With just over half of the field of 11 teams opening the 2019-2020 season on Monday, there were some recurring themes as players and coaches opined on the campaign to come in the SDSSAA boys high-school hockey loop.
Given that top-end parity and a move towards speedy skills-based teams were at or near the very peak of those themes, one can assume the outlook is bright for fans of the sport in Sudbury.
“I think, looking at the league, anyone can win the league this year,” said St Charles College coach and league convenor Darren Michelutti. “Horizon appears to be at the top, but we’ve heard good things about Notre Dame, and St Ben’s definitely has some talent.”
Throw in a Cardinals collection that has rebounded nicely from the departure of scoring sensation Mathew Belanger to the Rayside-Balfour Canadians (NOJHL), the expected push of both the defending champion Lo-Ellen Park Knights and the always tough Confederation Chargers, and perhaps a surprise or two along the way, and one has the makings of a very interesting year.
“We’ve got some younger kids, a few grade tens and mostly grade elevens,” said Justin Chaumont, who returns at the helm of the Collège Notre Dame Alouettes, the team back from a one year leave of absence and icing a squad that went toe to toe with St Charles on Monday, deadlocked at 1-1 until midway through the third period before eventually dropping a 3-1 decision to the Cards.
“We’re excited - it should be a fun year,” exclaimed Chaumont. “We’re not a big team, but I think we can beat teams with our speed. And discipline is always important with this age group, staying out of the box. We have to start with looking after our end and then we can focus on the offensive side.”
Ethan Corcoran netted the only CND goal in game one, slamming home a rebound of a power-play point drive from defenceman Braeden Morin. Goaltender Jonah Rousselle was stellar between the pipes, turning aside 28 of the 30 shots that he faced, as St Charles iced the contest with an empty-net marker from Matthew Vehkala, his second of the game.
Throw in an Alouettes defence corps anchored by captain and Sudbury Minor Midget “AAA” Wolves graduate Marco Vigna, and some explosive offensive potential from the likes of Sean Jansen and Brett Lafortune, and one can see reason for optimism for the 2018 city champs.
On this night, however, they could not get the better of the perennial powerhouse. “I like our offense,” suggested St Charles coach Rob Zanatta. “We have some very talented players – I think we can score in bunches. Brendan Weber, Nick Faught (back from the Espanola Express) and some of the young guys have a touch, for sure.”
“Where we need some work is team defence, getting out of our zone,” Zanatta continued.
“That’s standard with every team, but we are really focusing on that early. And we do have Ryan Teddy in net, and that’s a strong point.” For as good as Rousselle played, the former Nickel Capital Wolves' puckstopper at the other end of the rink was every bit his equal or better.
Still, both teams noted the lurking presence of the Horizon Aigles, the Val Caron crew that were upset in the semi-finals last spring by Lo-Ellen, but redeemed themselves by earning their first ever trip to OFSAA less than two weeks later. “We’ve had some success in the past, and hopefully we continue with that this year,” noted fourth year veteran and team captain Andrew Demers, shortly after his boys recorded a 9-3 win over the Bishop Carter Gators.
“We’re going to have to stay really disciplined, stay out of the box, get pucks deep and play as a team, using our speed,” added Demers, the author of one of the nine Aigles’ goals, with Christopher Frappier netting a hat trick, and singles coming from Alex Dorion, Evan Byers, Jordan Trottier, Tyson Ranger, Mathieu Poliquin and Demers. Trent Marlow (2) and Bailey Foucault countered for BAC.
As impressive as the attack proved to be in their curtain-raiser, Horizon might also boast the top all-around team defence, with Samuel Saumure leading a blueline brigade that will assist the league’s top one-two punch in net in the form of Blake Barnard and Owen Kilganon. Still, nine minor penalties in the opening two periods, many of the unnecessary variety, will need to be curbed, as the captain is well aware.
“I’m hoping it was just this one game, with Valley rivals, because we didn’t have that problem last year, so hopefully we get out of that by our next game,” said Demers.
In a similar vein, the St Benedict Bears completely dismantled an overmatched Lasalle Lancers crew, while also spending far too much time in the sin-bin, a message that coach J.D. Eaton will repeat often, and will need reinforced by his key senior leadership group.
“We’ve got to be more careful with our sticks, I think,” said forward Jack Heaphy, who opened the scoring parade, adding a pairs of helpers as Cole Crowder enjoyed a three-goal outing and Ethan Matijevich chipped in with two of his own. “Throwing the body checks, we’re doing alright, but it’s the sloppy penalties, the slashes, interference, hooking, stuff like that, where we are going to have to tighten up before we start playing some better teams,” noted Heaphy.
"We've got a lot of real fast forwards out there, a really solid top nine guys, with a lot of ability to put the puck in the net," he continued. "It's going to take some time to get the boys to play 200 foot hockey, for sure."
Truth be told, much will be learned from the Cardinal Classic taking place from November 14th to the 16th in both Lively and Copper Cliff, with nine of the 11 league entries also registered for the event, which also includes Widdifield, Central Algoma, Korah and Superior Heights.
Lo-Ellen, which enjoyed a magical spring run but also graduated the likes of Josh Boucher, Matty Allen and Parker Anderson, is expected to ride the goaltending duo of Josh Hayes and Jacob Bartolucci, captain Hayden Lahaie and veteran Chad Sweeney, though much remains unknown, with the team not having partaken in the pre-season campaign.
And while the Confederation Chargers might be rebuilding, a touch, their returning talent should still put them in the mix for a Division “A” second half berth in a league that will also include the Lively Hawks, Manitoulin Mustangs and Espanola Spartans.