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NOJHL: Let the games begin

Roxanne Daoust, executive director of The Venture Centre, presents a $5,000 cheque on behalf of the organization to the Timmins Rock outside the McIntyre Arena on Friday. Accepting on behalf of the NOJHL squad are President Ted Gooch and mascot Mac. The Rock were one of 18 organizations to receive funds from The Venture Centre’s Community Recovery Fund. THOMAS PERRY/THE DAILY PRESS/POSTMEDIA NETWORK

The long-awaited start to the NOJHL’s 2020-21 regular season is less than two weeks away but fans eager to watch the puck drop on the campaign will have to content themselves with doing so on television — at least for the time being.

Thomas Perry – The Daily Press/Postmedia Network
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While the NOJHL has yet to officially make an announcement, Randy Russon, of Hockey News, broke the story on Thursday.

And Timmins Rock President Ted Gooch confirmed it during a Friday morning interview.

“As of today, we are able to begin exhibition play, with an anticipated (regular season) start date of Nov. 15,” he said.

“The teams have been divided up into cohorts and the cohorts will stay together, play a minimum of six games.

“Then, there will a 14-day break to get out of the cohort and quarantine before we introduce a new matchup and a new cohort.”

That said, Gooch indicated the Rock will not be playing any exhibition games.

“We feel our program is ready to go and we are ready to play regular season games,” he said.

Timmins been matched up against the Rayside-Balfour Canadians (40-11-3-2, 85 points), who finished first in the West Division standings in 2019-20 — two points behind the Rock (42-11-2-1, 87 points), who finished second in the East Division standings behind the Powassan Voodoos.

“(Rock General Manager) Kevin Peever and Jeff Forsyth, the general manager of the Canadians, are in talks to set the schedule as we speak, with the first games lining up around next weekend,” Gooch said.

“The goal will be to play a minimum of six games against Rayside-Balfour before taking a break and then introducing a new team.”

In earlier interviews with The Daily Press, the president had indicated the team would likely not be able to play games without fans — likely at least 500 — in the seats at the McIntyre Arena

Things changed significantly between then and now, however.

“Right now, we are thankful to have a lot of support in terms of fundraising, including our (online) 50/50 which is playing a big part of it,” Gooch said.

“We will not be able to proceed with fans, due to the restrictions of the Ontario government and the indoor capacity.

“We want to play and we have sharpened our pencils to try and figure out a way we can best play, for the organization and the players.

“We have come up with a solution that will work out of the gate and we will have our fingers crossed that throughout the season as we progress through January and February we will be allowed to open up to spectators and get our fans into the arena.”

As of Friday afternoon, the Rock’s 50/50 pot — to be divided between the winner and the team — stood at just under $29,000, with the draw scheduled for Nov. 15.

Part of the rules and regulations for the NOJHL’s return to play include the fact there will be no body contact allowed.

“With the exception of some other minor changes, it will be hockey as usual,” Gooch said.

“Some of the examples would be scrums will be limited to 13 seconds before play is called dead.

“There will be some small changes the players will have to get used to and certainly the coaches, as well, some small sacrifices to be able to get on the ice and play in a safe manner.”

While fans won’t be allowed to attend games in person — at least not at the start of the season — they will be able to watch them on HockeyTV.

“HockeyTV will be part of the exemption in our bubble, so we will be able to provide television broadcasts of our games, through our HockeyTV channel,” Gooch said.

“The crew will be here and we are looking at repositioning our cameras to centre ice to be a bit better angle for our fans watching from home.

“We are hoping to announce a HockeyTV special that fans can jump on if they want to be able to catch our games, both on the road and at home.”

Daily Press readers will be able to continue to follow the progress of the Rock in the pages of their newspaper and online, as well.

“There will be some media that will be allowed, as our guests, so fans will be able to continue to get updates through The Daily Press and our media partners at Rogers,” Gooch said.

In addition to the ongoing online 50/50 draw, the Rock have been getting support from other corners of the community, as well.

On Friday, for example, The Venture Centre presented the team with a cheque for $5,000.

Roxanne Daoust, executive director of The Venture Centre, was on hand for the presentation just outside the McIntyre Arena.

“The grant is from the Community Recovery Fund,” she said.

“The Timmins Rock were chosen based upon their application, one of 19 we received under this program.”

Daoust noted The Venture Centre was able to provide assistance to 18 of those 19 organizations, with $107,000 distributed overall.

“We have been starting to reach out to our local sponsors now that we know hockey has been given the green light and we are very happy with the response of them wanting to support us,” Gooch said.

“Even with the difficult times they have gone through, we have had to be a little bit more creative through sponsorship avenues.

“A typical game-day sponsorship wouldn’t hold the same value with no fans in the crowd. (Director) Jason Kelly has been reaching out to our sponsors, coming up with some creative new ideas.”

Rock coach Corey Beer does not anticipate his squad will have any difficulty adapting to the new rules they will find when they return to regular season-competition later this month.

“To start, there will be no body contact and that is how we have been practising for the past two months,” he said.

“It is a challenge, obviously, not even the big hits. We were known to be a not very physical team before this point.

“So, it’s not too much of a change for us, but it is the small things, trying to invade space and create separation, one-on-one battles, that kind of stuff.

“Okay, we have to change our mindset on how we do things. Certainly, it presents its challenges but one thing we have tried to do with the way we play the game and how we are puck-possession based, now … alright, let’s find ways to try and be creative with this.

“Teams can’t knock us off the puck physically and they have to have good sticks, so let’s put ourselves in better position to protect it and we have been doing that.

“We have been trying to enhance our offensive game as best we can and so far our guys have been pretty responsive to it.”

Beer, for one, has been thinking outside of the box when it comes to making sure his squad is prepared for a new-look NOJHL regular season.

“Okay, hockey has got no contact in it, so let’s find a way to get around it,” he said.

“I have reached out to a couple of people who have been coaching in the women’s game, trying to pick their brains on how to create separation and how they do puck battles.

“It is an advantage for us if we can learn those kind of techniques.

“Then, if contact comes back, it is back to playing the way we know how to play.”

The Rock began conditioning camp after the Labour Day weekend, but ramped things up recently.

“From our perspective, we probably switched into more of a training camp mentality about two-and-a-half weeks ago,” he said.

“We really started hammering it in and working on new defensive zone (systems) and getting our offensive zone on track.

“We have been doing Zoom calls every night or every other night with guys, doing meetings whenever we can with safe social distancing areas.

“We have really kicked it into high gear. It has been really nice.”