.
No less than seven local teams are leaving Greater Sudbury, heading off to the exotic outposts of Newmarket, Pelham, Port Huron and Sarnia, the reward for vanquishing all comers at the Regional playdowns last month.
While this next step of the journey is typically riddled with uncertainty, perhaps nowhere is that the case moreso than with the Nickel City Novice “A” Coyotes, a product of the Hockey Canada half-ice initiative which has been fully endorsed in northern Ontario, but not necessarily elsewhere in the province.
In fact, Coyotes assistant coach Ryan Proulx acknowledged, at a recent practice, that there were definitely question marks in the air as the team that returned ten players this year and now features an almost exclusively major novice roster, first took to the ice for game competition in December, limited to practices and quasi-games covering half that surface area for the 2-3 months leading into the event.
“That was our first full ice exposure this year,” said Proulx. “We had the exemption from the NOHA and Hockey Canada, for the Silver Stick, but we weren't allowed any exhibition games. Luckily, we had a lot of returning players who had played full ice last year, but it was still a little bit of a learning curve, going into it.”
“We did a lot of drills that we felt would lend themselves well, would transfer over to the full ice game,” Proulx added. “That's what we focused on, just hoping that when the ice opened up, it would all make sense to them.”
It most certainly did. Running roughshod over their first two opponents, the Novice “A” Coyotes kept rolling along, even as the level of competition increased, taking down the Barrie Colts in the semi-final (4-2) and the West Nipissing Sting in the final (4-1).
High scoring forward Whitney Basso remembers that final moment well. “When we first got the medals, everybody was super excited,” noted the chatty eight year old. “We threw up our gloves and jumped on Nico (goaltender Nicholas Paquette).”
With the adjustment of the first tournament out of the way, the grade three student at Northeastern Elementary is hoping that her team is up to the challenge that lies ahead in the form of the Georgina Blaze, Whitby Wildcats and New Hamburg Huskies. “It was a little different, going from half-ice to full ice, because there's no offsides and no icings (in half ice), and it sometimes confused our players,” said Basso.
Paquette, for his part, focused on the task at hand, stopping all pucks directed his way, just as he has since the age of five. “I'm a lot better now,” he said. “I practiced a lot and became better and better. Now, I close my pads so there's not a big hole when I do my butterfly. They will try and shoot it in my five hole.”
His teammates, meanwhile, appear to be working a whole other part of his game. "A lot of people on our team like to shoot glove side, so you got to practice it a lot," noted Basso. "I even robbed her once," chimed in Paquette, with a great deal of pride.
While it seems that the bulk of the teams that the Novice Coyotes will be facing have not been subject to the restrictions that the locals have faced (at least not yet), coach Proulx and the staff are not terribly concerned.
"We have a pretty strong group, a pretty even team, so we're hoping that our speed and our three lines are going to be able to compete at that level," he said. "Either way, it's going to be a great experience for them, more than anything."
The Nickel City Novice "A" Coyotes feature a lineup of Braeden Thibault, Riley Salemink, Mérik Renaud, Alex Proulx, Nicholas Paquette, Cooper Niquet, Reid Martin, Jackson Leveille, Hudson Lapierre, Malik Jakubo, Logan Gilbert, Samuel Frappier, Rayna Fletcher, Nicholas Christakos, Mathys Brouillette, Jack Bouchard and Whitney Basso.
The lead-in to the international Silver Stick could not have been more different for the Nickel City Minor Bantam “A” Coyotes than their Novice “A” brethren. The team did not win a single game in round robin play, albeit playing to a pair of ties, before running the table in the playoffs with victories over the Copper Cliff Redmen (2-0), the TNT Tornadoes (1-0) and the Orillia Terriers (3-2 – in overtime).
Adding to the challenge was the fact that the locals had surrendered a late two goal advantage to Orillia, before Bryce Firman drilled home the game-winner with the teams playing four on four. “The ref called a couple of bad calls, but we never gave up and kept on going,” said veteran forward Joshia Montpellier.
“Bryce picked a corner, and that's what the coaches tell us to do. The coaches reminded us that we had reached the quarters in our first tournament, the semis in the second, so this is our time.”
While the Minor Bantam Coyotes have returned a solid core of talent from the team that was the Nickel City Major Peewee "A" Flyers one year ago, Montpellier has been integrated with some relative newcomers to his line in the form of Logan Haas and Ethan Tremblay.
"We're all scorers and we're all playmakers," explained the grade 8 student at Ecole Publique de la Découverte. "Everybody goes to an open spot, so that sometimes it's tic-tac-toe, or just a pass and a one-timer."
Working alongside head coach Jason Lavallee, assistant coach Jeff Doyle knew that the team staff had their work cut out for them, trying to curb the momentum that the Terriers had gathered via their late game rally. “Nobody expected us to be there, so the message to the kids was just go out and have fun,” he said.
“We didn't want to put too much pressure on them.” Integrated a handful of kids from the houseleague ranks in each of the past two years, Doyle has noted a common thread in terms of the gradual acclimatization that these players endure.
"For a lot of the kids, especially the new ones, it comes down to structure," he said. "Learning how to play within a system after coming in from houseleague, where they mostly have free frein to go anywhere. They took to it really quickly."
Although he was out with an injury for Regionals, Andrew Noel is anxious for the upcoming trek to Newmarket, on hand for each and every one of the December tournament games, taking notes of the keys to success that this team must carry forward.
“We did well, we worked as a team and out-worked other teams,” noted the grade 8 student at Ste Thérèse. “We're a pretty fast team. We really wanted to win that tournament. But this is going to be more challenging. There's going to be some good teams there. There has to be good teams there, because they've all played in regionals and made it.”
Brandon Belliveau, Saxin Daoust, Martin Boisvert, Landon Doyle, Simon Pominville, Andrew Julian Levac, Owen Gauvreau, Carter MacDonald, Jacob Lefrancois and Rory Lavallee will join Joshia Montpellier, Ethan Tremblay, Bryce Firman, Andrew Noel, Logan Haas, as well as coach Jason Lavallee, Jeff Doyle, Stephan Lefrancois and manager Sylvio Pominville in phase two of the Silver Stick journey this coming weekend.
Going toe to toe is other regional champs is exactly the scenario facing the remaining five local entries. Thanks to a three on three overtime goal from Noah Kohen, the Nickel City Minor Bantam “AA” Jr Sons are also in Newmarket, with top teams from both the USA (Flint Jr Firebirds) and Ontario (Vaughan Panthers) also among the eight team field.
The Copper Cliff Minor Peewee “AA” Redmen are also in Newmarket this weekend, with the Nickel City Bantam “A” Sharks in Port Huron, included in a 16-team showdown that features the likes of the Colorado Springs Tigers, the Cleveland Sharks, the Long Island Arrows and the USA Patriots.
Emerging from a very deep group of local 2008-born talent, the Copper Cliff Major Atom “AA” Redmen are off to Sarnia on the weekend of January 18th to the 20th, while the Sudbury Major Bantam “AA” Wolves will close things off, travelling to Port Huron at the end of the month and facing a pool schedule that pits them against the Vaughan Rangers, North Jersey Avalanche and Plymouth Compuware.