The hardware that was distributed was a sign of what might have been for the 2019-2020 Rayside-Balfour Canadians.
The accolades, both external (from the NOJHL) and internal (team awards), were a testament to a memorable season, one which would see the local juniors top the West Division standings with a record of 40-11-3-2, finishing seven points clear of the Blind River Beavers.
On the ice, the Canadians were gathered one last time on (Thursday) March 12th, literally hours before dropping the puck to open their best of seven divisional semi-final with the Soo Eagles.
Off the ice, the team were together for one final impromptu gathering on Friday, with team awards handed out that night:Most Valuable Player - David Bowen
Top Scorers - Nick DeGrazia/Mitchell Martin
Top Rookies - Nick DeGrazia/Mitchell Martin
Top Defenceman - Zachary Snow
Scholastic Award - Joel Mongeon
Most Sportsmanlike Player - Dylan Bertrand
Community Service - Samuel Vachon
Most Improved Player - Matthew Belanger
Best Overall Forward - Ben Hatanaka
Hardest Working Players - Mathieu Dokis-Dupuis/Brady Maltais
Team Leadership Award - Greg Arnburg
By this time, the dust had already settled on the NOJHL honours doled out to various members of the Canadians family. A first round selection in the OHL U18 draft last spring, Thunder Bay native Nick DeGrazia shone in his freshman season in Rayside, recognized as the NOJHL Rookie of the Year.
A member of Team Canada East that captured silver medals at the World Junior A Challenge in Dawson Creek (B.C.), DeGrazia would lead all rookies in the league with 32 goals in 42 games, tied for the Canadians team lead in total points with Kitchener Rangers' prospect, Mitchell Martin, both with 61.
The Joe Drago Trophy, presented to the NOJHL Director of the Year, was presented to long-time junior hockey executive Blaine Smith, who likely appreciated the award just a little bit more.
"Joe was a mentor of mine when I broke into the OHL back in the early 1980's," said Smith. "I have really enjoyed working with the NOJHL executive and all of the dedicated owners and directors that make this league so great."
The well-respected graduate of the Laurentian University Sports Administration program also took time to thank those with whom he has worked most closely, in his first year with the Canadians, a group that ranged from team owner Mark Burgess, GM Jeff Forsyth, office manager Brittany Zacerkowny, and Julie Dubois, a primary game-day volunteer whose to-do list includes a whole lot of everything.
Joining DeGrazia on the first all-star team were Jeff Forsyth (GM), as well as trainer Ginette Trottier, while Rayside-Balfour was represented on the second team by captain and stalwart defenceman Zachary Snow, as well as trainer Tom Bain.
On a team that features no less than eight rookies in their top twelve scorers - DeGrazia, Martin, Belanger, Oliver Smith, Gavin Brown, Vachon, Avery Chisholm, Zacharie Giroux - there have been many pleasant surprises, included the Barrie Colts 9th round pick who sniped 28 goals as a 16 year old (Smith turned 17 on March 2nd) in a league of older players.
"From day one, we've been welcomed by everyone, everyone made us feel comfortable and part of the team, right away," said Smith. "Coming in as a 16 year old, that's a big thing." It's also helped make the on-ice transition to junior hockey that much easier for the Sudbury native who played the final three years of his minor hockey career in the GTA.
"It's mainly the little things, getting the puck deep, not making big mistakes," said Smith, who buried the first OHL goal of his career on January 4th, with the Colts battling the North Bay Battalion. "It's a faster league, with bigger guys."
"You have to learn to take hits and not be too overwhelmed with the puck, learn to create space for yourself."
While watching the likes of Nick DeGrazia, Gio Biondi, David Bowen, Zacharie Giroux, Oliver Smith and others all earn valuable experience at the next level can certainly be viewed as a feather in the cap of the Canadians, as an organization, their absence has, at times, proved challenging for first year general manager Jeff Forsyth.
Not that he is about to complain. "I give a lot of credit to our coaching staff who give these kids the opportunity to play, and we've surrounded them with some pretty special veteran players, who have supported them as well," said Forsyth.
Among the most personable folks that you will find in junior hockey ranks, Forsyth carries that approach with him in dealings with all that he encounters in his role. "I think it's all about the personal contact that you make with your players, having that open door policy that allows them to speak freely in a safe environment."
"When kids come back from the OHL, sometimes they are not hapy, they're disappointed, which is perfectly fine. But it's our job to press the reset button and get them back in the mindset about how to get better, and how to get back."
Forsyth has seen his Rayside roster accumulate a healthy chunk of major junior hockey experience this year, nowhere moreso than between the pipes, where Bowen leveraged a strong start to his season into a shot with the Drummondville Voltigeurs.
In his absence, Forsyth fortunately landed OHL veteran and local product Cameron Lamour, who dressed for all of nine games in Chelmsford before being summoned by the North Bay Battalion, just in time for Bowen to decide to make a return to the Canadians.
"We are doing our job by helping the players get somewhere," said Forsyth. "They can only do so much as a player, it's our job as team management to help facilitate that as much as we can."
And for their part, the Rayside players had done a very nice job of earning the top seed in the west, looking forward to facing the Eagles, practicing just a few days before pretty much all of hockey in Canada was shut down.
A native of Cochrane, Samuel Vachon echoed the sentiments of Oliver Smith, as he readied himself for the first taste of NOJHL post-season play. "The veterans have learned to trust us, to play well and do our jobs on the ice," said Vachon.
"This helps get us the coaches' trust too. I have to go hard, be in the corners, give the body and make room for my teammates."
"It's a really nice thing," noted Mathieu Dokis-Dupuis, who saw his point production jump from 34 in his rookie season in 2018-2019 (19G-15A) to 52 points in year two (20G-32A). "We do have the vets that have a little more experience."
"But I think the rookies that we have bring another side. We have a nice core group that have won in the past and going into the playoffs, that's never a bad thing to have."
And perhaps the Rayside-Balfour Canadians will win again. Just not in 2019-2020, through no fault of their own.