Season of change: Great North Midget League to expand schedule, switch to tournament-style playoff

More tournaments, trip to Quebec showcase to highlight 2019-20

Ian Denomme of the North Bay Trappers battles for the puck with Carson McMillan of the Sudbury Nickel Capital Wolves during Great North Midget League championship game action in Sudbury, Ont. on Sunday March 18, 2018. The Wolves won in overtime to capture the Great North Midget League championship. Gino Donato/Sudbury Star/Postmedia Network / Gino Donato/Sudbury Star

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An expanded regular-season schedule and a tournament-style playoff format are only two in a series of changes recently approved by Great North Midget League governors.

In an effort to stem the flow of midget-eligible players to the junior ranks, as well as to get ahead of the curve when it comes to changes to Hockey Canada’s development model, the GNML also plans to increase the number of tournaments each team can play in each year, and to assemble an all-star team of both minor and major midget players to attend a heavily scouted showcase in Chicoutimi, Que., in December.

Albert Corradini, who’s set to enter his second season as commissioner of Northern Ontario’s midget AAA loop, is thrilled with the moves, which he said will address the concerns raised by coaches, players and parents about choosing the midget level as a development option, amid an ever-expanding list of alternatives.

“One of the recurring themes that I heard was the length of our schedule,” Corradini said. “A lot of centres like New Liskeard and Timmins, for example, they’re competing with the NOJHL and they’re competing with other minor hockey programs, and no one is ever going to confuse minor hockey with junior hockey, but when you start hearing that teams there are done on the first weekend or second weekend in February, that’s problematic in the minds of a lot of parents and kids who are looking for the maximum bang for their buck, in terms of the number of games.”

Under the new schedule, however, the 2019-20 regular season will start on Sept. 27, about three weeks later than in previous years, and end about a month later.

“We can afford teams the luxury of knowing that when they have a kid skating for them, he’s actually skating to make their team,” Corradini said. “Some teams may still try out in late August, early September, but at least now they have some latitude here, in terms of when they finalize their roster. When a kid comes out in August, he may be getting ready to go to an OHL club, he may be getting prepped to go to a Tier II tryout, so what ends up happening is teams cut players in late August on the assumption that so-and-so is going to be around, only to find he goes off to a junior camp and doesn’t come back.”

If teams can keep prospects in camp longer, they’ll have fewer difficulties icing a full lineup, Corradini said, as players who might have been cut, then moved on to high school or other options, would instead have a chance to contribute at the AAA level.

“It also gives kids the opportunity to go out and try junior and if they don’t make it or they don’t like where they fall, there’s an option there to play midget hockey,” the commissioner said.

Once play gets underway, the GNML’s six major midget teams — the Sudbury Nickel Capital Wolves, North Bay Trappers, Soo Greyhounds, Kapuskasing Flyers, New Liskeard Cubs and Timmins Majors — will take part in 38 regular-season games, as well as up to four tournaments that will provide at least four games each. Those will include the Toronto Titans tourney, one of the more high-profile events of the season, held in mid-September.

For playoffs, the league is dispensing with its traditional format, which included a best-of-three opening round that could have seen teams eliminated in as few as two games.

Instead, all six clubs will take part in a round-robin tournament, to be played at a single site beginning on March 12, and play a minimum of five games, before the top four teams advance to bronze- and gold-medal matchups. Winners will head straight to provincial championships.

Altogether, major midget teams will be able to play at least 59 games this coming season.

Kapuskasing will host the inaugural tournament in 2020, followed by Sudbury in 2021, Timmins in 2022, New Liskeard in 2023, Timmins in 2024 and North Bay in 2025.

The switch to a championship tournament falls in line with expected changes by Hockey Canada, which are to begin at the atom level in 2020-21 and are expected to be implemented in midget in Ontario by 2023.

“Hockey Canada has introduced the atom pathway that takes effect in 2020-21, and a big part of that is along those lines of not having seasons end too soon,” Corradini said. “That will eventually become the peewee pathway, bantam pathway and midget pathway, and it’s designed to keep kids playing later into the year.

They don’t want to see kids finishing at the end of January, early February. This will align well with what they’re going to do.”

The GNML tournament should provide players with more exposure, as well, as it’s more likely to be attended by scouts from major-junior and college programs, as well as brass from junior A and B teams, especially once it shifts further south to the Sault, North Bay or Sudbury.

GNML minor midget teams — the Sudbury Wolves and North Bay Trappers — will also see their schedules expand from 24 to 30 regular-season games. They’ll play each other six times and face the league’s minor midget squads four times apiece, while also playing as many as six tournaments throughout the year, potentially boosting exposure.

That was also the thinking behind the GNML’s plan to enter a group of all-stars, including both minor and major midgets, in the Ligue de Hockey Midget AAA du Quebec showcase in December.

Corradini said the event, which draws 24 teams from Quebec, Ontario and the Maritimes, attracts attention from several NCAA Division I scouts, as well as counterparts from the OHL and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and even the NHL.

“I started working on getting an all-star team into the Quebec showcase tournament about a year ago,” Corradini said. “Now, we have been accepted. It has been a long haul, but the NOHA has given approval and said yes, you have our blessing.

“I didn’t want this to be 16- or 17-year-old exclusive. If you are the best 15-year-old in the province or the best 15-year-old in Northern Ontario, if you’re one of the best players in the Great North Midget League, why aren’t you in this thing?”

While he’s not sure how immediate the impact will be on the ability of GNML teams to recruit and retain talent, Corradini certainly doesn’t want to give players or parents any reasons to rule out the midget game.

“At the very least, we’re making kids understand there is a viable alternative. You’re never going to convince some people that playing midget hockey is preferable to playing junior, but the more we can put in front of kids and parents and the more we can put in the hands of the guys running the programs that proves to them we’re there to develop them and to get them exposure, all of that stuff, the better off we are as a league.”

Twitter: @ben_leeson