Canadians return to practice, hope to see action soon

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Vagelli Sakellaris will be starting again, if not exactly from Square 1, when the Rayside-Balfour Canadians reconvene at Chelmsford Arena on Thursday for their first post-lockdown practice of 2021.

The local NOJHLers have not been together as a team since Dec. 20, when they defeated the Blind River Beavers 5-1 on home ice, but Greater Sudbury’s move into the Orange-Restrict category of the provincial COVID-19 framework this week will allow Rayside players to get back on the ice, while league and public health officials continue to work on a return-to-play plan.

“It’s good to see that businesses can re-open and things like that, that’s the most important thing, but in our world, it’s good for these kids to get an opportunity to get on the ice and to skate again, and it’s exciting for us, as well,” said Sakellaris, the Canadians’ head coach. “We all signed up to be part of hockey and to be involved, so it’s nice to get back up and running, to get some practices in and, hopefully, to get some meaningful games in.”

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If and when action resumes, Rayside will bring in a record of 3-6-0-1, having split its second-round series with the Beavers after struggling in an opening-round set against the Timmins Rock.

“It’s an odd situation,” said Sakellaris, reached on Wednesday. “We were just starting to get our feet under us and we were shut down for eight weeks, so it’s kind of like starting all over again in September.

“Tomorrow is going to be an interesting practice. We’ll see where the guys are at and see where we can push them and how hard they can push themselves. I don’t know what kind of shape these guys are in, what they have done off the ice and what their bodies can handle at this time. It’s going to be a feeling-out process, I think, trying to establish a rhythm and to get ready to hopefully play some games and to complete the season — whatever that means.”

Rayside’s coach certainly expects a high standard of fitness from his players, especially top performers from the first 10 games and members of his leadership group, though he may be a little more forgiving than usual, considering the difficulties in maintaining a standard training regimen during the month-long lockdown.

“They’re high-performing athletes, they want to compete and they understand the season could start at any time,” Sakellaris said. “I’m sure they have kept them in some kind of shape, but at the same time, you’re limited in terms of what you can do. I don’t know how many long runs you can go on when it’s minus-30 outside and at the same time, gyms were closed, which limits their access to fitness equipment. Some of it’s not their fault, so it’s something to be mindful about. I don’t want to see a bunch of guys with pulled groins because we push them too hard.

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“We’ll take it slow to a certain extent, but at the same time, push as much as we can.”

He hopes to build on the successes from the four-game series against Blind River, which saw the Canadians rediscover the scoring touch that eluded them for much of the way against Timmins.

The top two lines of Nick DeGrazia, Owen Perala and Brady Maltais, and of Oliver Smith, Gavin Brown and Mitchell Martin, played key roles in the Canadians’ victories, with multi-point outings throughout the second round.

“It’s establishing a game plan that we want, with everyone playing the right way, to be a hard-working team, a team that’s hard to play against,” Sakellaris said. “The last couple of years, we have had some skill and we will have to utilize that, but at the end of the day, that only gets you so far. It’s hard work and attention to detail, too.

“We were coming along against Blind River, tightening up some loose areas in our game, so hopefully we can continue to build on that and to get better.”

Rayside’s next game will mark the debut of defenceman Chris Innes, acquired from Timmins just before the holiday break. Canadians general manager Jeff Forsyth has also been watching junior leagues and teams that have delayed or cancelled their seasons due to COVID, in case a player becomes available who might prove a good fit for the organization.

bleeson@postmedia.com

Twitter: @ben_leeson

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