It wasn't all that long ago when it was a virtual certainty that the Great North Midget League championship banner would be hung, almost perpetually, at the home of either the Sault Ste. Marie North Stars or the Sudbury Nickel Capital Wolves.
Thankfully, times change, offering the opportunity for other contenders to get their shot at the title, while the pockets of competitiveness within the GNML this winter allow for some very different tightly contested battles than might have been the case one year ago.
Though they are clearly in a rebuild mode, the Nickel Caps did get back to the .500 mark on the weekend, sweeping a pair of games in Sault Ste. Marie last weekend. The Sudbury majors stopped the Soo Major Midget Thunderbirds (formerly the North Stars) 4-1 on Saturday, and then had to hold on for a 3-2 shootout win over the Soo Minor Midget Thunderbirds, who bounced back nicely after a tough season opener.
Ethan Bronicheski is providing at least some answer to the Nickel Capital Wolves' offensive questions early on, scoring twice on Saturday, with Ethan Corcoran and Draper MacLean adding one goal each. Kurtis Rogers connected in the third period, on the power play, spoiling the shutout bid for Sudbury netminder Owen Kilganon.
The defending league champs may be forgiven for then looking past the Minor Midget T-Birds, who suffered a lopsided 9-2 setback at the hands of the Kapuskasing Flyers the previous night.
Still, that oversight nearly cost them. Goals by Draper MacLean and Ethan Corcoran were offset by strikes from Stephen Pszeniczny and Theo Smith, as the Saultites forced the visitors to overtime, before succumbing in a shootout.
Newcomer Josh Boucher made his presence felt for the Wolves, netting the game-winning goal in the penalty shot showdown. The locals will now enjoy a weekend off before travelling to North Bay at the end of the month, returning home that same weekend to play host to the New Liskeard Cubs Sept. 30.
Kapuskasing Flyers vs. Soo Thunderbirds
The Kapuskasing Flyers endured the busiest week of any team in the league, but also the most productive one, reeling off three straight wins and improving their early season mark to 5-0-0, showing the way in league standings in mid-September.
Eight different players hit the mark in their victory over the Minor Midget Thunderbirds, as Dawson Linklater (2), Brendan Aubertin, Justin Alary, Kobe Barrette, Samuel Lambert, Olivier Payeur, Patrick Gagnon and Alex Lapointe all found their way on to the scoresheet.
Theo Smith and Jack Matier countered for the Soo crew. The Kapuskasing side looked arguably even more impressive the next day, trouncing the Soo Major Midget Thunderbirds 9-0, as Alex Lapointe registered a natural hat-trick, scoring the first three goals of the game.
Jumping in on the offensive parade were Alexandre Blais, with two, as well as Ryan Maynard, Kobe Barrette, Olivier Payeur and Samuel Lambert. Carson Boutin turned aside every shot that he faced in recording the shutout for the visitors.
Finally, in a rare mid-week matinee affair, the Flyers found themselves face to face with a stiffer test, doubling the Timmins Majors 4-2. Brendan Aubertin, Samuel Lambert, Alexandre Blais and Dawson Linklater produced on the attack for the winners, with Garrett Gelinas and Sabastian Sutherland replying in a losing cause for Timmins.
Thunderbirds vs. (Minor Midget) Wolves in Sudbury tonight
Back to the Soo Minor Midgets, for a moment, where head coach Jamie Henderson returns to guide the 2003 OHL draft eligible talent after working with the 2002 lads one year ago.
There are some challenges, to be sure, with limited numbers forcing the team to run with a maximum of four natural defencemen - less than that this coming weekend, due to a suspension and an injury.
On top of that, the team has tapped into talent from the likes of Dubreuilville, Wawa and Sudbury in order to finalize their roster.
Despite all of this, Henderson and his staff remain steadfast in their belief about how to go about accomplishing the end goal with this age group.
"We could probably draw up a plan to keep every game super close, playing really, really defensively, but at the end of the day, we are trying to get players ready to play at the next level," he said.
"We really want to focus on the basics, the skill development, and hopefully that translates into what we are trying to do with the structure of our team, our systems and all of that. No matter what the score is, no matter who we are playing, we're going to try and play a style that will benefit our players down the road, whether that's in junior "A" or major junior or college, because that's what we're here for."
That mindset was certainly put to the test early, the Minor Midget T-Birds behind the eight ball after forty minutes of play in game one. "We had given up six goals (in the second period) and we were down 7-1," noted Henderson.
"We talked about just working on the things that we needed to do to be successful against bigger, faster, stronger players. A lot of these kids came from "AA" hockey, so we knew we would have our hands full. But I think in the third period, we started adjusting, and then we just kind of carried that forward."
They will look to build now on the overtime loss, but it won't be easy. The Thunderbirds will battle the Sudbury Minor Midget Wolves, one of the top collections of '03 talent in the province, Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m. at the Gerry McCrory Sports Complex.
New Liskeard Cubs take it on the chin, but finally get a win
The New Liskeard Cubs took it on the chin in their first two outings, but managed to work their win into the win column on Sunday, thanks to a 5-4 triumph over the North Bay Minor Midget Trappers.
A balanced attack featured snipes from Ian McDonald, Brady Lacharity, Hunter Rhéaume, Clifford Edwards and Maxim Breault, while Nolan Moxam, Bourke Cazabon, Ben White and Nicholas Mondour answered for the Trappers.
The Cubs managed to keep things quite respectable against the Sudbury Minor Midget Wolves on Friday night at home, trailing 4-1 in the latter stages of the encounter before the visitors added a pair of late markers.
Mitchell Martin, Bradley Brunet, Cameron Walker, Teegan Dumont, Alexandre Antoine and Devon Savignac all padded their stats by one goal apiece, with Jackson Buffam drilling home the only puck that would elude Sudbury netminder Patrick Boivin.
The Cubs make a trip to Sudbury on Sunday afternoon, as the Tri Town reps face a Nickel Capital Wolves team with which they match up much better than in recent years.