Some improvisation on the part of staff and players, combined with co-operation from Mother Nature, allowed the French River Rapids to retain some semblance of a team atmosphere during the recent COVID-19 lockdown.
The result, hopes head coach and general manager Paul Frustaglio, will be a team that’s relatively well-prepared when the NOJHL finally returns to action this week.
French River drops the puck on the 2021 side of its regular-season schedule Tuesday, hosting the Espanola Express in the first of a four-game series.
Start time at Noelville Arena is 6 p.m. Attendance will be strictly limited, but the contest will stream live on HockeyTV.com.
The game will be French River’s first since late November, when the team wrapped up a six-game set against Espanola. The Rapids sat out for the following round in December, because of the league’s uneven number of teams this season.
Most of Frustaglio’s players, 15 in all, stayed in the community throughout the lockdown. A handful went home when COVID-19 restrictions were extended in mid-January, but most returned by the end of the month.
“We had two big pads on the lake,” Frustaglio told The Sudbury Star. “We complied with all the rules, we were doing five kids on the ice and we had schedules for them every single day, because we were concerned about their mental health.
“We followed all the protocols and we kept them busy. They all had schedules, they all got up and worked out. Because we’re essentially in our own little bubble, these kids are together and they were able to be in groups of five, so they were running every day and on the pond every day. It was awesome, for them to have so much dedication.”
That dedication will be rewarded when play resumes this week, following several meetings between the league and various health units, whose approval was required even after the region emerged from lockdown and re-entered the provincial COVID-19 framework.
“We sincerely thank everyone for their due diligence and continued co-operation as we work our way through these unprecedented times,” NOJHL commissioner Robert Mazzuca said in a press release. “The health and safety of all our players, coaches, staff members, officials, fans and all those associated with the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League remains paramount.”
The Rapids visit Espanola on Wednesday at 6 p.m. and Friday at 7 p.m., before welcoming the Express back to Noelville on Saturday at 4 p.m.
Meanwhile, the Blind River Beavers will face the Soo Thunderbirds in a six-game set, beginning in the Sault this Wednesday at 7 p.m., while the Cochrane Crunch will take on the Timmins Rock, with scheduling info to be announced.
The Rayside-Balfour Canadians are to sit out the next round, due to the odd number of available teams, but the NOJHL is exploring options for games in Greater Sudbury against U18 teams. The Canadians are to play against French River and Espanola in March.
The Hearst Lumberjacks and Kirkland Lake Gold Miners will not continue with their seasons due to ongoing restrictions, but are expected to return in 2021-22. The Elliot Lake Wildcats and Powassan Voodoos previously took leaves of absence, while the Soo Eagles have remained unable to cross the Canada-U.S. border.
“With the regional restrictions currently in effect, we continue to work closely with all concerned groups to further allow for the opportunity for players to hit the ice for game action, safely and with the utmost protection and care,” Mazzuca added. “We thank all parties, the public health units, the NOHA and fellow partners for their combined efforts in looking to make this a reality.
“While unfortunately there will not be a NOJHL champion crowned for a second consecutive year, development of our players and allowing them to showcase their skills to family, friends, scouts and the like, via such avenues as on HockeyTV.com and Eastlink TV, will allow those teams playing the opportunity to make their mark as we all deal with these trying times.”
French River brings a record of 3-3-2-0 (wins-losses-shootout wins-shootout losses) into the week, having won three of four meetings against Espanola before dropping back-to-back decisions to end their series.
Scoring leaders among forwards were Levi Siau, with 13 points, Ryan Smith, with nine, and Ty Chambers and Jack Tos, with eight apiece. Griffin Simpson was the leading point-getter on the back end with seven.
Hayden Williamson led Rapids netminders in both goals-against average, with 2.79, and save percentage, with .937 over two games.
“We haven’t really played since the end of November, so I’m expecting we’ll be pretty rusty,” Frustaglio said. “But we’re playing hockey, so that’s all that matters.
“We had our first practice (on Thursday) and I told the boys don’t get frustrated, it’s going to take you one week of practising and playing to feel 80 per cent of what you felt like at the end of November. It’s going to take time, it’s a process, but you keep positive. You’re playing hockey, and that’s your prize. You guys have put in a lot of loyalty to this league and to this team and it’s going to pay off now.”
He’s impressed with how his players have embraced the league’s new rules, both in terms of off-ice protocols and precautions, and on-ice measures including the elimination of body contact.
“They have run with it,” Frustaglio said. “They love playing hockey.”
For a full schedule of upcoming games, visit www.nojhl.com.