GALLERY: ‘We’re not satisfied’ — Cubs look to close out dream season with Centennial Cup win

Ben Leeson – The Sudbury Star

Cameron Walker and his teammates have had nearly two weeks to bask in the glow of an NOJHL championship, but when the puck drops on Centennial Cup action on Friday, the Greater Sudbury Cubs have no intention of resting on their laurels.

Good thing, too. Their very first opponents at the national junior A hockey championship in Oakville, Ont. are the Collingwood Blues, winners of an Ontario Junior Hockey League title and a top-ranked team in all of Canada for much of the season.

“I think the boys are ready,” smiled Walker, the 21-year-old Sudbury native who serves as the Cubs’ co-captain and is one of seven 2003-born players for whom the Centennial Cup represents the final chapter of their junior careers.

“I think it helps that we had that little bit of extra time off to get rested and prepared, but we’re not satisfied, that’s for sure.”

As members of the first local squad since the 2008 Sudbury Junior Wolves to win NOJHL gold and the first since the 2002 Rayside-Balfour Sabrecats to compete at nationals, the Cubs hope to be the first-ever league representatives to clinch a Centennial Cup when the tournament wraps up at Sixteen Mile Sports Complex on May 19.

First, they’ll have to go through not only the Blues, whom they face on Friday at 4 p.m., but also the Navan Grads, who won the Central Canada Hockey League and feature a standout local product in Devon Savignac, this coming Sunday at 4 p.m.

The Calgary Canucks of the Alberta Junior Hockey League will provide the opposition next Monday, also at 4 p.m., and College Francais de Longueuil of the Quebec Junior Hockey League on Wednesday at noon.

Quarter-finals are May 17, semifinals on May 18 and the championship game, to be broadcast by TSN, on May 19 at 3 p.m.

Walker hopes the Cubs, who played some of their cleanest, most mistake-free hockey in wrapping up best-of-seven series against the Soo Thunderbirds, Blind River Beavers and Powassan Voodoos to claim the Copeland-McNamara Trophy on April 26, will stay true to that formula in Oakville.

“We need to stay hard on our forecheck, stay tight to our systems,” said Walker, just before a practice at Gerry McCrory Countryside Sports Complex this past Friday. “We beat three good teams here in our playoffs and it’s going to be more or less the same down there. We know it’s going to be tough, but we’re going to be ready.”

A veteran forward who has suited up for 245 NOJHL games, including regular season and playoffs, and has 153 points to his credit, Walker has enjoyed a dream finish to his career.

“It’s just amazing,” he said. “There’s just so many life-long friends on this team and some new friends I met along the way. It’s a storybook ending, to finish it off this way. I couldn’t be any happier and I know the team couldn’t be any happier, either.”

Just starting out at the junior level, though no less enthusiastic or grateful for his opportunity is defenceman Hudson Martin, a 16-year-old Midhurst, Ont. product and one of two 2007-born players who saw regular ice time with the Cubs this season, alongside centreman Hudson Chitaroni.

Like Chitaroni, Martin is the son of a Sudbury Wolves alumnus and a draft pick of that OHL club who gave a very good account of himself in his first year of junior hockey with totals of 10 goals and 27 assists in 58 regular-season games, then seven more points in 16 playoff contests.

“It has been great, a lot of fun with the boys,” Martin said.

“I think we did all the little things right, blocking shots and having that willingness to win, and I think we showed that in the final. We battled injuries, sickness and I think that willingness to come together as a team helped us a lot.”

Even in pre-season, there was no shortage of reasons why a commitment to the Cubs made sense for Martin. Not only was he selected by the Wolves, but his father, Neal, is a longtime, close friend of Greater Sudbury head coach Darryl Moxam and surely felt the up-and-coming blueliner’s development was in good hands.

Martin earned his ice time and then some, finishing first among rookie defencemen in points and staking claim to a spot on the NOJHL First All-Rookie Team while picking up valuable big-game experience.

“It has been an unreal year and I couldn’t have asked for anything better,” he said. “It’s a great group of guys, a great coaching staff and great fans.”

Indeed, the community has not been shy about showing its support during the team’s historic run. Not only did they pack the stands at Countryside for the championship series, but supporters also turned out to a city council meeting on April 30 as local lawmakers congratulated the Cubs for their NOJHL championship and wished them well at nationals. A crowd also gathered at the arena on Tuesday to cheer on players and staff as they boarded a bus to the GTA.

“It has been an amazing few days,” Moxam said. “I couldn’t be any prouder of the guys, our staff and everybody associated with the Cubs organization and it has been amazing, the support we have received not only from our fans in the community, our councillors at city hall and it would be special for us if we can find a way to finish this off and come back as champions, but it would also be special for the NOJHL and for our community.

“It’s not something you get a chance to participate in every day and I think our guys recognize the importance of it. They realize they have the chance to do something very special they’ll remember for the rest of their lives and no one can take away from them.”

Having dealt with their share of playoff disappointment in 2023, Moxam believes his players now have the experience and the mind set to compete on the Centennial Cup stage.

“No matter who the competitor we’re facing on any given night may be, we expect to be in low-scoring games,” he said. “We have some exceptionally talented young men in that room who understand it’s not about them, it’s about success as a group, and the way to achieve that success is to keep the puck out of your own net.

“Over the last month or so, we’ve gotten comfortable in those situations. I wouldn’t say that was the case last year in the playoffs and I wouldn’t say that was the case even late down the stretch this year, but they found a way. Going to nationals, one of the big things that’s going to be important is believing in ourselves, that we can compete with anybody in the country.”

They’ll lean heavily on the experience of goaltender Noah Metivier, the NOJHL Playoff MVP, and Mason Chitaroni, Hudson’s brother and Metivier’s teammate on the Soo Thunderbirds crew that advanced to the tourney in 2022. They’ll also tap into the wisdom of the likes of Oliver Smith, Josh Kavanagh and Ethan Larmand, former OHLers and some of the team’s most consistent skaters in recent weeks.

“You’re not going to find too many people who can tell them they can’t compete and they don’t belong,” Moxam suggested. “As long as that resonates throughout our dressing room, I think we’ll be in pretty good shape.”

Collingwood will be an ideal measuring stick, he said, as a veteran team making its second straight appearance at the event.

“It will be good to face them right off the bat, if we have the mind set of let’s go out and try to dictate the pace of play,” Moxam said. “I heard a good one the other day: if you stand around and watch the other team show you how good they are, they definitely will.”

Photos: John Lappa – The Sudbury Star