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Exploring the Ontario Winter Games | Sports

A group of the area’s top hockey boys in the AA Division under 14s came together to form the Northwest Explorers.

First and only mission: Depart for Ottawa for the Winter Games in Ontario.

Nineteen players from Northwestern Ontario were selected to represent that side of the province under the Hockey Northwestern Ontario auspices.

Thunder Bay’s Ed Atwill is at the helm as head coach.

“They approached me back in September and asked me to do this,” recalled Atwill, who organized an identification camp in October.

“We invited 40 players. We identified who we wanted and from there I watched a few Bantam AA games. Ronnie (MacKinnon Jr.) was out at Fort Frances watching the tournament out there. The Dryden children and the Kenora children were there. Kenora and Dryden’s parents sent us a feature film. We have observed that. At the beginning of December we made our decision on who we would take.”

Atwill drew on his old friends Joe Ritson and Mike Figliomeni, players with whom Atwill played in the 2005 Allan Cup-winning Thunder Bay Bombers, to round out his knowledge base.

Ritson and Figliomeni’s sons – forwards Jake Ritson and Michael Figliomeni respectively – are two of the 19 Explorers.

Joining goalies Carson Bresolin and Charlie Weiss are defenders Ben Paddington, Caden McLeod, Dax Laplante, Graeme Tenhunen, Jaden Van Walleghem and Josh Van Voort.

Rounding out the roster at the top are Ethan Cava, Jackson Walker, Ritson, JJ Kuokkanen, Keegan Bragnalo, Kellan Ozerkevich, Matthew Backen, Figliomeni, Nathan Ogilvie, Nick Rojik and Brayden Hodges.

Laplante is from emo, and Van Welleghem and Ogilvie are Kenora-based players. The rest are bantam AA players from Thunder Bay.

Atwill and MacKinnon will be joined by assistant coach Mario Filane Figliomeni, coach Jackson Buffone and manager Carson Smith.

All of Ontario’s top teams will be at the Winter Games, according to ENT Technical Director Joe Newhouse.

“You’re going to see the best of that age group in the province,” Atwill said. “All the teams that are committed to this are the best in their industry.”

After two days of training, instruction and bonding, the Explorers flew to Ottawa, took the bus to Renfrew, Ontario and settled in today. They play two games on Friday. They face Ottawa Myers at 1:15 p.m. and Sun County Panthers at 6:30 p.m.

On Saturday, Niagara North supplies the opposition. The two best teams from pools A and B will play in the semi-finals at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Northwest is in Pool A. A total of eight teams are taking part in the tournament.

On Sunday, the consolation final and championship final will take place at the Ma-Te-We Activity Center in Renfrew, home of the tournament.

Atwill is one of only a few coaches who hold a High Performance 1 coaching certification and are not coaching this year.

“The opportunity for me was to go out, see something, pick a team, do some practice the week before, do the tournament this weekend and I’m done,” Atwill said ahead of Wednesday’s practice at the Fort William First Nation Arena. “It’s fast for me. My son plays out west (Alex, Grande Prairie Storm, AJHL). My wife and I go out to watch. I didn’t want to commit myself too much to the coaching. That actually fits perfectly.”

The event is top-class.

“Scouting starts young. It’s really easy for Boy Scouts. Just to get a feel for the age group. . . . You’re going to get a good primary look here,” Atwill said.

Of course the players, all born in 2009, are looking forward to the Winter Games.

“I’m really excited, it’s a great experience,” said Ben Paddington, a regular in the Thunder Bay Beavers House League squad and younger brother of current Thunder Bay North Stars forward EJ Paddington.

“This is something special. Just the surroundings and being in a place I’ve never been before. I try not to think about the scouts,” Ben added.

No stranger to travel, Van Walleghem plays in a league 209 kilometers away.

“We have a league in Winnipeg. We usually have games there every weekend, or they come to Kenora,” said Van Walleghem, a defender at Kenora Thistles. “It was a lot of fun just getting to know everyone. That’s probably the biggest part. I always think someone is watching me no matter what. Exercise, I give 100 percent no matter what.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has wiped out ENT participation in this event in recent years. Former technical director and current ENT executive director, Jim Fetter, said the final composition of this team is still a work in progress. It was Atwill’s job to make it happen.

“I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve heard very good things about the group,” said Atwill. “The way they behave, the way they respect, that’s all I’ve seen so far. That makes me happy. It lets me know I’m going down there and having fun too. It’s not going to be a babysitting job. It’s going to be with young men who want to do well and want to be successful. I’m really looking forward to that.”

Thunder Bay will host the 2024 Winter Games in Ontario.

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