It was something like minus 25 early Saturday morning and I could hardly wait to get started.
For someone who wears his passion for local sports on his sleeve much in the same manner that children display their endless excitement on Christmas morning, this was one of those days where my giddiness could not be contained.
A slate of hockey games, all in leagues that contrast notably from one to the next, but all blessed with varying story-lines, had me looking forward, with anticipation, to each successive drop of the puck.
Even the early morning appetizer, my 9:00 a.m. jaunt over to Centennial Arena, where the Nickel City Major Atom "AA" Jr Sons were battling the North Bay Major Atom "AA" Trappers, was appealing.
A 3-3 tie which would see the Sons' Adrien Potvin score both with his team short-handed and on the power-play, set the tone for the day, after Leighton Pelletier opened the scoring for the homeside.
While the truth is that those who excel at this age bracket are far more likely to be hitting the beer leagues in their early twenties as they are to be looking back on a successful OHL career, the fact remains that the local atom AA teams typically form the core of what will be the "AAA" talent that will really start to test itself, on a provincial scale, roughly six or seven months down the road.
And as luck would have it, that was my next stop, completely across town as the Nickel City Minor Peewee "AAA" Sons and the Sudbury Minor Peewee "AAA" Wolves met for the eighth time in league play this year, the Sons holding a slim 4-3 lead in the series, to date, but with the Wolves having claimed victory in each of the past three meetings.
With Lincoln Lachance scoring the only goal through two periods of play, former Sudbury Wolves' captain and current coach Michael MacDonald had his namesake underlings well positioned to make it four in a row.
Nickel City, also led by a former OHLer behind in the bench in the form of Jason Young, would not be denied, however, as Russell Ranger and Brock Batchelor scored goals just over 90 seconds apart, lifting the Sons to a 2-1 win and extending their lead over Sudbury in the NOHL standings to twelve points, with the Soo Jr Greyhounds squeezed in between the local pair, just two back of Nickel City.
"We put the onus back on the kids," noted Sons' assistant coach Joel Whissell, discussing the between period dressing room talk that led to a much more inspired final period of play. "They know what they have to do to win these games. They just weren't doing it."
"We challenged them to focus on doing two specific things better," Whissell added. "They did, and we came out and scored those two quick goals and were able to hold on for the win."
While Young and Whissell have been partnered behind the bench for many a season at either the midget AAA or junior rank, this latest venture back to the pre-teenage talent under their watch can prove interesting, at times.
"The biggest adjustment, for us, is that we are both pretty intense and very focused individuals," admitted Whissell, quite candidly. "We are always trying to find that balance, reminded that they are 11 and 12 year olds. Sometimes, it's hard to turn that mentality that you have coaching at a higher level off."
"Coming back to coach these kids has been different - fun, but different," Whissell continued. "It's been refreshing, less stress, or maybe a different stress. It's a good group of kids. I'm glad that we decided to kind of take a step back and go back to the grassroots of it all."
Over to the girls game and the other end of the spectrum, as the defending Esso Cup silver medal winners were on the verge of being eliminated in the first round of the Lower Lakes Female Hockey League playoffs. And though coach Jay Duncan and company still have plenty of work ahead to advance to round two, they did manage to live to fight another day, securing a 1-1 tie with the Toronto Aeros Saturday evening at the Gerry McCrory Sports Complex.
Jenna Lachance opened the scoring early for Sudbury, with Leah Horowitz deadlocking the game at one with a third period tally, a result that leaves the Aeros still holding a 3-1 lead in the four point series. The Midget "AA" Lady Wolves travel to Toronto, next weekend, and must win in regulation just to force overtime, and then must win the sudden-death ten minute affair, as well.
"In game one, I thought we played hard but didn't bury our opportunities," noted Lachance, referencing her team's 2-0 loss last weekend in the GTA. "In this game, it was all about getting even more shots on net, screen that goalie and put the pucks in the net." The good news, for Lachance and company, is that regardless of the outcome of game three, the Lady Wolves are already pre-qualified for provincials in April.
"Our big goal is still winning provincials and trying to make it to the Esso, so we are using this right now to get going for provincials," stated the 16 year old grade 11 student at E.S.C. l'Horizon. "We want to use these playoffs to get our endurance going, winning games before provincials."
It was also a stepping stone, of sorts, for coach Brian Dube and the Horizon Aigles senior boys hockey team, closing out the evening by improving to 15-0 on the year, stopping the second place St Charles College Cardinals 5-2 Saturday night at the Garson Arena.
Goals by Ben Lacroix and Eric Frappier were sandwiched around a lovely individual effort from St Charles veteran forward Brendan Weber, when the Aigles scored twice in a span of 13 seconds, midway through the third, to take control of the game. Caleb Langlois and Gavin Roy increased the Horizon lead to 4-1, with Nick Faught getting one back before captain Andrew Demers found the middle of the empty-net for the team that has steadily built to this point.
"Most of these boys have been with me since grade nine or grade ten, and they're all in grade twelve now," said Dube, now preparing his team for a semi-final series that will begin this coming week. "Three years ago, when they came aboard, we were competitive. Last year, we were very competitive, going to OFSAA - and we only had five seniors."
Garnering the NOSSA "AAA" berth in 2018-2019 despite being eliminated in the SDSSAA semi-finals, the Aigles are looking for more this year. "We've got some unfinished business," Dube acknowledged. "There is a chip on our shoulders that we want to get to that next level, we want to play in the final, we want to win the city championship."
And if and when that day comes, I fully expect to be every bit as excited, just sitting back and watching the story unfold.