(The Kemptville 73s after winning 1-0 in game five of the Regional Qualifiers final round. They are now going to compete in the Telus Cup in late April. Photo: @sensplex)
The Hockey Eastern Ontario (HEO) U18AAA season has come to an end with the Kemptville 73s winning the HEO regional qualifiers tournament and moving on to compete at the Central Regional Qualifiers on the road to the TELUS Cup. But what teams didn’t know at the beginning of the season, is that this would be the last HEO U18AAA season as they know it… at least for a while.
The HEO board made the decision to follow Toronto’s league style and add a U16 level instead of having 15-year-olds make the jump to U18 after they have aged out of U15. But what does that mean?
Before the 2022-2023 season, and for six previous seasons, there was a U15-protected draft where competitive hockey players from all across eastern Ontario were drafted to different U18AAA teams with correlating CCHL (Junior A and Junior B) teams. Being drafted meant that the organization owned your “rights” and could trade you to another organization. Players would start out in U18AAA and make their way through the organization’s ranks to, hopefully, play Junior A. In the HEO U18 league, players age 15-18 play on the same team. There are of course some rules regarding how many players of each birth year a team must have, in order to not have a team of all 18-year-olds competing against a team of only 15-year-olds.
At first glance, this league could seem quite intimidating and potentially dangerous to 15-year-old players – and likely their parents too. Competitive hockey is already a full-contact sport and when you have such a disparity in age, size, and sometimes skill, there is the potential for injury. This was one of the major concerns that led to the implementation of a U16 age group to bridge the gap between the age groups.
However, there are mixed emotions following the changes made to the HEO U18AAA league. While the general argument against the league is that it is dangerous, or rookie players may not get as much playing time compared to returning ones, there are also many reasons that players and parents would have liked to keep the league intact.
Firstly, addressing the age gaps, by the time players are 18, they are often either playing in the OHL, Junior A or B or are no longer seriously pursuing hockey. There are some 18-year-old players that stay playing U18, but the numbers are small. Between all 12 teams that competed in the HEO U18 league this past season, with over 350 players on U18AAA rosters (affiliated or regular) only 15 were third-year returning players (players born in 2005). Meaning, the majority of players are only one age group apart (players born in 2006 and 2007). Additionally, the third-year players are on their teams to be leaders and protect the younger players who they play alongside.
Most of the U18AAA teams have developed the tradition of a locker-room-led “rookie draft” at the beginning of the season. In this mock draft, returning players or “vets” take turns to select a rookie to designate as their own. There are some gags that come along with this, usually involving the rookie’s having to fill up the vet’s water bottles or complete other tasks for them, and they are usually “required” to post a picture of them and their vet expressing their gratitude to be drafted. But all jokes aside, the “rookie draft” is a great way for the new players to be integrated into the team and gives them someone they can go to if they need advice, help, or anything on or off the ice.
Another objection to the U18AAA league was from a development standpoint. The idea of having three different age groups competing against each other could lead to the idea that first-year players would not get to develop or play as much as returning players. While in some cases this is true, as competitive sports often lead to uneven playing time as games become more meaningful, between the multitude of practices and long season of over 42 regular season games, players get plenty of chances to develop. They also get to play at the highest level in the city and are challenged throughout the whole season.
Despite there being both positives and negatives to the U18AAA league, the decision was ultimately made to reinstate the U16AAA age group, meaning HEO’s U18 league needed to be changed. The decision to include the U16 age group came toward the beginning of the 2022-2023 season. However, it wasn’t until March 20th, during the semi-final round of the 2023 U18AAA playoff that the HEO Board made a decision.
In a statement released by the Hockey Eastern Ontario Board, it was announced that the U16 category as well as the U18 will be operated by the Titans/Cyclones/Wild/Myers/67’s Minor Hockey Organizations. With the elimination of the U15 draft, players will stay in their home organization based on the geographical location of their district (unless released) from the time AAA starts at U13 until they are playing U18.
As there is with every decision in minor hockey, there were mixed emotions at this announcement. Some players are excited to go back to play with the friends they’ve had since they were in U13, while others are upset to be saying goodbye to the teammates they met this year when they were drafted. For many players in the league, it was likely a mix of both excitement and disappointment.
