Canadians closer to game shape, eager to start season

Rayside-Balfour Canadians defenceman Avery Chisholm (6) takes part in a drill during a practice at Chelmsford Arena in Chelmsford, Ontario on Friday, October 16, 2020. Ben Leeson/The Sudbury Star/Postmedia Network

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Were this any other year, the Rayside-Balfour Canadians would already have been tested against some of their top rivals in the NOJHL.

In October 2020, however, their greatest challenge has been to stay engaged and motivated while waiting for the COVID-delayed 2020-21 campaign to get underway, though players and staff still seem to be enjoying themselves.

Head coach Vagelli Sakellaris and company first hit the ice as a group in mid-September, for a skill development and conditioning camp at Walden Arena, but have continued to skate several times each week, having switched to their home rink in Chelmsford.

“It’s feeling pretty good out there,” said 18-year-old defenceman Avery Chisholm, a key returnee from the squad that posted a Western Division-leading 40-11-3-2 record last season. “We have been on the ice three, four times a week, so it has been pretty good.

“I try to help keep guys sharp out there, give them a little go sometimes in the corner or something like that.”

If not in game shape, he said, the Canadians are certainly close, and after getting a good, long look at both veterans and prospects, Chisholm believes the locals are primed for success, whenever the puck finally drops — despite the losses of some top talent up front, as well as on the blueline.

“Two lines will be really good,” he suggested. “We had a really good team last year and this year, it’s going to be a bit different, but it’s looking pretty good. On the back end, a few guys are getting older, guys like me, (Graeme) Siren and Bert (Dylan Bertrand), so it will be good.

“I’m one of the vets now. I have been here for two years and I’m excited to get into that veteran presence.”

The Sudbury native tries not to stress over the uncertainty surrounding his season — and indeed, nearly all organized sports in the province — but he still keeps an eye on social media for any updates from Hockey Canada, the Ontario Hockey Federation and the NOJHL itself.

“We have Jeff (Forsyth), who goes a good job of keeping us updated,” Chisholm said of Rayside’s general manager. “He’s really good with us, comes in the room all the time and talks to us.”

Provincial officials have not yet given their blessing for full, five-on-five action as most hockey fans know it, though some organizations have resumed with modified rule sets. Lisa MacLeod, the minister of heritage, sport, tourism and culture, has said that junior hockey may need to ban fighting and even body checking before play can resume.

While the NOJHL and most Ontario junior A leagues wait for a government response to their return-to-play plans, the Central Canada Hockey League, based in the Ottawa area, has already held non-contact scrimmages between its teams.

Chisholm would be willing to play without hitting, at least for now, if that was the only way to get government approval during the pandemic.

“It would be definitely different from last year, but I would still be excited to try it out and to see how that works,” he said. “I would be OK with it, as long as we’re getting games going. It would be really nice to get on the ice and play some games.”

The adjustment to a no-contact game may be a greater one for Sakellaris and his fellow coaches, whose systems have been developed with a more physical contest in mind.

“I guess it’s something we would have to experience to know, but it would definitely be a drastic change,” Rayside’s bench boss said. “I don’t know exactly what that would look like, or what the kids’ perspective is on it, but like Chisholm was saying, if that’s the best we’re going to do this year, with the situation we’re in, we would all have to accept it and do our best. It would be a different game, for sure, but for the kids, if that is the closest we’re going to get to the game of hockey as we know it, it would at least be a step in the right direction.”

That’s what he and his staff have aimed to achieve with each practice — a small step closer to game day, with ever-increasing attention to the details they’ll need for a complete team effort.

“I think they’re starting to find their groove, their speed, the little things have started to come back to them,” Sakellaris said. “You can see that their more comfortable, more fluid in their movements. I don’t want to say they’re back in game shape yet, but they’re back where they should be. They’re coming along.

“It is a grind, and I think it’s a grind for everyone. Doing minor hockey with my son, it’s the same thing there — practice, practice, practice — and we all know that’s important, but at the same time, what’s the carrot for these kids, right? What’s the end game? But we do have a good mix of kids here, some of whom are looking to go to the OHL this year, so they’re self-motivated and they’re helping to keep the pace high and the interest level up, and we also have a lot of younger kids, 17-, 18-year-olds, rookies in the league, and they want to improve their skills. It is hard sometimes, but we try to throw some different things at them, game-like situations where they’re competing within the rules, and to challenge them that way, so there is some sort of competition. If not, they wouldn’t be interested.”

Sakellaris well aware that major junior prospects such as Gio Biondi, Nick DeGrazia, Mitchell Martin and Oliver Smith are looking to use their experience last year as a springboard to full-time jobs in the OHL, but he still expects to ice a quality squad.

“We have a good group of kids here,” he said. “There’s so many variables and we have three or four guys who could make an OHL club this year, and I think have a good chance, but given the whole group as we have it, I think we’ll have a strong team. It will be a different team from last year, maybe not as flashy and high-scoring, but we have a lot of good offensive players and we have a solid team, from the goaltenders right out or our forwards.

“Hopefully, we can get some kind of games going. I’m looking forward to it.”

bleeson@postmedia.com

Twitter: @ben_leeson

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