PASCAL: NOJHL Showcase brings out the scouts

Noah Serre of the Rayside Balfour Canadians and James Redmond of the Timmins Rock battle for the puck during the NOJHL Showcase 2017 at the Gerry McCrory Countryside Sports Complex in Sudbury, Ont. on Tuesday October 10, 2017. Gino Donato/Sudbury Star/Postmedia Network

By Randy Pascal, For The Sudbury Star

Twelve teams. Two days. One rink – with twin pads. A dozen games.

The NOJHL Showcase has returned to Sudbury.

For the second consecutive season, every single entry from Hearst across to Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. and east to Powassan has gathered at the Gerry McCrory Sports Complex, looking to build some early season momentum, all while providing valuable exposure for the young men who toil in the loop across the North.

The Rayside-Balfour Canadians are sitting in the middle of the NOJHL West Division standings after their first 10 games, looking to challenge the top-two duo of the  Soo Thunderbirds and Elliot Lake Wildcats. On Tuesday afternoon, they were also looking for a little revenge.

The Canadians dropped a 3-1 decision on the road Saturday night to the Timmins Rock, and were back up against that very same foe as they returned home – sort of. Coach Dave Clancy’s players are typically housed in the comfortable confines of the Chelmsford Arena while in the area, but given their performance in Sudbury, they might look to relocate.

Taking advantage of the additional space afforded to them via the Countryside ice surface, the Rayside crew posted a solid 3-0 victory, as James White, Jacob Patridge and Jett Leishman scored in support of a 32-save shutout effort courtesy of local product MacKenzie Savard.

Back with the team for a second time after spending the bulk of the second half of the 2016-17 campaign with the Sudbury Wolves, Savard has now recorded six straight wins between the pipes, all while bumping his save percentage up to a lofty .950 mark and dropping his goals-against average to an equally impressive 1.85 goals per game.

The 20-year-old puck-stopper remains quite candid in assessing his game, including the growth that he has shown since first entering the league three years ago.

“I feel like my maturity has grown a lot – my ability to control games, bring a calm sense to the game and my teammates,” said Savard.

“I can read plays better, communicate on the ice and help settle things down.”

Interestingly enough, it was a rough start to the new campaign, with losses to both Elliot Lake and French River, that helped turn things around for the well-spoken netminder.

“I wasn’t very happy with the first two games that I played,” said Savard. “I wasn’t as focused as I typically am. Coming back from the OHL, I thought that I could do a lot more than I really have to. Simplifying my game helped me out so much. The first two games, I was trying to do everything, make passes that I realistically had no business trying to do. It makes it a lot easier when you just do your job, your role, and that’s it.”

Savard has managed to turn the disappointment of not garnering more attention from the OHL circuit into a chief motivator to shine within the setting in which he is playing. The maturity is evident with every word he speaks.

“I’ve played a bunch of different levels now, and you realize that at every level, whether you go up a level or down a level, everything has to be tweaked,” he said.

“There’s not one thing that I can be content about in my game.”

That is exactly the approach that is preached by the likes of Sudbury native Steve Rachkowski. A graduate of the Laurentian Voyageurs soccer program who suited up in the local AAA hockey loops with the likes of the Onaping Falls bantam Huskies and Rayside Balfour midget Sabrecats, Rachkowski now pursues his love of sports through his role with the NHL Central Scouting office.

While it might surprise some to note not only the level of overall scouting interest in the NOJHL Showcase, interest that extends up to the highest level of hockey on the globe, Rachkowski knows that hockey talent development is seldom linear, that countless NHLers across the 31 franchises are among those considered as late bloomers.

“I think that kids need to realize that just because it didn’t work out for them one year, that a lot can change in the summer and into the next year of hockey,” said Rachkowski. “We do our best to follow leagues that produce players. We can see the growth in the players from minor midget to major midget to their first year of junior hockey. We get to come here and see their progression, and how they have really developed.”

That opportunity has come courtesy, in many ways, of the Showcase that is still in its infancy, an event that clearly has created something to build on, according to the graduate of St. Benedict Catholic Secondary School.

“We have to commend the NOJHL for putting on an event like this,” said Rachkowski. “Because of the locations of the teams that play in this league, it’s almost impossible for us to get coverage for each team. Putting it all in one city, all in one rink, with a chance to see everybody play two games each is a terrific way to handle this. There’s a ton of scouts here. It’s been very well received.”

And that is music to the ears of Savard and his fellow NOJHLers, those avid hockeyists not quite ready to hang up the skates, competitively speaking, as they move beyond their teenage years.

“I would love to continue playing,” said Savard. “I would love to play CIS, anywhere. I’ve seen what this league and junior hockey have done for me, the ability to grow my game.

“To be able to play another four or five years, while doing my schooling, would be awesome.”

Randy Pascal is That Sudbury Sports Guy. His column runs twice a week in The Sudbury Star.