GOJHL U18 Team Captures Prestigious MacPherson Challenge Title

You never know what is going to happen when you select a team, a coaching and training staff with the best of intentions and play in a hockey tournament that features some of the best Under 18 players in North America. But the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League was able to put it all together and win gold at the 2023 MacPherson Challenge, hosted by St. Andrews College in Aurora last weekend.

London Nationals bench boss Dave Matsos was the team’s head coach and says the GOJHL team was at a bit of a disadvantage and spent hours coming up with a system that  fit the lineup. “You’ve got to be very organized and strategic on what you can fill their minds with. You can’t overcomplicate things and you need to pick a system that fits the team and personalities you have. When I coached with Hockey Canada most of the teams we played like Finland and Sweden were teams that played together much like the tournament we went into. As a coaching staff and management team we had to figure out what ‘D’ zone we wanted to go with and we did the same with the neutral zone and the forecheck.” He adds the goal was really to give the players the best opportunity to win a tough tournament.

Matsos feels the team’s only loss, 3-2 in overtime to Northwood School who they would go on to defeat 2-0 in the gold medal game, was likely nothing more than nerves and they made improvements over the next four games. “From a progression standpoint as the tournament went on, we started shuffling guys around and started figuring out who had chemistry and how we were going to get some guys going. I think over time we just made the adjustments we had to. The first game we played at 9:15 in the morning and I think the guys were a little nervous. The loss certainly wasn’t from as lack of effort. They came out and played hard and probably could have won as we had a lot of good scoring chances.” He adds the kids were a bit awestruck when they first came into the dressing room and spotted the team jerseys. “They walked into the room and saw these jerseys. What a great job the GOJHL did on the colour scheme. They were just beautiful. The guys walked in, and you could see their jaws drop and they realized how much of an honour it was.”

Anyone who has played competitive hockey knows it is not easy to win and it is not easy to win a championship. Matsos says there is a fine line between winning and losing. “Everybody is wired the same way at the start of the year. We want to win our conference and go to the Sutherland Cup. The reality of it is there are so many variables that come into play that have to work in your favour for that to happen. In our case, our healthy scratches were positive, our goalies gave us incredible goaltending, and we were for the most part healthy. All those little things gave us the opportunity to accomplish our goal of winning.”

Matsos can’t say enough about the effort put forth by the GOJHL which allowed the coaching staff to do nothing but coach. “Between Brent (Garbutt, Commissioner) and Tim (Simmons, Director of Operations), those guys were almost over-organized if there is such a thing. They did a fabulous job making sure the kids had great food, the schedule and itinerary was crystal clear to everyone and the accommodations were amazing. They eliminated all the excuses for us coaches which also translated into the players. It was run incredibly well.” He adds his fellow coaches were in sync and on the same page for all five games. “I don’t know if that’s what the league was thinking when they chose us, but it certainly was the way it was. It just turned out to be really good from management to coaching staff to the training staff. We all worked together and when the players see that I think that transfers into the dressing room. When I was a player, I could sense when there was tension in the room. We had so much fun as a staff.”

Matsos was joined on the bench by Stratford Warriors coach Dave Williams, Kitchener-Waterloo Siskins bench boss Mike McIlveen, and Nik Passero from Fort Erie. Joining them was Tyler Scott, Equipment Manger for the St. Marys Lincolns, and Kitchener-Waterloo Siskins Trainer, Greg Henning.