Hope, uncertainty surround long-awaited Jr. Knights-Chiefs tilt

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Every time an Ontario Hockey League scout walks into the rink these days, the intensity level goes through the roof.

“I ask them to come back next practice, too,” Jr. Knights AAA U16 coach Rob Crowther quipped.

If everything goes well, there could be at least 20 bird dogs — one per OHL club — spread out Monday in a nearly empty Budweiser Gardens to watch the Jr. Knights and their Elgin-Middlesex Chiefs neighbours meet in a long-awaited game. The U18s are slated to kick things off Sunday.

There’s a COVID-19 catch and a lot of finger-crossing to this Alliance Hockey initiative. The Middlesex-London Health Unit must stay out of the red zone for it to happen.

“When we’re in orange or below, we will orchestrate games for the U16 age group,” Alliance executive director Tony Martindale said. “That’s our commitment to the kids to hold events that showcase them. Talking to the Knights and the OHL, there is a real demand. They’re going to have a draft (in June) and they want to see these kids play.”

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The grand plan, with five major junior clubs in the Alliance region, is to hold a similar event in Sarnia next weekend, then get to Windsor, Waterloo Region and Hamilton whenever they emerge from red zone restrictions.

Everything is still at the mercy of the virus. But the very thought of a 5-on-5 game, albeit under the Ontario Hockey Federation’s modified rulebook, has stirred up considerable excitement.

“The players have worked their whole minor hockey career for this year,” Chiefs coach Jeff Roy said. “They want to be seen. We’ve had some scouts at practice and it’s better than nothing. From September to where we are now, we might have missed our window a bit for getting in some games and exposure.

“I’m hoping in the new year we can make up that time, that with the vaccine this is going to be behind us at some point and we can get to some normal hockey.”

There has been nothing like the last four months.

The Chiefs managed to play Huron-Perth in a home-and-home set of 4-on-4 split-squad encounters amid their fall practices. Then, those opportunities dried up.

The Jr. Knights’ game play has been limited to mashing its top U16s together with the older AAA and AA squads, putting all the names in a pot and picking teams for instrasquad tilts.

So this is a first time to face someone outside of the organization since the pandemic started.

“It’s almost like a college football bowl game,” Crowther said. “You’ve had two months to prepare. The kids on the two teams are aware of each other and the energy should be unbelievable.

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“I miss coaching the kids in games, as Jeff would with the Chiefs. It’s part of the fun.”

There will be a camera in the building to stream the action so parents waiting outside in the parking lot will be able to follow along. There won’t be faceoffs or body contact and split squads remain, but scouts get to see players in a 5-on-5 environment.

“You get a look at the local players and are able to get an evaluation on them,” Knights associate GM Rob Simpson said. “We’re only allowing one scout per OHL team to stay under the numbers, but we’re trying to get something in and see where we go from here.”

Organized club sports is, at its best, a physical and mental release for children. In the summer, the Alliance braced itself for a 60 per cent return to the ice, then saw registrations reach 80 per cent of its pre-pandemic level — from house league right up to the competitive peak.

There have been squabbles, battles and hurdles along the way. No doubt, there will be more.

But Martindale has focused on appreciative kids still passionate about the game and a volunteer base determined to deliver a positive experience.

“I can make an argument our volunteers are front-line workers,” he said. “They’re doing stuff they’ve never faced before and my hat goes off to them. You look at an organization like Elgin: we released our plan in July and within a week, they had all their protocols in place and kids on the ice by the end of the month.

“I’m pretty proud of our teams because there is stuff going on that shouldn’t be. The (Greater Toronto Hockey League) never came back and teams are still playing. The (Ontario Minor Hockey Association) has been limited. We’ve had a strong response. The biggest thing is we want to keep our kids safe.”

rpyette@postmedia.com

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