Kaylob Thibodeau gave himself an early birthday present. A day before turning 9, the youngster scored the winning goal in overtime to give his Batchewana Attack a 4-3 victory over the Six Nations Blackhawks in the Novice boys' championship final at the Little Native Hockey League Tournament.
The event, which is often called the Little NHL Tournament, wrapped up on Thursday in Mississauga, a city located just west of Toronto. This marked the 44th running of the event. This year's tournament attracted a record 178 teams from all across Ontario.
Thibodeau's club, from the Batchewana First Nation, adjacent to Sault Ste. Marie in northern Ontario, traveled about eight hours to get to the tournament, and some squads had considerably longer journeys. Teams from Shoal Lake, located in the northwest part of the province near the Manitoba border, spent more than 20 hours on the road.
Thibodeau, who has been playing hockey for five years, described his OT winner as "awesome." And he deemed it the best goal he has scored in his career. "I deked around two people," he said. "And then I went to one side and shot it in on the other side."
The Attack was able to pull off the victory in large part to the netminding of AJ Borelli. The 8-year-old made numerous spectacular saves in the overtime session. "I was getting really scared," Borelli said. "I thought they were going to score."
As it turned out, the Attack was able to register the victory, keeping its undefeated streak intact at this event. The club won all five of its matches.
The Little NHL Tournament is traditionally held during the province-wide school March Break. Borelli certainly didn't mind giving up his week of holidays to play hockey. "If I was home, I'd just be running around the house and playing outside," he said.
The Attack was coached by Gary Roach, a former pro player who had been selected by the New York Rangers in the fifth round of the 1993 National Hockey League's Entry Draft. "Every game we just got better and better," said Roach, who spent his pro career toiling for various squads in four different minor pro leagues. "And they gutted this one out."
For Roach, it marked the fourth straight year he has coached a club at the Little NHL Tournament. This was his first title."It's just a great feeling," he added. "The kids have been gearing up for this all year."
This marked the third consecutive year the event was staged in Mississauga. But a pair of northern Ontario communities, the Whitefish River First Nation and the Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation, served as tournament co-hosts. Marvin Assineawi, the president of the Little NHL Tournament, said the event has grown considerably since it moved to Mississauga. Prior to that, most years the event was staged in northern Ontario communities.
In the past, Assineawi said some team officials were not thrilled they had to stay, at times, up to 90 minutes away from tournament venues because of a lack of hotel rooms in the community where the event was held. This problem has not existed since the event moved to Mississauga.
"Now you can leave your hotel room and be at any of the tournament venues in 10-15 minutes," Assineawi said.
This has resulted in a boost in participating numbers. Two years ago there were 153 entrants and last season there were 164 participating clubs.
It has been confirmed that the 2016 tournament will also take place in Mississauga. Assineawi is anticipating even more participants by then. "There is still room for growth," he said, adding he wouldn't be surprised to see the tournament increase to 200 clubs.