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Apr. 4, 2020 | Saturday
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A season to remember: COVID-19 pandemic slams door on talented hockey team’s dream year

 

 

One of the most talented and successful Niagara youth hockey teams in recent memory saw its season come to a crashing halt last week, thanks to the COVID-19 epidemic.

The Niagara North Stars minor midget AAA team was one of the top five teams in the Ontario Minor Hockey Association and competed in the league championship in Belleville March 6 to 8.

The players’ performance there earned them the chance to compete for a “win and you’re in” wild card berth in the prestigious OHL Cup tournament, a showcase for the 20 top under-16 teams from Ontario and the northern United States.

All of that ended with the pandemic declaration last Wednesday and the cancellation of the OHL Cup the next day.

“We are the first Niagara North minor midget AAA team in 10 seasons to make it to the OMHA finals, so having the OHL Cup cancelled is a huge frustration for our players,” says head coach Matt Miller, a realtor with Royal LePage’s Miller Group in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

“Our whole season was focused on making it to the OHL Cup,” says Miller, 31. “Tournaments, the league standings were all secondary to getting to the OHL Cup.”

The season was a monumental success for the team, led by top scorer Tai York of St. Davids.

A sixth-place team last season as bantams, they rocketed into second place in their division under Miller in his first year as head coach.

The OHL Cup features the best young hockey players from AAA teams, the top tier in minor hockey. It’s also a scouting showcase, where players are evaluated by top scouts from the Ontario Hockey League, junior leagues, colleges and elsewhere, in advance of the annual junior draft on April 4.

The tournament, which would have started Wednesday, was the last chance for players to be evaluated before the draft, but Miller is confident that six or more kids from his team – including York – will be drafted.

Every year the OHL Cup includes dozens of players who go on to careers in major junior hockey and several prospects who land in the NHL and other pro leagues.

Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid is one of the biggest pro names to play in the tournament. And 15 players on this past season’s Niagara IceDogs roster were past participants in the showcase.

The Lake Report has been following the Stars’ fortunes since last fall as they set out in their quest for minor hockey’s big prize.

A key round-robin playoff game on a snowy Feb. 1 in Fonthill against an opponent this Stars team has only beaten once is an apt metaphor for this hungry group of under-16 kids. There might be no superstars among them, but their hearts are huge and they Never. Give. Up.

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It’s the sort of situation that could make or break a team – or its coach.

Win and besides beating a team that seems to always have your number, you have a shot at being seeded first in the next playoff round. Lose and your eyes forever might be in the rear-view mirror hoping one of the teams behind you doesn’t catch up.

The home team – the Welland-based Southern Tier Admirals, first place this year and silver medallists last year in the OMHA bantam championships – has just scored back-to-back goals to go up 4-2 late in the third period.

With 3:37 to play, that last marker was batted out of the air in a fine feat of hand-eye co-ordination. “High stick, high stick!” the livid Niagara North bench screams.

There’s no video in minor hockey, eh, and even sitting 30 feet away it’s hard to tell if former Stars player Dawson Lukey’s stick was above the crossbar. But it was reallllly close.

Doesn’t matter, the disputed goal stands. For many teams, that’s just the beginning of the end. But these Stars are workers and it’s time to get back to work.

Forty-six seconds later, Southern Tier’s talented Andrew Leblanc takes an unwise roughing penalty.

Timeout Niagara North with 2:51 on the clock. Coach Miller has the boys huddle around, Xs and Os time. He cajoles and exhorts his charges.

This is where a coach can earn his or her stripes. But what do you say to these kids that can make a difference? Everyone knows the score. Everyone knows what needs to be done. Everyone wants a goal. So, well, just do it.

Faceoff in the other team’s zone, Niagara North dominates on the power play and just 21 seconds later, sniper York works his magic yet again, from Wyatt Gibson and Derek Smyth. And it’s 4-3.

Sometimes in sport momentum changes are palpable. You literally can feel the energy transfer from one team to the other. That wave just rolled through Fonthill’s Meridian Centre and everyone knows what could happen next.

Now, there’s 2:30 left and a game that looked like it was over moments ago is very much game-on.

Puck drops. “Gib, Yorky, Shorty” – even at this level, the coaches have nicknames for their players. Miller has already caught his goaltender’s attention. “Watch me,” he mouths, two fingers pointed toward his own eyes.

Niagara North gets the puck in deep and seconds later, the goalie’s out and a sixth man joins the attack.

Scoring can happen in bunches in minor hockey and the tsunami of energy the Stars are riding again overwhelms the bigger Admirals. Size doesn’t matter. York, not a big guy, but still growing, has a deft, dangerous touch. Never shying away from “the kitchen,” as Miller calls it, York in close finds a hole, as pure goal scorers are wont to do, and slides the puck home.

Quite a comeback in less than two minutes of playing time. The game is tied and there’s still 1:04 to play.

The clock winds down but it’s not over. Ten minutes of overtime looms. A chance for “sudden victory.”

The pace is frenetic. Up and down. Now, everyone is energized.

Not long into OT, a neutral zone turnover and speedy Niagara North turns the puck up ice on a potential 3 on 1. As the puck carrier reaches the red line an oncoming Admiral defender realizes he is moving in the wrong direction and reflexively sticks out his leg.

Shin guard on knee, the Niagara North player tumbles to the ice. He’s OK, but there is a nuclear explosion on the visitors’ bench.

The normally laid-back Miller grabs a stick and smacks it hard against the boards. “That was a knee. That was a … knee.” The back ref missed it and his partner was looking elsewhere. No penalty. Play continues.

Uh-oh. Southern Tier finds the net. But wait, the net was knocked off long before the puck went in. No goal.

Back and forth and back. Then somehow the puck finds York. He finds a seam and breaks in alone. Could it happen? He dangles the defence and cuts hard to the net. He fans on it. “But I should have scored on that one,” the Grade 10 student says later. Close but no joy.

There’s 1:31 left but no one is able to score and the game ends 4-4. Spectators seem exhausted – and they were just watching.

“We just can’t seem to beat this team,” Miller shrugs as he heads to the dressing room.

No, they didn’t win, but the Stars showed again why they are among the top teams in their age group – anywhere. Why they deserve a shot at the OHL Cup.

For the boys there will be another six weeks of intense, high-level playoff hockey before their season unceremoniously screeches to a halt. For them, it makes a season to remember even more memorable. Unfortunately.

For Miller, it’s the beginning of a new chapter. He’s been appointed head coach of the under-16 AAA team again next year, the bantams who are moving up. He’ll have his work cut out for him, though. The bantams were 7-18-7 on the season and finished second last, in ninth place.

It’s another chance for the coach to earn his stripes.

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