‘It has been fantastic’ — French River Rapids make most of outdoor opportunity

Players from the French River Rapids take part in a scrimmage on the outdoor rink at the Noelville Community Centre on Friday January 21, 2022. John Lappa/Sudbury Star/Postmedia Network PHOTOS BY JOHN LAPPA /John Lappa/Sudbury Star

Municipality set up rink in Noelville during COVID shutdown

Ben Leeson – The Sudbury Star
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Far from fading into the landscape during COVID-19, the French River Rapids have become an ever more prominent part of the sports scene in Noelville and the surrounding area.

That’s due in part, most certainly, to the team’s improved on-ice fortunes. With a record of 17-13-1-0 this NOJHL regular season, the club has already surpassed its previous highs for both wins and points, and is on pace to secure the first playoff berth in the seven-year history of the franchise. Veteran forward Cooper Bowman, the Rapids’ captain, leads the league in scoring, followed closely by longtime teammate Levi Siau, while the likes of Dominik Godin, Chase Lefebvre and Cole Sheffield have emerged as some of the league’s more promising young talents.

Also key, however, has been local support for the once-struggling squad, which helped convince the Rapids’ out-of-town players to stay in the community even as the Ontario government enacted a three-week closure of most athletic facilities, including all of the NOJHL’s Ontario-based venues.

Eagerly awaiting a Feb. 4 return to action, the Rapids have stayed sharp and stayed active in the meantime on an outdoor rink and skating path, constructed by the Municipality of French River next to their home arena, Noelville Community Centre.

“It’s definitely nice to have this,” said Bowman, a 20-year-old native of Courtice, Ont. and one of the Rapids’ all-time leaders in games played with 147, having spent all four years of his junior career in navy, red and white. “It gives all the boys a chance to skate and to keep the legs going and the cardio up for the season. We also get to be involved in the community, as the little ones will go out there and skate around, so it’s good all around.”

Players have trained in groups of no more than 10, to keep in line with provincial guidelines, meeting up about four times per week.

“Most of the time, we’ll go out there for a few hours, play some shinny, work on our shots, things like that,” Bowman explained in an interview last Friday. “We do smaller groups, run a few practice drills and things like that, but it’s a little more individual skill and helps you work on your personal game a lot more.

“You definitely run into some challenges. Today, it’s minus-18 and you definitely have the wind chill in effect, but it’s good, because you get fresh air and the boys seem to enjoy it.”

Rapids goaltender Brady Dyer, an 18-year-old Stoney Creek, Ont. product, is well aware that not all his junior hockey peers have had the same opportunities to train, all while keeping in close contact with their teammates, and he hasn’t taken the chance for granted.

“To be able to get out there and to feel the puck hit you, it’s a great feeling,” Dyer said. “As a goalie, I have noticed a couple days off really affects your muscles, makes them really tight, so having that to keep loose, it really helps a lot. It’s a big difference, for sure.

“I don’t think the team has ever been closer. There’s a big group of us and when you’re in a small town like this, you have to stay close and keep it like a family, and that’s what  we have been doing really well.”

Asked about the team’s unprecedented success, freshman forward Lefebvre pointed to the Rapids’ collective commitment to a two-way game, as well as the off-ice chemistry highlighted by Dyer.

“I don’t know about past years, but this year, we have played a 200-foot game,” said the 17-year-old North Bay native, who is among the league’s rookie scoring leaders with 33 points in 30 games. “We’re all really close and when you’re best friends with your linemates, it’s always going to work out, and we have a lot of talent.”

He appreciates the advice of veteran NOJHLers such as Bowman, Siau, Griffin Simpson and Brandon Hass, who round out French River’s leadership group.

“You ask them any question and they can help you,” Lefebvre said. “They know this league very well and they have played junior for a while, so they know everything and that helps a lot.”

Eighteen-year-old netminder Justin DiLauro, who grew up not far from Bowman in Whitby, Ont., has been made to feel more than welcome in French River since arriving in Dec. 3 trade with Markham of the Ontario Junior Hockey League.

