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HNO's Northwest Explorers have Winter Games medal hopes

With just four teams in the tournament this weekend, the local all-stars will play for a medal one way or the other on Monday.
The Northwest Explorers will take part in the Ontario Winter Games in Thunder Bay, starting on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. (Leith Dunick,

THUNDER BAY – A couple of practices in and Ed Atwill says he likes his team’s chances.

Atwill was called on to coach Hockey Northwestern Ontario’s Ontario Winter Games entry, known as the Northwest Explorers, a team of mostly 13-year-olds who will take on three other teams in the hunt for gold this weekend at Fort William Gardens.

“To be honest, it’s going to be a lot on the kids,” Atwill said on Thursday when the group got together for a practice at Fort William First Nation Arena.

“They’re a skilful group and we can’t do too much in three practices. I’m just happy we have a highly skilled, mature group of kids that I think will do very well.”

It’ll be an offence-first playbook, he added.

“I love the creativity that the group has, so I’m going to encourage the defencemen to really get into the play. I don’t want them growing roots on the blue-line. I want them to play. Our forwards are highly skilled and can move. I expect a lot of offence and a good offence is something that’s valuable. You don’t see a ton of it out of our kids the last two years.”

The team is a mixture of players from Thunder Bay, Dryden Kenora and Fort Frances, and includes four players from the Thunder Bay Kings program.

Jace Voortman said he can’t wait to take to the ice against the Ontario Minor Hockey Association’s Credit River Capitals at 9 a.m. on Saturday.

“It’s a really good experience. I think the boys are going to love it and it’s going to be a lot of fun,” said Voortman, a forward with the Kings U14 squad.

Cooper Disher, who also plays for the Kings, has high expectations.

“I think we’re going to do pretty good. Hopefully we can get a chance at the gold medal,” he said.

One way or the other, with just four teams competing, the Explorers will play for a medal on Monday. Other teams taking part include Hockey Eastern Ontario’s Ottawa Myers Automotive and the Northern Ontario Hockey Association Selects, a team of players from the Sudbury area.

Kenora’s Sullivan Bowen said it’s been a quick transition, especially for players from the region, but the team is already starting to gel in practice.

“It’ll be fun. It’s a new group of guys I haven’t played with before, so it should be a good time,” he said.

“I’ve been here all week practicing with the boys.”

Brady Nash, the third of four players from the Kings, said the team is aiming for top spot and he doesn’t see any reason why they can’t claim the top of the podium on Monday afternoon.

“I think we’re going to do pretty good. We got third in the provincials last year. It’s pretty much the same team, but we’ve got a few new and improved guys. It’s going to be fun,” Nash said.

The Explorers will take on Ottawa at 6 p.m. on Saturday and the Sudbury Selects on Sunday at noon. The semifinals are set for 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. that night, with the bronze-medal game slated for 10 a.m. on Monday and the gold-medal game to follow at noon.

All games are at Fort William Gardens and admission is free.

Leith Dunick

About the Author: Leith Dunick

A proud Nova Scotian who has called Thunder Bay home since 2002, Leith is Dougall Media's director of news, but still likes to tell your stories too. Wants his Expos back and to see Neil Young at least one more time. Twitter: @LeithDunick
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