Ready to play up north

January 29, 2021

They are waiting for the go ahead from the provincial government and the respective public health units and municipalities of northeastern Ontario.

In the interim, players and coaches on teams from the Great North Under 18 Hockey League and the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League are prepared to return to the ice should the provincial stay-at-home lock down be lifted on schedule on February 11 — and if the various public health and city officials subsequently allow indoor rinks to re-open.

On that note, should practices be allowed to resume on or about February 11 with games to follow in the ensuing weeks, a reasonable schedule of games would be still be possible in both the Great North and the NOJHL provided the leaders of both leagues due proper diligence with public health and municipal officials.

To be sure, leadership, communication and commitment are paramount for leagues such as the Great North and the NOJHL to proceed in an orderly and timely fashion should a return to play be declared by public health and government.

Michael Beltrano, Kolby Fellinger, Adam Barone, Calem Mangone, Stephen Pszeniczny and Noah Metivier are among the veteran players of the U18 Soo Jr. Greyhounds

For the Soo Jr. Greyhounds of the Great North U-18 loop, they managed to play eight shortened games with their cohort rival Sudbury Nickel Capital Wolves over two weekends before Christmas.

Since then, as per the provincial government and its lock down and stay at home orders, head coach Jamie Henderson and the Jr. Greyhounds have been holding weekly Zoom call sessions — and players have been skating on their own on local outdoor rinks.

As well, the players have been doing on-line workouts with local studio Fit Bodies Fit Minds.

Meantime, committed coach that he is with an honest interest of promoting his players to programs of higher level, Henderson has taken it upon himself to watch a lot of video and set up Zoom calls with staff members from various teams in the Ontario Hockey League.

“I would say that I have spoken to 15 or so OHL teams about our 2005 birth year kids who are eligible for this year’s (priority selections) draft,” Henderson told Hockey News North.

“And we have a number of our older kids who we are promoting to teams in the various junior leagues,” Henderson added.

As for those Jr. Greyhounds with 2005 birth dates, they include forwards Cooper Foster, Lincoln Moore, Noah Aboflan and Gabe Zimbaro, defenseman Austin Fellinger and goalie Terry See.

Also drawing interest from OHL teams, according to Henderson, are a pair of 2004 birth year skaters in forward Calem Mangone and Adam Barone.

At any rate, Henderson noted that he and his players are anxiously awaiting word of a potential return to play — be it within the Great North or even holding inter-squad, ‘Red and White’ games among the 22 players on the Jr. Greyhounds.

Over to the junior level NOJHL, should the lock down be lifted — and with the co-operation of the various municipalities that operate community-owned rinks — it is both possible and feasible that deals can be struck that will keep ice in the arenas until the end of May.

That would and could, for example, allow the nine operating teams of the NOJHL to get in nine or 10 more weeks of regular season play followed by a shortened playoff schedule.

Cameron Dutkiewicz of the Soo Thunderbirds tries to get past Josh Boucher of the Espanola Express in NOJHL action from December. (photo by Bob Davies)

The nine teams of the NOJHL have currently played an impressive 41 of the 44 scheduled matches that took place between mid November and the third week of December.

And all teams have indicated they will be ready to return to the ice as promptly as possible should the lock down and stay at home order be lifted by Ontario Premier Doug Ford.

In the NOJHL West Division, the Espanola Express (4-4-2) and Rayside Balfour Canadians (3-6-1) have both played 10 games, Blind River Beavers (5-3-0) and Soo Thunderbirds (4-3-1) have seen action in eight outings apiece, while the French River Rapids (3-3-0) have skated in six contests.

And in the NOJHL East Division, Timmins Rock (9-3-0) and Hearst Lumberjacks (7-5-0) have both played 12 games, Cochrane Crunch (3-6-2) has been involved in 11 outings and the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners (3-2-0) have skated in six matches.

(Powassan Voodoos, because of arena issues, have officially taken a leave of absence for the balance of the season. And the Soo Eagles have yet to play a game against NOJHL competition this season because of the closure of the Canada/United States border, though the Michigan-based team has played a number of exhibition matches against American squads and schools.)

As for the number of games that could be played in the NOJHL should play resume in, say, the latter part of February, the nine active teams could still average anywhere from 30 to 35 contests apiece over the course of the campaign.

And if play does, for example, go through until the end of May — so what? Who says that hockey has to be a winter sport only?

Because, as the legendary Bob Dylan once sang: “The times they are a changin’.”

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