In hockey, it’s often said that defence wins championships.
The Niagara-on-the-Lake U18 Wolves got team defence in spades on the weekend – and plenty of offence from their defence – en route to winning the prestigious International Silver Stick regional qualifying tournament in Midland.
The NOTL squad went undefeated over five games, with four wins and a tie against some of their age group’s top-ranked teams.
The Wolves went into the tourney ranked 16th among B centre teams in the Ontario Minor Hockey Association and were the fifth seed among the dozen teams competing in Midland.
NOTL played some top-tier hockey and didn’t allow a goal until the third game of the round-robin, a 2-2 tie versus the South Muskoka Bears, ranked the number one B team in the OMHA, said head coach Devon Neudorf.
Throughout the tournament, team defence and great goaltending by the tandem of Quinten Davis and Braden Sawyer made the difference, Neudorf said, as the road to the championship was a tough one.
In the semifinal, NOTL came out with a 3-1 win over the Parry Sound Shamrocks, ranked second in the OMHA among B class centres.
Logan Smythe, a defenceman, led the way in the semi by scoring two goals a remarkable 20 seconds apart on one shift in the second period. That put NOTL up 2-0 and in the driver’s seat.
Sniper Dylan Price closed it out, adding one of his five tourney goals into an empty net with 27 seconds left.
Then, for good measure, NOTL knocked off Muskoka 3-1 in the final to clinch the championship and book their ticket for the Silver Stick championship tournament in Forest, Ont., Jan. 5 to 7.
Defenceman Calo Zambito scored the winner with about four minutes left, on a seeing-eye wrist shot that found the back of the net, Neudorf said.
With 40 seconds left and the Muskoka net empty, Zambito’s clearing shot from the NOTL zone found the mark and iced the 3-1 win.
“The defence really led the offence on Sunday,” Neudorf said.
And on the offensive side, Price led the tournament in goals and points (5G, 2A for 7 points).
“He’s our leader on offence,” Neudorf said. “He really stepped his game up and showed the effort level needed out of everyone else.”
Through his example he helped make everyone better, his coach said.
The Wolves didn’t let any adversity get them down. “We only trailed for maybe 15 minutes over all five games,” Neudorf said.
“We were down in the third against South Muskoka when we tied them on Saturday night. And then they got the first goal on Sunday in the final as well,” he said.
In that second matchup, they were only down a goal for three minutes before Price responded for the Wolves.
Neudorf was justifiably proud of his team’s performance, noting it’s first time a NOTL team has won a Silver Stick since 2010-11.
“The Silver Stick tournament, other than the OMHA (provincials) is really the most important tournament of the year,” he said in an interview.
It’s also been a major goal for the team early in the season as the coaching staff of Neudorf and Mackenzie Berg, Kyle Juras, Garret Kaszycki and Alex Read, all young guys without kids on the team, figured the Wolves had a shot at doing well in Midland.
“That’s kind of been driven home for the past four to six weeks,” he said. “It was kind of circled on the calendar.”
Besides everything else they accomplished, Wolves forward Logan Rossi’s four assists tied him most assists in the tourney.
Despite being down two players due to injuries and absence, the weekend was just their time for something special, it seemed.
Team captain Marco Gruosso was visiting family in the U.S. for Thanksgiving, so he missed all the team’s games on Friday and Saturday.
When he found out they made it to the elimination round on Sunday, he scrambled to catch a flight to Buffalo and then drove 300 kilometres to Midland “in order to be there to support the team, showing his true leadership,” Neudorf said.
He played in the final and was able to contribute to the big win.
MOVING UP: With their performance on the weekend, the Wolves improved their ranking by three spots among OMHA B centre teams, rising to #13, according to myhockeyrankings.com. South Muskoka retains the top spot but the Bears’ lead is diminished. Parry Sound fell to #7 from second. Lambton Shores and Ennismore now round out the top three.