Long drives and caribou stew: keeping the north alive

Ryan Kennedy
Zack-Dorval

Coach Sal Lamantea is a busy man. His OHL Cup is over, but he’s got players heading in different directions and team pictures to hand out. Eventually, he’ll need to make it back home to Sault Ste. Marie, an eight-hour drive from Toronto.

But travel comes with the territory for Lamantea and his players, who came to the OHL Cup as Team NOHA, an all-star squad representing Northern Ontario. They were one of the first teams eliminated from the tourney, but several players will be selected in the upcoming Ontario League draft on April 5 and that itself is a victory for a region that long ago once stocked the NHL. Now, just putting together a competitive entry is tough.

“We’re drawing kids from Sault Ste. Marie all the way up to Kapuskasing and Hearst,” Lamantea said. “We’re talking seven or eight hour drives.”

Meanwhile, the population-rich Toronto scene put both teams in the title game with the Marlboros beating the Jr. Canadiens 5-0. The Marlies have made the OHL Cup final eight years in a row now, winning four times. Last year, they lost to the suburban Oakville Rangers and in fact, no team from outside the Greater Toronto Area has made the championship game since 2009, when Boone Jenner’s Elgin-Middlesex Chiefs fell to a Marlies team featuring Ryan Strome, Brett Ritchie and Stuart Percy.

But it’s not just the native population of the big city and its suburbs that give the GTA an advantage; kids from all over are coming to play for these teams. That championship Oakville Rangers team had kids from Sarnia, Ottawa and even Montreal, while several GTA teams have seen an influx of Russians join their ranks recently. While most of these places can deal with the loss of talent, it’s tougher in the north, which has a smaller population base and more geographic obstacles to overcome. Even staying up north is difficult for a burgeoning hockey star.

“It’s a bit hard,” said center Zack Dorval. “We always have to move because we don’t have AAA hockey in Hearst. But it is fun. We get to showcase what the North can do. We have great players and great programs.”

Dorval was recently named the NOHA minor midget player of the year and is considered to be on the bubble of the first round for this year’s OHL draft. An intelligent offensive player who was a leader at the OHL Cup, he comes from the same town as Philadelphia Flyers star Claude Giroux. Hearst is a speck on the Trans Canada highway, located about 11 hours from Toronto. Dorval played for the Soo Thunder during the regular season, seven hours away from home, so he billeted with a local Sault Ste. Marie family.

Though Dorval can only think of three NHLers who have ever come from his town – Giroux, Claude Larose and Rumun Ndur (who was born in Nigeria, but began playing hockey in Hearst) – the teen isn’t actually alone in repping the small French-Canadian enclave right now. Raphael Lecours is looking like a third or fourth round pick in the OHL draft this season thanks in part to the fact the center is already 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds as a 15-year-old. Lecours is also a Hearst native who billets outside of town, though he plays in Kapuskasing, about an hour from home. When he does come back to Hearst, he can count on his mom cooking up a nice caribou stew – just in case you forgot how north we’re talking here.

“My parents go caribou hunting in Quebec sometimes,” he said. “We’re big moose hunters and we eat a lot of meat. In Hearst there is a lot of moose and it’s a big sport in our town.”

So when Lecours tells you he has a rifle, don’t assume he’s talking about his wrist shot.

“I’m a physical guy,” he said. “I have a physical presence, I work hard, compete and create a lot of energy off the bench.”

Even with those two however, Team NOHA couldn’t notch a win at the OHL Cup. It’s always going to be tough sledding for a squad that has little to no cohesion coming into the tournament. Development camp was in August. Scouts evaluate players through the year and in December they played in a Barrie Colts showcase tournament, carrying 23 players. Then they practised for a weekend in Sudbury in February, hosted by the OHL’s Wolves. Finally, they had practice and a video session in Sudbury right before leaving for the OHL Cup last week. But for the coach, playing on this all-star team is about more than just draft positioning.

“A lot of great friendships are born,” Lamantea said. “Guys that were rivals from Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury learn about each other and become friends. It’s about the whole package, not just the OHL draft – the life skills they’re learning from rooming with a guy you’ve only known for two hours and gelling.”

The 1967 Toronto Maple Leafs would not have won the Stanley Cup without Northern Ontario. Frank Mahovlich and Allan Stanley came from Timmins; George Armstrong, Jim Pappin and Eddie Shack hailed from the Sudbury area and Tim Horton was from Cochrane. Even though leading scorer Dave Keon was from Quebec, he was from Rouyn-Noranda, just across the border and less than three hours from Timmins.

But as Toronto fans can tell you, 1967 was a long time ago and most of the NHL’s best players now hail from the GTA: Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, and Tyler Seguin, just to name a few. Talking with fellow THNer Ken Campbell (a proud Sudbury native), there are many explanations and theories for the shift in demographics. Back in the Original Six era, most players learned the game on outdoor rinks and up north, the cruel winters provided longer seasons. The primary industries from those towns (logging and mining) also attracted men in need of jobs and if they or their sons happened to be great at hockey, all the better. Then there’s the professionalism of the sport these days, where anyone in Toronto with enough money can hire a skills coach or trainer with NHL clients, or rent out private ice (indoors) so their talented kid can become a very talented one.

So every year, Team NOHA fights an uphill battle when its players clash with the big city’s best. But they do still fight, and that’s the most important thing.