February, as usual, is a very busy month for the folks involved with the Great North Midget League.
But where the start of league-wide playoffs typically coincided with Valentine's Day or so for the better part of the past thirty plus years since the GNML was founded in 1986, there is something a little different in the air come 2020.
Sure, the northern Ontario midget AAA loop is still busy, squeezing in no less than 39 encounters between the 1st and the 29th of February.
This year, however, those match-ups are all regular season battles, with the league schedule continuing through into next month, the teams preparing for an inaugural four-day weekend tournament playoff format from March 12th to the 15th in Kapuskasing.
And perhaps more than some years, the race for the right to represent the NOHA at the Central Regional Midget "AAA" Championships this April is seen as being much more of a wide-open affair.
"When we get the puck down low and cycle, there's not a lot of teams that can stop us," proclaimed Sudbury Nickel Capital Wolves' head coach Brian Dickinson last week. "We're big, we're strong, we move our feet very, very well. We rely on kids like (Skylar) St Pierre, (Nolan) Moxam, (Cameron) Lemcke."
Now just to be clear, the 2019-2020 version of the Nickel Capital Wolves currently find themselves in third place in the GNML, 13 points back of the league-leading Soo Jr Greyhounds, seven behind the Kapuskasing Flyers, and just three points clear of the fourth place defending league champion North Bay Major Midget Trappers.
The thing is that the Sudbury majors have also beaten Kapuskasing twice, in addition to knocking off the Greyhounds, and playing them tough in a recent 5-3 loss. The Nickel Caps have also lost to both the Timmins Majors (twice, to be precise), as well as the New Liskeard Cubs.
It's been that kind of a year in the Great North Midget League.
There isn't one single entry that can lay claim to a completely polished all-around game, playing at a level where tweaks are kept to a minimum. Each and every one of the six teams that will travel to Kap next month continues to try and refine their game, virtually from one practice to the next.
"One thing that we still have to work on is our defensive coverage in our own zone," noted coach Dickinson. "We get caught sometimes puck watching and forgetting about the open man. But every team goes through that."
The 2019-2020 campaign is year two behind the Nickel Caps bench for Dickinson, a very familiar face within the local hockey circles, who was put in a difficult situation last fall, awarded the head coaching position quite late, and well after some top-end Sudbury and area talent had already committed to squads outside of the city.
This year has been better.
"We've got a lot more skill this year, and there were some really nice surprises," said Dickinson. "Getting (goaltender Jake) Marois back, that was a nice surprise that fell into our lap. St Pierre has been a gem, and I really didn't know a much about Lemcke." The long-time North Bay product leads the Nickel Capital Wolves in scoring, with 13 goals and 18 assists in 27 games.
"Last year's team was more of a lunch bucket mentality," Dickinson added. "These guys want more freedom. Last year's team could really use the structure. These guys want to do a lot more things on their own, and be more creative. Our challenge this year, with typically nine forwards and five d-men, is that we can't run and gun, because we just run out of gas."
"I would love to give them a little more rope, but at some point, you can't," stated Dickinson.
And beyond just the general parity in the league - the sixth place New Liskeard Cubs can boast a goal differential of just minus three - there is the added wildcard that is thrown in by virtue of the venue of choice for the very first GNML playoff weekend.
"We're going to be playing in Kap, which is a very different arena than what we are used to playing in," acknowledged Dickinson. "It's going to be a different game, for sure."
In fact, more than most years, the 2019-2020 Great North teams differ notably from one game to the next. The Soo Jr Greyhounds extended their impressive winning streak to twelve games last Sunday morning with a 3-0 win over the Kapuskasing Flyers, but then dropped a 2-1 decision at the Sports Palace later the same day, as Patrick Gagnon netted the game-winning goal in a shootout.
"Both games were great games, really fast-paced," noted Flyers first year head coach Sheldon Reasbeck. "I loved the pace of the games. The Soo has a lot of skill and they move the puck super well, so it makes our boys compete more."
And much like coach Dickinson, Reasbeck is now into his final bit of tinkering, benefitting from a completely healthy lineup for the first time since they attended the Toronto Titans Tournament back in September.
"There are a few things we have to work on," Reasbeck conceded. "Our fore-check needs to be fine-tuned, a little bit, and our d-zone coverage has a little bit of work to do. With special teams, I would like to see them calm down and move the puck a little bit better on the power play. But we'll be ready to go for the year end tournament."
In other GNML action last week, the New Liskeard Cubs received a hat trick from Zachery Lajoie and two goal performances from both Tyson Bradford and Andrew Rowell, stopping the Major Trappers in North Bay, 8-5.
A 5-2 win over New Liskeard on Sunday (Bradey Smith scored twice for the winners) made it two straight victories for Dickinson and company heading into a home affair with the North Bay majors last night (the Trappers recorded a 2-1 win in Sudbury, with Nathaniel Lalonde scoring both goals in the opening period), though the coach wasn't about to lose a whole lot of sleep over any given setback.
"Our regular season is just for development right now," he said. "You want to get better, each and every game. That's the goal. But you also have to take a step back, from time to time, to work on some things."
It’s a luxury that Great North Midget League teams would not have enjoyed, prior to 2019-2020.