It's been a bit of a different kind of a season for the Nickel City Major Bantam "A" Sharks.
Bringing together elements of what was previously an "east" and "west" version of this age group in prior years, the Sharks have enjoyed more success than has been the case in recent memory, rewarded back in December when they captured the Regional Silver Stick Tournament in Sudbury.
But just as they took somewhat of an unorthodox path to that title, the road at the International event one month later was no less deviant.
With the event being contested in Port Huron (Michigan), the locals would have to adapt quickly to the specifics of USA Hockey rules, with teams unable to ice the puck while killing a penalty, no tag up offside in effect, and a three second in the crease violation causing plays to be whistled dead.
Not than any of this was about to detract from what has been a very memorable campaign for coach Mark Poitras and company.
"We're in the crease a lot, always battling for pucks, so that was an adjustment, and the penalty kill was a lot different, because you had to skate and pass a lot more," noted 14 year old forward Xander Roy, a grade nine student at E.S.C. l'Horizon.
Adjustment, however, is what the 2018-2019 campaign has been all about for this crew. "We're a combined team with guys that we have played against," said Roy. "It was different. We weren't really too sure about how they were going to be fitting into the team and all that, but as soon as we started, guys started to bond together and it made for a really good team."
Truth be told, the integration process likely occured far more quickly than anyone involved with the team could have anticipated. "My linemates are from the east and west," said Roy. "Around the third game that we played, we really started meshing. We got a lot of goals that game."
"We always have someone in front of the net, ready, and we produce a lot of goal from that. We play really well together." And though it took a little time to show at Regionals before Christmas, the Sharks certainly came together nicely in the end.
After posting a record of 1-2 in round robin play, squeezing a 7-0 win over Rouyn-Noranda between losses to both the Georgina Blaze (4-1) and Richmond Hill Stars (4-0), the Sharks bounced back, defeating the Stars 5-2 in the semis and knocking off the Blaze 4-1 in the finals.
"We started playing a lot better than we were the first couple of games (at regionals)," acknowledged 14 year old centerman Cooper Molyneaux. "We were walking into the Silver Stick thinking that we got this, and then we got our butts handed to us."
Thankfully, the Sharks answered the call when they needed to, providing even more proof of the value of the decision to amalgamate both Nickel City teams, in this age bracket, this year. "I thought it was a good thing, but it was kind of awkward, because we were rivals last year," said Molyneaux.
"But our team gelled really good." Much like Roy, Molyneaux noted the coming together of this crew most noticeably as his line combination evolved, typically playing the middle between wingers Christopher Frappier and Troy Wilton.
"We kind of just clicked at the start of the year," said Molyneaux. "We had good chemistry, kind of knew what we were doing. We knew where we were on the ice, without looking up and looking around. We all have the same plan out there."
That is music to the ears of coach Poitras, who is enjoying his second year with this age group, having guided the Nickel City east delegation in 2017-2018. "A lot of these kids have never played together," said Poitras. "But it's been a lot of fun."
"We focus on discipline, both on and off the ice. And we really focus on fun. I tried to keep the same process going as last year. I validate the kids as often as I can, work to their strengths, and then we work on their weaknesses. These kids really respond to positive feedback."
Though he is a relative newcomer to competitive coaching circles, Poitras is not above tapping into any potential source of knowledge as he looks to provide an environment of progress and improvement within his team.
"I always watch the practice before ours and will steal drills from the coaches that have been doing this for a long time," he said with a smile. "And my brother (Rick) has been coaching forever. I lean on him a lot."
His was a positive approach as Mark Poitras looked to right the ship as his team prepared for the Regional semi-final. "We were missing a couple of kids for the first game," he said. "Going into the semis, I told the kids to just relax, go out and have fun, and we'll see what happens."
Only fitting then that he should maintain the mindset as his troops readied for their sojourn south of the border. "I wanted them to enjoy the experience," said Poitras. "It's something that most likely will never happen for us again. We went in with the mindset that if we compete, we'll do well."
Though the Sharks would struggle against a Cambridge Hawks squad that was head and shoulders better than any other opponent in Port Huron, the Nickel City lads did register a 2-2 tie versus the Lancaster Firebirds from Pennsylvania (goals from A.J. McKinnon and Brek Morrow), before dropping a 5-2 decision to the Owen Sound Jr Attack (goals from Trenton Malow and Cooper Molyneaux).
Rounding out the 2018-2019 Nickel City Major Bantam "A" Sharks' roster are Joshua Martin, Travis Annett, Ryan Clark, Evan Byers, Sophie Leduc, Zachary Vollicks, Kyle Gouchie, Cameron Mergaert, Joel Poitras, Adrian Signoretti and McKinley Broomhead.
Joining Mark Poitras on the team staff are assistant coaches Gary Annett, Rick Clark and Darren Gouchie, trainer Armand Roy and managers Josée Roy and Troy Marlow.