This story will also be published in the Spring 2023 issue of Total Sports Quinte magazine
Members of the Belleville Bulls Duvanco Homes U12 AA team made the most of their opportunity to compete at the Ontario Minor Hockey Association championships April 7-9 in Kingston.
A 7-3 loss to the King Rebellion in the opening game didn’t deter the players, despite the fact they hadn’t faced much adversity throughout the season. Bulls head coach Dustin VanSoelen chalked it up to nerves, not to mention facing a bigger and stronger opponent.
“We got down by a couple goals and that was pretty rare for us this year. We didn’t learn real well how to play from behind because we didn’t have a lot of opportunities,” VanSoelen said. “We just knew from there we had to play our best and run the table. There wasn’t any more room for error.”
Belleville bounced back with a big 9-0 victory over the Milton Winterhawks, a result that later proved crucial towards the goal-differential tie-breaker in the standings. The Bulls defeated the Niagara Falls Flyers 3-1 to complete the round-robin schedule.
There was a three-team tie in the standings, with Belleville and King advancing with a goal-differential of seven while Niagara Falls had four.
In the semifinals, the Bulls prevailed 3-1 over Richmond Hill, a team they had previously competed against in Silver Stick competition that VanSoelen said was structured well defensively, but seemed to struggle offensively.
“They kept the game close and battled hard,” he said.
Belleville was matched up in the OMHA championship game against the Halton Hills Thunder, the last remaining undefeated team during the tournament following a 2-1 semifinal win over King. The Bulls jumped out to a 3-0 lead and allowed minimal shots in the first period en route to a 6-1 victory to capture the OMHA title.
“We talked about one of the toughest things in the tournament of this calibre is to go undefeated – we knew that was going to be a challenge for them, however I think they looked across at our loss early on and they had just beaten that team and I think they might have underestimated the Belleville Bulls.”
VanSoelen said the team talked about opportunities at the beginning of the season and continued that theme throughout the campaign.
“They knew full well to earn a berth to the OMHA championships is somewhat rare for minor hockey players in Ontario and then to get the opportunity to play in the final on a bigger stage, we had a lot of fans come from Belleville,” the coach remarked. “The rink was fairly rowdy and certainly in our favour for support. They came out, they were ready and you could tell they wanted it. They played three full periods, skated right through to the end. When that final buzzer went, you saw the gloves and the helmets start flying off and the celebration was on. It was really cool.”
U12 Bulls players were Brody Randle, Carter VanSoelen, Charlie Crawford, Domenic Di Genova, Elijah Jones, Jack Woods, John Dorey, Kyler Patterson, Lincoln Walt, Lucas Jaymes Dupont, Luke Babbs, MacArthur Wylde, Mark Redden, Rowyn Haley, Ryan Brearley, Ryden Ray and Taguen Doran. Along with coach VanSoelen on the staff were assistant coaches Brian Kehoe, Chad Clark, Jeff Diamond, trainer Josh Jones and manager Holly White.
Looking back, coach VanSoelen considers an early season tournament win in Burlington where the team went 5-0 to be a great building block. The Bulls went on to have huge success in the regular season with a 25-1-1 record.
They didn’t suffer their first loss until the tournament hosted by Belleville Minor Hockey, losing to the Eastern Ontario Cobras, though met them again in the final and won.
In December, the Bulls won the Georgina Regional Silver Stick to qualify for the International Silver Stick Finals in Newmarket in January against some of the top teams from Ontario as well as HoneyBaked from Detroit.
Belleville was edged 3-2 in the semifinals by HoneyBaked, which went on to lose 1-0 in the championship contest. The Bulls went 2-1-1 during the tournament and every win and loss was decided by one goal.
“It was really good hockey for them and sort of showed them what it takes to bring it together in the end,” VanSoelen said.
A strong team foundation, built throughout the season, set the stage for the U12 Bulls to win the OMHA championship.
“What makes the team special is just 17 kids that were willing to come together, buy into a system, certainly defence first was kind of the message all year long that we look after our own end and goals will come,” VanSoelen said. “In the last four games of the OMHA championships against some of the best teams in Ontario, we only allowed three goals. That’s what we feel was sort of the basis of a championship team.”