The two dozen championship banners hanging from the west side rafters of the McIntyre Arena in Schumacher didn’t begin to tell the story of the refurbished grand old gal of hockey in northeastern Ontario.
The banners dated as far back as the early 1940s when an all-black line of Herb Carnegie, Ossie Carnegie and Manny McIntyre lead the Buffalo-Ankerite Bisons to a Senior A championship. They certainly didn’t tell the story of the frozen Sunday afternoons when the Bernie Donovan, Gail St. James. Doug Towers and the rest of the Abitibi Eskimos would face off against Frank Kobe, Ernie Domenico, Jimmy Jackson and the rest of the T&S Flyers in Porcupine Mines League Senior A game – when, by the first part of the third period, the cigarette smoke in the air would be so thick the players would become hazy apparitions out on the ice.
The players of this year’s edition of the Abitibi Eskimos weren’t concerned too much about the history of the rink that was once called the Taj Mahockey by a famous sportswriter – they were more concerned that they were down 1-0 to the Sudbury Nickel Barons after less than two minutes into the first period.
The Eskis recovered from some sloppy defensive play in front of netminder Sylvain Miron during the first five minutes of the game, and slowly began to take charge – they tied the game at 1-1 with less than three minutes remaining in the first period while having a two-man advantage, and nearly scored again while still a man up on the Nickel Barons.
But the first period resurgence was about as far as the Eskis were going to go on this Friday night at The Mac.
The Nickel Barons – a team seemingly in disarray because of injuries, a team with only a pair of wins to show for their efforts this season, were nearly handed their 5-3 win on a silver platter because, if Head Coach Paul Gagné can be paraphrased from his post-game comments to the media, “they came to play, and we didn’t.”
After the first three minutes of the game, when the Eskis defense looked as though it hadn’t participated in a drill for a month, they shook off the cobwebs and took a 2-1 lead into the dressing room.
Notwithstanding the defensive lapses during the first three minutes of the game, for most of the first two periods last Friday, the Eskis worked the patented Gagné system perfectly, and for a majority of the time, simply dominated the Nickel Barons with their superior speed.
Alas, a hockey game still lasts for three periods, not two.
The Nickel Barons scored two goals during the first three minutes of the third, and the Eskis basically turned out the lights and pulled the blanket over their heads and went to sleep (all except for 16-year-old Jeremy Lauzon, all 168 pounds of grit and gristle, and looked like a heavyweight in the process of engaging in an epic round of fisticuffs with Sudbury’s Dylan Callaghan, who outweighed him by more than 20 pounds. The battle was a draw – but Lauzon earned the respect of his teammates, his coach and of the 570 spectators with his determination and willingness to make any sacrifice to try and inspire the team.
But it wasn’t a night for the Eskis – the loss was painful, more painful, perhaps, that the possibly predictable 6-3 shellacking on Sunday against the league’s current powerhouse, the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners at the Joe Mavrinac Complex on the Mile of Gold. Lauzon sat out Sunday’s game, as did the day-to-day Ben Miller who’s recovering from an injury. Bryce Robert, who had missed a pair of games, was back on the ice on Sunday.
Coach Gagné wasn’t his usual jovial self after the game – but he did say that he and the coaching staff still sees a lot of heart and determination and talent in his squad, and that two games don’t make a season – the staff will be working the club extra hard during practice sessions this week and Gagné’s confident there’ll be a turnaround this coming weekend.
The weekend losses leave the Eskis, after nine games, with three wins, four losses and two overtime losses, and a total of 8 points in sixth spot in the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League standings. The Eskis (along with Kirkland Lake and Elliot Lake) have played only nine games so far – the league-leading Sault Thunderbirds, along with Espanola and Blind River, have all played 11 – while the North Bay Trappers (4-7-0-2) have played 13.
Only the last-place Blind River Beavers have scored fewer goals – 25 – than the Eskis, who have potted 32, compared with 54 for the Thunderbirds and 52 for Espanola (the team transplanted from North Bay after last season).
The Eskis have a three-game road trip coming up – this Friday in Espanola, Saturday in Blind River and Sunday in Sault Ste. Marie.