“The town has been great, allowing us to do this,” DiLauro said. “It’s not just for us, the rink is built for everyone around the community, so we gather as a group of guys here and we go out and enjoy our time with the kids and parents in the community.

“A lot of us have become a lot closer as a core, as well, because we went around the room and we made a group decision to stay, to work on ourselves and just become tighter, and it has been fantastic. As hockey players, we’re continuing to grow, and as people, we’re continuing to grow, which is awesome.”

It would be easy enough to let frustration set in as restrictions have tightened, then eased, then tightened again over nearly a two-year period, but DiLauro said the Rapids, with guidance from owner and head coach Paul Frustaglio, have managed to stay upbeat.

“You have to want to wake up and go to the rink every day,” DiLauro suggested. “Our management and our staff here have been awesome, to allow us to get whatever we need to stay in shape and keep us coming back. All of the guys in the room have given each other reasons to come back, to hang out with the guys and to go on the ice, and we all want to push each other to be better.

“It’s all about routine. You wake up and you keep in mind that you’re here to play hockey and to have fun.”

Bowman believes that approach will pay off once the league returns to play. The NOJHL is set to restart on Feb. 3 with a pair of games — Cochrane at Hearst and Espanola at Greater Sudbury, both at 7:30 p.m. — before featuring five contests the following day, including the Rapids’ return to home ice against Elliot Lake. Game time is 7 p.m.

Arenas will be limited to 50 per cent capacity, up to a maximum of 500, meaning the French River club can admit 225 fully vaccinated fans — roughly what the club drew under similar restrictions last fall.

Teams will return to indoor training a few days earlier, on Jan. 31.

“We’re definitely very eager, because an indoor rink is a bigger ice surface and we’re in our element,” Bowman said. “We’re really excited for the season to start back up.”

French River mayor Gisele Pageau shares that enthusiasm, and she was happy the municipality could help the Rapids prepare for their return to action.

“With the arena being closed for three weeks that we knew of for sure, one of our staff workers had asked why don’t we do an outdoor rink?” Pageau recalled. “The kids can come out and play, get some fresh air, plus the staff are not as busy, because the arena is closed and there’s no maintenance to do, and council thought that was a great idea, so our staff went out there and got the rink done, we contacted the Rapids and let them know what was going on and it has been great.”

Much like an outdoor rink in nearby Alban that was built last year and is now maintained by volunteers, the Noelville facility has seen extensive use by residents of all ages.

“What’s so nice is the Rapids get to meet young people, some of their biggest fans, because they’re right there,” Pageau said. “They’re close by and they get to watch them practise and they get to talk to them, so it’s a win-win for everybody.”

She hopes to see the rink remain open, like the one in Alban, year after year.

“When you start something good and people love it, it’s pretty hard to take it back,” Pageau said.

“It will be up to the new council to make that decision, but I think it’s a great thing. The Alban one is staying for sure, because it’s staffed by volunteers, and for the Noelville one, there’s a list of people who would probably be happy to keep it going.”

She hopes the bond between the NOJHL franchise and local residents continues to grow stronger, as well.

“I really have to hand it to the Rapids,” Pageau said. “They have been so good to our community. For instance, I run our local food bank here in French River and we one day, we received trailers of food and it was unexpected, a huge donation by the Britt Community Centre, which had an overload of food as asked us if we could use it. We said sure and we sent trailers there, but man oh man, unloading that stuff and sorting it out is hard work. I called Paul, the owner of the Rapids, to see if I could get a couple of them to help me out, and the next thing I know, I had just about the entire team. It was very heart-warming.

“They’re giving back to the community. We love to help them and I know they love to help us. It’s a good thing.”

Other featured games on Feb. 4 include the Greater Sudbury Cubs at the Soo Thunderbirds, the Powassan Voodoos at the Soo Eagles and Timmins Rock at the Espanola Express, all at 7:30 p.m., as well as the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners at the Hearst Lumberjacks at 8 p.m.