A year ago this time, the Nickel City Minor Peewee “AAA” Sons were swept aside in a three-game NOHL championship series, beaten 5-4, 4-1 and 5-4 by the North Bay Trappers.
A few key roster changes and a new coaching staff behind the bench and it's the Sons that kick-off the All-Ontario Peewee “AAA” Championships Monday in Ottawa as Northern Ontario representatives, having eliminated the Trappers 4-1, 2-1 and 6-2.
“I find that there is a lot of turnover and the team morale has definitely improved this year,” said forward Caden Dubreuil, a 12 year old grade seven student at St James Elementary in Lively. “We're much better overall. Our defense has definitely gotten better, and our offense has definitely gotten better too.”
“We have a really good coach this year,” added Dubreuil. “He wants the best out of us. You can tell that he always cares and he always wants to be here.” Moreover, he has travelled this path before.
Following a brief hiatus away from the rinks, Tim Stortini is back behind the bench, leading his team to a 19-4-5 regular season mark, sliding in just one point ahead of the Trappers. Stepping away after steering the Sudbury Midget “AA” Lady Wolves to an appearance at nationals in 2014, the father of two very accomplished hockey talents (Zack, a former NHLer, and Samantha, an NCAA graduate defenseman with Brown University) decided to return to a situation that clearly piqued his interest.
“I had coached before with Dan Dubreuil, who approached me, with his older son Michael and my son Zack,” said Stortini. “We had fun. That was a big influencing factor. And having a challenge placed in front of me made it really enticing to come back.”
In many ways, the keys to success, to connecting with his players, have not changed greatly in moving from teenage girls to 12 year old boys. “I think you have to treat each of the young guys as an individual,” said Stortini. “You have to realize that not every player has the same talent, the same mentality, the same drive.”
“But for everyone, it's a confidence thing – and commitment. Commitment, to me, is being prepared, being prepared to do the things that you need to do. That's what I am seeing with all of these guys.”
Every single player on the Sons roster seems to be able to point to crystal clear areas of improvement, some facet of their game that has taken a noticeable step forward. “My shooting has gotten a lot better, I have a lot more accuracy,” noted 5'9” forward Ethan Morris. “I used to go for the speed, how hard I can shoot.”
“And along the boards, picking up pucks, it's gotten easier. I've gotten bigger.” A product of what was once the Capreol-based Morris clan, the grade seven student at Confederation Elementary School looks back upon a very successful showing at the Oshawa Challenge, just after Christmas, as the blueprint for success at provincials this week.
“Right off the bat, we did well,” said Morris. “In other tournaments, we were usually a bit nervous off the hop. That tournament, we were mentally focused. You have to be mentally prepared, to realize what you are going against. When you go down south, the teams are really good.”
In order to navigate their way to a semi-final berth on Friday in this seven team field, the Nickel City crew will need to rely not only on the hockey acumen they have developed, but also a core of natural athleticism that this team enjoys.
A stalwart blueliner with the Sons, James Bertrim is likely even more well-known for his exploits in the pool, a top-end talent with the Sudbury Laurentian Swim Club. “With both swimming or hockey, you have to have a passion for it,” said the grade seven student at Lo-Ellen Park Elementary. “If you want to improve, you have to put the effort into it.”
“You have to have the will to get better, every day, dedicating yourself to doing the things you need to do, and doing them properly. Eventually, you will get better.” In both cases, the peer group that surrounds him helps Bertrim strive for excellence.
“I swim with kids that are at a higher level and it's such a great example of what I could be,” he said. “I try and pace myself after them and be as good as they are.” With the Sons, Bertrim acknowledged that at least some of the drive comes from the presence of Stortini, a hockey mentor who does not shy away from challenging his troops.
“Our coach has a different mindset of how we should work, how we do practices,” said Bertrim. “We have been pushed a lot harder than last year.” As for the coach, Stortini is hopeful that a balanced lineup can pay dividends in a stretch of hockey that sees his team play six round robin games in a span of four days.
“I am really enjoying the fact that we play as a team,” he said. “We don't have a #1 line, we don't have a #2 line and we don't have a #3 line. We have three lines that are all competent in doing what we know that they can do. That's a big factor.”
The roster for the 2018-2019 Nickel City Peewee AAA Sons features goaltenders Aaron Wright and Nathan Cormier, as well as skaters Jacob Hayes, Braeden Vis, Yves Doiron, Dylan Dutrisac, Ashton Morin, Brady Boucher, Caden Dubreuil, Jacob Leduc, Ethan Morris, Devan Madore, Nolan Lafrance, Tyson Rismond, Nolan Newton and James Bertrim.
The Sons open play on Monday versus the Brantford 99ers, before taking on both the Thunder Bay Kings and Ottawa Jr 67's on Tuesday. The final half of their schedule closes out with games against the Mississauga Senators and Markham Waxers on Wednesday, and Ottawa Myers on Thursday.