No Boarders


By Zach Mulder 

Ryan Vendramin was experiencing a once in a lifetime opportunity. He was on the ice in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, more than 8,500 km from his home in Sault Ste. Marie.

Vendramin was in Russia as a member of the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) Division III Select team. The select team was essentially an all-star team, and was there to compete in a one-week tournament against teams from the U.S., Russia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Vendramin was selected for the team after scoring 59 points in only 13 games as the captain of the Sault Cougars during the 2017-2018 ACHA season. The season happened to be the Sault’s first in the league.

“It was probably the best experience of my life,” says Vendramin fondly. “It was so fun, the guys I was with, we had a great time and a great group of guys. Those are friends I’ll have forever and I’ll never forget it.”

As an Ontario school, Sault College’s sports teams usually compete in the OCAA, from basketball to curling, cross country to golf. But the OCAA doesn’t have a hockey league.

This wasn’t going to stop Sault from strapping on the skates and playing the sport so integral to the city’s identity. So, they found another way and became the only Canadian team in the ACHA.

Brought in to coach the team was Mike Hall, a veteran coach who spent 25 years coaching triple-A midget hockey. Nineteen of those years were spent in Sault Ste. Marie. As a coach there, Hall became the winningest coach in the Great North Midget League’s history. It’s a legacy of success that he hopes to bring to the Cougars.

“I had stepped away [from coaching] for a couple years and was kind of enjoying my time away,” says Hall. “When I’d seen what they were trying to do here, giving kids in northern Ontario an opportunity to get their education and still play competitive hockey, I just thought it’d be something good.”

With Hall’s presence behind the bench, the Cougars first season was a successful one. They finished the season with a record of 12 wins, one loss and two overtime losses. However, it wasn’t all sunshine and goal lights.

“The way that [the ACHA] works is the first year you’re in the ACHA, you don’t qualify for regionals or nationals,” says Hall. “When the first round of rankings came out, we were ranked the number one team in all of the ACHA, but seeing that we were a first-year program we weren’t allowed to participate in regionals or nationals.”

It was a tough reality for the players to face. Despite their hard work and success on the ice, their season was set to end without any sort of post-season hockey. What made matters worse was that they didn’t find out until the season was already underway.

“Last year we were all set on going as far as we could, we wanted to go to nationals,” says Vendramin. “Finding out the news we couldn’t even go was such a bummer. We found out a month and a half, two months, into the season.”

However, that experience has provided more motivation than demoralization, as the Cougars are more determined than ever to reach the championships.

“This year that’s our main goal,” says Vendramin. “The nationals are in Dallas this year, that’s where we want to go.”

But, in order to win you need good players. That means recruiting.

“Most of our kids that play for us are from northern Ontario,” says Hall. “That’s sort of been our focus, to recruit kids from northern Ontario that are used to playing in northern Ontario.”

It’s a system that’s paid off in dividends, with players wanting to come play for the Cougars. The success they’ve had shows just how important recruiting is in the modern college athletics world.

“This year’s team is probably 85 to 90 per cent recruited,” says Hall. “The days of standing outside residence to see who walks in with a hockey stick and asking them if they play hockey are kind of over. We actually hired a scouting staff.”

Despite having a good team and now being eligible for the post-season, Sault still has one major hurdle to overcome: geography. For Sault to play home games, the players on the teams they face all need to have valid passports, otherwise they can’t get across the border.

So far, only eight of their total 32 games being played at home. Luckily, travel for games is not something new to those who grew up playing organized hockey in northern Ontario.

“In the Great North Midget League, it was nothing to travel seven, eight hours to play a game,” said Hall. “A lot of ours now are four or five hours [drive] and all on four lane highways so that’s certainly nice.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by the players, who can spend the bus trips keeping up to date with their courses.

“On the bus it’s usually just homework,” says Bryceton Lalonde, a rookie on the team. “We’re gone mostly every weekend, not really during the school week, so it doesn’t really effect the classes too much. You got lots of time to study on the bus.”

At the start of November, the Cougars traveled to face the Michigan State Spartans, a major U.S. university with brand recognition that eclipses most Canadian schools. The Cougars faced the challenge eagerly and with excitement.

“It’s not at all intimidating,” says Lalonde. “It’s definitely better to play some better teams and help us get better for our own division. If we’re playing poorer teams, then we’re just going to be not getting better and improving.”

The Cougar’s captain, Vendramin, echoed the sentiment.

“We’ve got a pretty confident group of players here,” says Vendramin of his team. “Most of our players have played junior hockey and we’ve played at a high level so we’re not intimidated in any place we go to.”

It’s a confidence that’s found throughout the roster, with the goal of the season being the same regardless of who you ask on the team: first the regional championships in Grand Rapids, then the national championships in Dallas.

It’s a lofty goal, but if their record shows anything, it’s that an achievable one for the Sault Cougars.

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