Getting ready

Ed Atwill, far right, head coach of the Northwest Explorers, instructs his team during a practice Wednesday at Fort William First Nation Arena.

A crop of the region’s best boys hockey players in the under-14 AA division have come together to form the Northwest Explorers.

First and only mission: Venturing off to Ottawa for the Ontario Winter Games.

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

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

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

“We invited 40 players. We identified who we wanted and from there I watched a bunch of Bantam AA games. Ronnie (MacKinnon Jr.) was out in Fort Frances, watched the tournament out there. The Dryden kids and the Kenora kids were there. The Kenora and Dryden parents sent us some game film. We watched that. Early December we made our decision on who we were going to take.”

Atwill leaned on old friends Joe Ritson and Mike Figliomeni, players Atwill played with on 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.

Goaltenders Carson Bresolin and Charlie Weiss are joined by defencemen Ben Paddington, Caden McLeod, Dax Laplante, Graeme Tenhunen, Jaden Van Walleghem and Josh Van Voort.

Up front, Ethan Cava, Jackson Walker, Ritson, JJ Kuokkanen, Keegan Bragnalo, Kellan Ozerkevich, Matthew Backen, Figliomeni, Nathan Ogilvie, Nick Rojik and Brayden Hodges round out the squad.

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

Joining Atwill and MacKinnon are assistant coach Mario Filane Figliomeni, trainer Jackson Buffone and manager Carson Smith.

All of the top teams from Ontario will be at the Winter Games, according to HNO technical director Joe Newhouse.

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

After two days of training, instruction and bonding the Explorers flew to Ottawa, bus to Renfrew, Ont., and settle in today. They play two games on Friday. At 1:15 p.m. they face-off against Ottawa Myers, and at 6:30 p.m. take on Sun County Panthers.

On Saturday, Niagara North supplies the opposition. The top two teams from pool A and B play at 6 and 8 p.m. in the semifinals. Northwest is in Pool A. Eight teams total are in the tournament.

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

Atwill is one of a handful of coaches who has a High Performance 1 coaching certification and isn’t coaching this year.

“The opportunity for me was to go out, do some viewing, pick a team, do some practices the week before, do the tournament this weekend and I’m done,” Atwill said prior to Wednesday’s practice at Fort William First Nation Arena. “It’s quick for me. I have my son playing junior out west (Alex, Grande Prairie Storm, AJHL). My wife and I get out there to watch. I didn’t want to commit too much to coaching. This actually fit perfectly.”

The event is high profile.

“Scouting starts young. This is an easy one for scouts, really. Just to get a feel for the age group. . . . They’re going to get a good primary look here,” said Atwill.

Naturally the players, all born in 2009, are excited for the Winter Games.

“I’m really excited, it’s a great experience,” said Ben Paddington, a regular on the Thunder Bay Beavers house league squad and the younger brother of current Thunder Bay North Stars forward, E.J. Paddington.

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

No stranger to traveling, Van Walleghem plays in a league in 209 kilometres down the road.

“We have a league in Winnipeg. We usually have games there every weekend, or they’re coming to Kenora,” said Van Walleghem, a defenceman with the Kenora Thistles. “It’s already been a lot of fun, just meeting everyone new. That’s probably the biggest part. I always think that someone’s watching me no matter what. Practices, I’m giving it 100 per cent no matter what.”

The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out HNO’s participation in this event over the last few years. Former technical director and current HNO executive director Jim Fetter said putting this team together eventually was still in the works. It was Atwill’s job to bring it fruition.

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

Thunder Bay will host the 2024 Ontario Winter Games.