Coaching a highly competitive team is never an easy task, but doing so throughout a global pandemic and a season filled with uncertainty has presented a bundle of new challenges for coaches everywhere.
Oshawa native Corey Beer is no exception.
Now in his fourth season with the Timmins Rock of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League (NOJHL), he is doing everything in his power to keep his team motivated and in good spirits as people across the province anxiously await word from the Ontario government.
The current state of emergency and stay-at-home orders are in place until Feb. 9.
The NOJHL had been running quite smoothly under the circumstances leading into the holiday break. Teams were playing in cohorts which had them face off against the same opponent for six-game sets.
The league has been shuttered since the first state of emergency was announced by Premier Doug Ford in early January.
It has now been a long 43 days since the Timmins Rock last skated together. It was a hard-fought and well-earned 3-1 victory over the Hearst Lumberjacks at the McIntyre Arena on Dec. 22.
The win gave them an unofficial series win, taking four of six against their bitter rivals.
For Beer, it feels like that night was ages ago.
“The Christmas break happened and the guys went home. We had them back up here for New Year's, and we were getting ready, I think a day or two from being back on the ice. Ramping back up for a mini modified training camp, getting them ready for January and that Cochrane series, but as soon as Ford put that announcement out that everything was coming to a crashing halt with the lockdown, the guys all got sent home,” he said.
“From that point until now, it's been quiet.”
The Rock have been able to complete 12 games thus far. With a record of nine wins and win losses, they sit in first place in the league standings with 18 points, although not every team has played the same number of games.
The team had the looks of a championship contender, with red hot starts from many of their veterans, significant growth from the rookies, along with elite goaltending. The challenge for Beer and the rest of the Rock's staff is to have the team prepared to jump right back into the fire when given the call.
The team has done regular group chats over Zoom. Players are doing their best to stay in shape with home gym equipment and outdoor rinks.
“It's tough to feel connected to the game right now, if that makes sense. You're just so far away from it,” said Beer.
“We had that win on home ice against Hearst, and you're like, 'What a great night that was' and let's have a great Christmas break and we're back at it in a couple weeks here guys.”
That “couple of weeks” has turned into a tedious game of limbo.
“It wears on you mentally as much as anything right now.”
The NOJHL has been in contact with the clubs in recent weeks, but a return to play is completely out of their hands. Everyone is hoping for good news on Feb. 9.
“There's been chatter. We've had a couple of calls. Peevs (general manager Kevin Peever) and Ted (Gooch, team president) have been sitting in on those and chatting with the league. But their hands are tied.”
The league is committed to continuing the season if the province lifts some of the current restrictions.
“The league has said we're pushing forward. We're going back to it and go. We're all kind of sitting here crossing our fingers and hoping that we get good news on the 9thor 10th. The weight of this decision is coming down to what the Premier says, and we all have to follow suit.”
Beer mentioned that further delays could potentially complicate matters for municipalities in terms of keeping ice in their arenas later into the spring. Is it feasible to keep an ice plant going if nobody can use it?
“There are so many things in the air right now. We're basically sitting at home every day, just praying for some good news.”
With just a dozen games from this season in the book, Beer has squeezed as much juice as possible in terms of video analysis a long time ago. The team's recent Zoom sessions haven't been game focused.
“It's less about the hockey side of things, and more just about chatting with the guys. Letting them have an outlet to contact each other and chat about certain things. There hasn't really been too much hockey talk per se, other than chiming in on the NHL.”
Beer is more than confident that his group will be able to pick up where they left off.
“There hasn't been too much, 'Hey, lets make sure our forecheck is in order.' Our guys are so good, and so up to speed on all of that stuff. Regardless of when we do get the green light to get back to it, its a seamless transition for them. We don't need to work on that stuff. We do video all the time when our guys are going,” he said.
“It's been more, 'Hey how is everyone doing at home? How is the family life for some of the guys who were billeting away and now they're back under mom and dad's roof? And they're like, 'Get me out of here' and stuff like that.
“It's just trying to keep everyone's spirits up and keep a little bit of continuity and camraderie from the dressing room, and trying to keep that going as best we can.”
Some players have messaged him individually to go over certain game situations and video clips, which he said he is happy to do, but no big team sessions.
“Let's just chat and enjoy seeing each other once and awhile.”
The majority of the Rock's roster are back in their hometowns awaiting the next update. Local players Derek Seguin, Riley Robitaille, Landon Deforge, and Harry Clark remain in the community, along with fan favourite and veteran forward Josh Dickson, who hails from Port Perry.
“He stayed up here. He's got a job in town at one of the long term health care centres. He had that all through the summertime as well. I think Dicksy is the one guy who is eventually going to try and run for mayor of Timmins. If he had his choice, that guy would never leave.”
Beer and his girlfriend have remained in Timmins, riding out the lockdown.
“She works at the police station, in records. She's doing that, and me, I'm just going through video, and different stuff. A lot of those NHL Coaches Association webinars that have been going on. Been watching a bunch of them. I bought an exercise bike over the holidays. It's my worst enemy every day.”
With the National Hockey League well underway, it has provided some relief for the hockey-starved.
Beer said he has been enjoying the all-Canadian North Division, which keeps all seven Canadian franchises in the country.
“It does almost feel like a Junior 'A' schedule. You're running into Hearst and Cochrane 10 times a year. It's the same for these guys now.
“I love it. I think it's a pretty neat format. It obviously won't carry on this way after the pandemic, but it's been pretty cool to watch. You get to see Leafs-Habs 10 times. Leafs-Oilers has been great. It's a lot of fun.”
I'ts just not the same as being behind the bench for a big Friday night game at a rowdy McIntyre Arena, something that Beer is itching to do more and more every day.
“It's been tough on everybody.”
He acknowledges it's not just the players and team staff, the city's passionate fanbase is also missing the action and energy generated by the team.
“It just gives everyone a little something to get excited about,” said Beer.
Given the seriousness of the overall situation around the globe, it isn't wrong for some people to feel that sports isn't even close to being categorized as essential, but Beer is a big believer that sports can bring a tremendous sense of pride and positivity for everyone involved.
“I think that's the one thing that is probably lost on the average person who isn't from a sports background, or maybe doesn't care enough about it, but man does it give a lot of good feelings and energy to a person or family when they get to see their son or daughter play a sport, and get emotionally invested in it,” he said.
“Sometimes sports is that needed outlet for people.”
Andrew Autio is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter for The Daily Press. The LJI program is funded by the federal government.
Andrew Autio, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Daily Press