In many a Great North Midget League campaign, the top end teams might navigate their way through their entire regular season schedule, saddled with perhaps only two to three losses along the way.
That won't be the case in 2019-2020.
With the league enjoying the most parity seen in these parts for quite a few years, many a match-up is completely up for grabs as teams take to the ice in northern Ontario.
The Kapuskasing Flyers, tied for second place with a record of 7-4-0-0 (14 pts), were in Sudbury last weekend, edged out by the Nickel Capital Wolves on Saturday (5-4) before bouncing the Minor Midget Wolves 6-1 the next afternoon.
A balanced Caps attack featured goals from Owen Jalbert, Pierson Sobush, Jimmy Blanchard, Skyler St. Pierre and Teegan Dumont, the final two on the power-play, while the Flyers answered with tallies from Kelsey Ouellet, with two, as well as Ryan Maynard and Martin Papineau.
Maynard was back on the board the next day, finding the back of the net twice, as did teammate Alex Antoine, with Justin Alary and Brendan Aubertin capping things off, and Zacharie Guenette spoiling the shutout bid of Kapuskasing netminder Patrick Boivin with a late marker.
"Overall, we're happy," said head coach Sheldon Reasbeck, ascending from his role as assistant coach to fully calling the shots this year. "We've had a little trouble with injuries and suspensions early in the year, so we haven't had a full squad for the last month and a half. That's been a little tough.
"It's now looking like we will have a relatively full squad in the next couple of weeks, which will be nice. Overall, we're just looking to continue to improve, focus on little things in the game."
Despite the lack of a full roster, Kapuskasing has recorded some impressive victories over the front-running Sault Ste Marie Jr. Greyhounds (6-4), the North Bay Major Midget Trappers (4-2 and 4-1) and the Nickel Capital Wolves (6-3 and 5-2).
"System-wise, we're just trying to keep things as simple as possible, because we have AP's in the lineup and we're shuffling lines all of the time," said Reasbeck. "We want to make sure the boys know each of the positions, especially up front.
"Regardless of whether they are on the wing or at center, we work on triggers, so we need to make sure that they are reading the play properly, making sure that they are an option in the defensive zone, in the neutral zone. Offensively, we have a lot of talent this year, so I just let the boys go and do their thing up there."
That is the kind of flexibility that returning Sudbury Nickel Capital Wolves forward Bradey Smith would like to add to his game, after finishing with 15 points in 27 games one year ago.
"I would like to score more this year and honestly, have better 'D' zone coverage," said Smith. "I have more room to keep my head up, because I'm not the biggest guy out there."
The son of former Sudbury Wolves forward Jimmy Smith, the 16 year old second year midget understands that he is built in something of a different mould than his father who counted 22 goals and more than sixty points in slighty over two years of play in the OHL.
"He thinks I'm more of a defensive forward," said Smith. "A lot of times, he'll remind me to get up the ice with the other guys, because a lot of the times, I'm one of the last ones out of our zone. He says if I don't have the puck, get into an open lane and get ready for it."
Just one point back of both Kapuskasing and the North Bay Major Midgets, the Sudbury Nickel Capital Wolves have managed to integrate many new faces to GNML play, including Pierson Sobush.
"I worked out a lot, during the summer, off-ice training, four times a week," said the 15-year-old grade 10 student at Lo-Ellen Park Secondary School.
"I've gotten bigger, stronger, faster."
Much like Smith, Sobush can adopt a certain style of play that will lend itself well to success in this league.
"I have to stay focused and play my game," he said. "I can't run around, looking for hits out there - that's not my game. I'm not a big guy. I've got to use my speed, keep my head up and play the game."
From a team perspective, an early season appearance at the Toronto Titans Tournament provided some cues to potential pitfalls for the crew who remains under the guidance of head coach Brian Dickinson for a second straight year.
"We've got to learn to keep our emotions in check," said Sobush. "We took quite a few penalties that weekend, and not all of them were smart penalties, obviously."
Meanwhile, a compressed scheduled was already going to present a challenge to the Sudbury Minor Midget "AAA" Wolves (as well as the North Bay Minor Minor "AAA" Trappers), even before the GNML schedule was released, showing a regular season opening game on Oct. 16.
"After 17 practices in a row, we were looking forward to a game," said Sudbury head coach Jason Stos, whose team dropped a tight 2-1 decision to North Bay in their first GNML outing of 2019-2020.
"You can only be in a game situation when you get into a game. The guys had butterflies, which is a pretty natural thing. We told them to get out there, get a good hit in right away, or do something on a quick shift to get things going."
Ryan Rubic broke the ice on a scoreless affair, giving the Wolves a second period lead, before the Trappers rallied with goals from Brett Richardson, in the third, and Callum Craft, in overtime, as the visitors secured the win.
"I was very happy with our game," said Stos. "I'll take that. North Bay had some experience with a few games under their belt. But a lot of the things that we've practiced in practice we could see developing on the ice. And there was a lot of chatter on the bench, always positive."
The Minor Midget Wolves were also still running with a somewhat shortened bench, with Brayden Lafrance (suspension), Ryan Ward (broken arm) and Vincent Lavoie (sickness) out for the season opener.
While Stos has followed his son (Jackson) along through this age grouping, his coaching influence on the members of this team has been a little hit and miss, in recent years. "There are a handful of kids from last year, and some from prior years," he said.
"It's nice to see some familiar faces and names that you get to coach again. And there's a few brand new ones as well. I've coached against them, but never coached them (Atley Gringorten, Joshua McKay). It's good to see them on our bench, and not on the other bench, from our perspective."
Rounding out the 2019-2020 Sudbury Minor Midget Wolves roster are goaltenders Noah Beaulne and Zachary Vollicks, and skaters Dustin Garon, Marco Vallilee, Carson Shawana, John Svalina, Noah Brazier, Hayden Radey, Austin Rioux and Liam Bridgeman.
The Kapuskasing Flyers and Timmins Majors will tangle in the only league game this weekend (Kapuskasing coach Sheldon Reasbeck confirmed that everyone on his roster is now back in the lineup, with the exception of Patrick Gagnon - out until likely the new year), with several other teams busy in tournament action.
The New Liskeard Cubs, North Bay Major Midget Trappers, North Bay Minor Midget Trappers and Sudbury Minor Midget Wolves are also entered in the 2019 Big Nickel Hockey Tournament, while the Sudbury Nickel Capital Wolves and Soo Jr. Greyhounds are in Kitchener, site of the Kitchener Minor Hockey Blueline Tournament.