Matt Belanger was accustomed to balancing hockey with school, having done so in fine style during his time at St. Charles College in Sudbury.
Ben Leeson – The Sudbury Star
But after three solid seasons with the Cardinals, a city championship, a pair of NOSSA titles and a high school diploma in hand, he figured it might be time to focus more on his academic efforts.
His parents, Beverly and JP, had other ideas, however, and encouraged him to test his speed and scoring touch with the Rayside-Balfour Canadians of the NOJHL, while continuing his studies at Laurentian University.
“My parents made a big push for me to play again this year, which was awesome,” smiled Belanger, 18. “They have helped me through everything.”
The fleet-footed forward also credited his trainer, Rick Kilganon, for prompting him to test the junior A waters, then helping him to prepare for his debut earlier this fall.
“He got me ready for the season and it has just been great,” Belanger said.
There was an adjustment period, certainly, and he’s still getting used to the speed and the bigger bodies in Northern Ontario’s junior loop, but the 5-foot-10, 165-pounder has every reason to feel good about his start. He’s first on his team, and third in the entire league as of Wednesday afternoon, with 11 goals in 18 games. With 16 points in all, he trails only fellow freshman Nick DeGrazia for the team lead.
“It’s going pretty well,” Belanger said. “Every game, I’m getting more used to it. It’s definitely a faster game, much faster, but I just keep working hard every day and getting better.
“It’s a lot more practices, a lot more games, and my body is still getting used to it, but as the days go on, it gets better and I get more in shape.”
In a trend that could encourage current high-schoolers, Belanger is among a handful of graduates of the local varsity league to make a successful jump to the NOJHL. Ethan Boyd, who turns 18 this coming weekend, had two goals in 11 games with the Blind River Beavers, heading into a tilt on Wednesday, while Josh Boucher, also 18, has three goals and two assists in 15 games with the Espanola Express.
“It has been a lot, with school and hockey together, but I’m doing it, I’m going through it,” said Belanger, who’s enrolled in phys ed and concurrent education at LU. “And I’m really enjoying it.”
Head coach Dan Cuomo has also enjoyed the chance to deploy Belanger when the Canadians need a timely tally. His addition, along with the likes of DeGrazia, Oliver Smith and Mitchell Martin, has provided a significant offensive boost and helped make up for the losses of Kyle Liinamaa and Evan Krassey to graduation after 2018-19, and Carson McMillan to school commitments near the start of this season.
“Matty’s got a shot, an unbelievable shot,” Cuomo said. “He’s got close to an NHL release, he gets it away that quick, it’s on his stick and gone, and he’s fairly accurate with it, too, so if he’s got an open shot in front of the net, he can bury it fairly easily.”
Belanger still has a ways to go in terms of adjusting to the league’s physicality, in the opinion of Rayside’s bench boss, and still tends to have his best games when things open up and he can make use of his speed.
“When we play some of the bigger, more physical teams, I notice that he has some troubles,” Cuomo said. “When we play teams that we can out-skate them, it goes a little easier.”
But that’s no surprise, the Canadians’ head coach added, and to be expected from young players taking a step up in competition. And while many of Rayside’s rookie forwards are offensively skilled, they still have to round out their games.
“If you lose the puck somewhere that you shouldn’t lose it, in our league, the consequence is probably going to be a goal against,” Cuomo said. “That happened a lot in Blind River (site of an 8-6 loss last weekend), and they have to learn that.”
Rayside may sit near the top of the NOJHL West, with a record of 11-6-1-0, but has seen its share of ups and downs. An eight-game win streak from mid-September to early October has been followed by a stretch of .500 hockey, marked by back-to-back big wins over Elliot Lake and more disappointing outings in Cochrane and Blind River, where the locals blew early leads.
A series of injuries and suspensions haven’t helped matters much, but Rayside will have nearly all hands on deck for a visit to the Soo Thunderbirds this Friday at 7 p.m.
“I know we’re one of the better four or five teams in the league, easily, and I also know that, because we’re the youngest team in the league, we have the most potential to grow into something more,” Cuomo said. “The boys just have to buy into the system and start doing it, that’s it. We’ll be fine.”
Like his coach, Belanger sees big upside in his team’s lineup, but knows they need to be more consistent.
“Our last couple of games have been a bit of a struggle,” Belanger said. “But I think we just have to work the kinks out and I think we’ll start to get on a roll again.”
The Canadians visit the Soo Eagles on Saturday, also at 7 p.m., then again next Friday, Nov. 1, at 7:30 p.m. They finally return home Nov. 7 to host the Timmins Rock in a 7 p.m. start.