The biggest opposition to this decision was actually the time at which it was announced. HEO released their statement in the afternoon on March 20th, the same day as game two of their 2023 playoffs’ semi-final round. As teams were preparing to play to keep their season alive, they were told that some of the people sitting in the locker room with them would likely never be their teammates again, or in some cases, the players they were about to face off against would become their teammates the following season.
Following the announcement, one semi-finalist team, the Ottawa Junior Sens, tweeted that “There are many coaches whose main priority is the development of their players and providing them with opportunities. The timing of this news release on semi-final game day 2 for the Road to the Telus failed to consider the well-being of these players.” Others responded with similar sentiments saying it was “Shameful to do this today to 4 teams of boys battling in the playoffs.”
It is understandable that HEO wanted to get the news out as soon as they came to a decision given the future has been up in the air all season, however, the timing was unfortunate for the teams still competing.
Regardless of untimely announcements, undetermined future plans, and overall uncertainty in the HEO league, the 2023 TELUS cup is taking place at the end of April and HEO needed to decide on a winner to send to Saint-Hyacinthe to compete.
In the end, it came down to the final four teams. On one side of the bracket, the Nepean Raiders team led by Captain Will Hughes and a roster that included two Team Ontario players in Harry Nansi and Quinn Beauchesne faced off against the Kemptville 73s who despite a slower start to the season, with the help of HEO Goaltender of the Year Braxton Bennet, managed to catch fire in a 14-game winning streak. On the other side, the Ottawa Junior Senators were led by strong goaltending in Matteo Bartlett and Noah Paddock, as well as an effective offence core who always seem to find a way to put the puck in the back of the net. The Sens were matched up against the Renfrew Wolves who were just coming off an undefeated effort in the year-end Champions Tournament, had the best regular season record, and were a scary offensive team whose top line included Chase Hull, HEO Top Rookie and Season MVP.
There was no question that these teams were evenly matched. After losing in game one, with their season on the line, Kemptville beat Nepean in double overtime to send the series to game three. In a similar fashion, after dropping game one 6-4, the Ottawa Junior Sens surprised everyone by shutting out Renfrew and sending their series to game three as well.
On March 22, both semi-final game threes took place at the Bell Sensplex. Kemptville sealed their spot in the final round with a 7-4 victory over Nepean, and Ottawa completed the upset by knocking out Renfrew in a nail-bitter 3-2 victory.
Despite wearing the names of many different towns and organizations, Stittsville was represented well by many athletes competing in the HEO U18AAA Regional Qualifiers. In just the semi-final round, there were seven Stittsville-born players; Ryan Wallace, Liam Haggerty, Lucas Prudhomme, Ethan Smith, and Evan Malherbe all playing for Renfrew, Owen Brown playing for Ottawa, and Braxton Bennett representing Kemptville.
The final series of the U18AAA playoffs proved to be equally as close as every other match-up. The series saw Kemptville take game one in a deciding 4-0 victory over Ottawa. However, that was the end of blow-outs, as the next two games would go in to double over time, with the Junior Senators winning game two and the 73s taking game three. In, the end it all came down to another close game in game four, but the 73s won 1-0 in regulation to take home the U18AAA Regional Championship.
Kemptville will represent the HEO hockey league on the road to the TELUS Cup. In order to qualify for the national tournament, they must make it past the Central Canadian Regional Qualifiers taking place the week of April 3-9. Across the country, 145 teams compete all season to see who will qualify to compete in the national tournament. Five regional champions join the host team in a week-long marathon to crown the very best in Canada. The LHM18AAAQ champions advance directly to the TELUS Cup as Quebec representatives, while the other four regional spots are filled by the champions of Pacific (B.C. and Alberta), West (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, NW Ontario), Central (GNML, MHAO, GTHL, OMHA, HEO) and Atlantic (N.S., N.L., N.B., P.E.I.).
HEO always sends a team to compete on the road to the TELUS cup, but for the last time, that team will compete under the “Kemptville 73s” name or any other CCHL-affiliated team. Starting next year it will be either Titans/Cyclones/Wild/Myers/67’s that travel to the National Championships.