It’s the end of Thursday practice, and nearly all the players are off the ice. A few stick around to help put away the pucks, and the coaching staff is still there, but most have hit the showers. The players were in good spirits, as they ended the practice with a shootout. Even more amusing to them was the appearance of a middle-aged woman protectively carrying her notepad. Apparently she is the banned-substances tester for the CIS. The players shrug it off. “Whose turn is it to piss in the can?,” one of them jokes.
Still on the ice, and in full uniform, is captain Joey D’Amico, stretching near centre-ice after the practice. While the other players are taking off their uniforms and are preparing to go to class or work, D’Amico still appears focused and in game-mode. With only six games left in the season, and only seven points separating first from last in the division, hockey appears to have predominance in D’Amico’s life.
When I asked if he thought the team was capable of finishing first in the conference this season, a confident grin emerged. His eyes and facial mannerisms indicated that I would be a fool to believe otherwise. He then gave an unabashedly confident reply, “Oh yeah!”
His power of conviction notwithstanding, at this time last year, the team was poised to take first place when they were blown out by their rivals, the McGill Redmen, 6-1, which started a freefall that saw them end the season 13 points out of the top spot. On Jan. 22 of this year, the Stingers found themselves again only a few points out of first, and were shutout by McGill 3-0. Could history be repeating itself? D’Amico assures me of otherwise, “Last year, we played poorly against McGill. (Last week’s game) was our first loss since Christmas. They didn’t play better than us – they just had more lucky bounces. We didn’t get our asses kicked.”
Right now the team is only five points out of first place, which proves they were apt competition for division-leader UQTR, who they tied 3-3 two weeks ago. They also lost a heart-breaker to them last Friday in overtime. The Stingers meet the Patriotes one more time this season (they meet division rivals Ottawa and McGill one more time each), so as D’Amico puts it, “our destiny is in our hands. It’s do or die.”
The main nucleus of the team has been around for three years. But the team has suffered several major losses, including key veterans. Top scorer and third-year player Yannick Noiseux had surgery on his thumb, and the hope is that he can return for the playoffs. Fourth-year vet Luc Messier had surgery on Monday to repair a meniscus tear in his knee, and has played only nine games this season. Third-year veteran, Philippe Paris, has also left the team for personal reasons. “Losing those guys was a heavy blow and there’s a little more pressure,” D’Amico says, “but its up to the rest of us to step up.”
The current NHL lockout has also had a profound trickle down effect on Canadian hockey, including the CIS. One noticeable example is the immediately identifiable NHL player on the ice. He is still wearing his Montreal Canadiens equipment, sans the Habs jersey. Today it’s pesky forward Steve Begin practicing with the team. Earlier in the season it was Jose Theodore, Craig Rivet and Sheldon Souray. “They have been like mentors,” D’Amico says, “they have done something that we dream of doing.”
With the NHL lockout possibly spilling over into next season, NHL GMs may look to the CIS for replacement players. D’Amico isn’t sure if he would suit up as a repla
cement player, but suggests that GMs will be looking towards the other pro leagues before considering University players. But D’Amico is clever with his words, not completely ruling it out. “I don’t know what is going to happen.”
It would also be assumed that other forms of hockey would benefit from the lack of NHL action. Concordia students should theoretically be clamouring for any sort of hockey. But last Sunday’s game at Ed Meagher arena, an important divisional game no less, was in front of a vocal and supportive crowd of 223. Nobody expects Stinger hockey games to capture the hearts and minds of all Concordia students, but when McGill managed to squeeze over a thousand fans two weeks ago against the Stingers, you couldn’t help but wonder if the same could be done at Loyola.
“It pumps you up, to have a good crowd,” he says.
“We did have a sellout in December, against Three-Rivers,” D’Amico points out. It is probable that the Feb. 9 Corey Cup game against McGill will be well-attended, but how many of those are McGill fans or Concordia fans remains to be seen.
D’Amico has other reasons to be pumped up though. He was fortunate enough to receive the first-ever Paul Lemire Memorial Award, which recognizes the winner’s academic performance and work in the community. “I’m busy with both hockey and school, but I’ve worked as a summer coach with younger kids,” he said. This was another honour given to D’Amico, whose hard work has been paying dividends this season. “Joey’s leadership on and off the ice has been paramount this season,” says Stingers head coach, Kevin Figbsy.
In addition to being one of the team’s top scorers the past three years, D’Amico was named the captain of the Stingers by his fellow players at the start of the season. After his first game as captain, he was excited about the prospect of leading the Stingers to its first conference Championship since 1984.
Now, more than halfway through the season, that passion has not dwindled. A leader on and off the ice, D’Amico is ready to lead his team into the playoffs and hopefully a championship, “It will be dogfight until the end… but we have to get it.”