And then there were seven.
After 58 teams started their quest to earn one of six spots available - the Eastern Ontario Wild secured an automatic berth as hosts - the field has been narrowed down to only seven teams who will vie for a provincial title in Rockland, Ont.
The week-long tournament kicks off next Monday - March 28th on your calendar - and will conclude with the provincial championship taking place on Saturday April 2nd at 2:00 p.m. EST.
While the field isn't necessarily reflective of the seven best teams in the province due to equal representation from each association, it projects to be an excellent tournament nonetheless with most of the teams boasting tremendous resume's heading into the penultimate tournament of the season.
In our book, we'll pencil in the Rebels as the easy-to-pick favourite to win it all while London and Whitby are also strong bets to be at least semi-finalists. The other spot could be fairly wide open although the host Eastern Ontario Wild are likely the favourite to occupy that position. At least that's what it says on paper, but as well know, that's why they'll play the games.
HOST | Eastern Ontario Wild (OEMHL)
Regular Season Finish: 1st
Playoffs: Defeated Jr. 67's; Defeated Senators
MyHockeyRankings: 13th (Ontario '01)
Team Profile: Eastern Ontario was easily the class of the OEMHL this season dropping a mere four games in regulation over the course of the regular season. Their record gave them an impressive 11-point cushion on the second place Ottawa Valley Titans for the regular season championship before they backed it up with a playoff crown.
Key Players: Alexandre Hogue is our top-rated skater in the OEMHL loop and is a dynamic presence on the blueline who is a major offensive catalyst for his team. In goal, Zach Paputsakis is a big netminder who is more than capable of holding the team in games and handles pressure situations well.
Biggest Question: The team very much employs an offense-by-committee approach, so will that be enough when playing against some of the top teams in Ontario? Eastern Ontario has come up a bit short on some of the bigger tournament stages this year but this is the tournament they've had their eye on from the get-go so we'll see if the stars align.
ALLIANCE | London Jr. Knights
Regular Season Finish: 1st
Playoffs: Defeated Kitchener 6-0; Defeated Sun County 9-1; Defeated Waterloo 8-4
MyHockeyRankings: 2nd (Ontario '01)
Team Profile: The Jr. Knights had a dominant season racking up 58 wins against only 7 losses in all competitions, including an impressive win at the Vaughan Kings Classic in December in a tournament that featured several top-flight teams. That tournament featured a final win over the Whitby Wildcats which was a bit of revenge after they were knocked out of the season-opening Red Wings' tournament by the ETA Champions. London also had a tournament win in the hometown Wendy Dufton Memorial and nearly made it to the end of the Marlboros tournament before being knocked out in a 3-0 loss to the Rebels, who they'll also meet up with in Rockland.
Key Players: Up front, Aiden Prueter and Ryan Suzuki are key offensive cogs who need to be on their game for the team to click against top-level competition... winger Jeffrey Burridge is a power forward who can really impose his will via his strength advantage to generate chances with a degree of consistency... Mason Howard doesn't play with a lot of flair but he's a capable shutdown defenseman who logs heavy minutes on the back-end.
Biggest Question: Does London have what it takes to knock off the Rebels as it's probable that they'll be faced with the task at some point during the tournament. In a one game showdown, it's certainly not out of the realm of possibility.
GTHL | Mississauga Rebels
Regular Season Finish: 1st
Playoffs: Defeated Toronto Titans 8-0; Defeated Jr. Canadiens 9-1; Defeated Mississauga Reps 8-0
MyHockeyRankings: 1st (Ontario '01)
Team Profile: While they have come up just short in the Red Wings and Marlboros' tournaments, it's pretty hard to call the Rebels' 15-16 season anything other than spectacular - or whichever synonym you feel like using. Playing in the toughest loop in Ontario, the Rebels dropped a grand total of zero games all season long, even including the playoffs. The team lacks an elite high-end forward but more than makes up for it with one of the most impressive collection of defense you can remember in minor hockey and a hard-working demeanour that permeates across all three lines up front.
Key Players: Case McCarthy headlines the defensive corps but Duncan Penman, Michael Vukoejevic, and Evan Brand are all very elite defenders in their own right. They're capable of dominating possession and limiting scoring chances to almost nothing. Up front, Ethan Keppen is the most enticing prospect but the team features no shortage of talent who fit their roles well.
Biggest Question: The Rebels have shown that in a one-game situation, they are beatable. After finding a way to win some fairly tight games against the Reps in the GTHL finals (four straight, in fact) that might quell some of that doubt. Goaltending has been shaky at times and could leave some opportunity for the opposition if Robertson or Sbaraglia aren't on their A-games.
NOHA | North Bay Trappers
Regular Season Finish: 1st
Playoffs: Defeated Timmins 3-0; Defeated Nickel City 3-0
MyHockeyRankings: 17th (Ontario '01)
Team Profile: Putting together a strong team from the northern communities can be a challenge with smaller populations to choose from and temptation for players to relocate closer to the GTA. This isn't the case with North Bay who is a very competitive team with a surprising amount of depth. North Bay hasn't been overly battle tested playing in the north and has a couple of blemishes against higher ranked teams in tournament play, although they have played some tight games in those losses.
Key Players: Payton Vescio is a minute-eater on defense who plays a strong two-way game. He's got strong poise with the puck and is a legitimate threat in the offensive zone with a good shot and strong ability to get it on goal. On forward, Ian Denomme is a heart and soul type of player who can spark a team with his high level of competitiveness and surprising skill.
Biggest Question: Lacking signature wins this season, the pressure will be on North Bay to see if they're truly capable of putting up some results against some of the province's top teams.
OEMHL | Ottawa Senators
Regular Season Finish: 3rd (OEMHL)
Playoffs: Defeated Ottawa Valley Titans; Lost to Eastern Ontario Wild
MyHockeyRankings: 23rd (Ontario '01)
Team Profile: The Senators should be extra appreciative that the OHF's are in Rockland this year as in addition to some short travel time, they wouldn't be here if the OEMHL wasn't hosting. Despite a loss to the Eastern Ontario Wild in the league finals, the Senators secured a backdoor spot in the OHF's as the Wild had already secured their spot as hosts. The Senators may lack high-end talent on their roster but they've put in some very respectable performances this season and were impressive at the Port Huron Silver Stick where they had ties against Belle Tire and the Boston Jr. Eagles as well as a win over the Jr. Canadiens.
Key Players: Reid Russett is still quite raw in a lot of areas of his game but he's got an innate ability to create offense both as a shooter and a playmaker... On the contrary, Justin Jamer isn't much of a threat in the offensive zone but his size and strong willingness to play a physical game give the team a much needed boost when he's on the ice... Bruce Coltart and Ford Ondrovic are similar defensemen who, while lanky, are reliable in their own end.
Biggest Question: The Senators will come in as an underdog so it will be interesting to see how they handle that role. Will they embrace it? Or will they struggle to find success against a slew of high-end teams?
HNO | Thunder Bay Kings
Regular Season Finish: 2nd (Thunder Bay Midget AA League)
Playoffs: Defeated Northwest Ontario All-Stars (2 games to none)
MyHockeyRankings: 22nd (Ontario '01)
Team Profile: Thunder Bay will come into the OHF's as a bit of an unknown commodity as their last real bantam action came back at the Big Nickel in November where they were semi-finalists. The Kings also had a decent run at the Dufton Memorial where their only losses came at the hands of London. While the team lacks star-power, they are the cliche hard working team from up north who give an honest effort from top to bottom.
Key Players: Owen Belisle is a hulking forward who has decent skating ability and strong two-way instincts... Gareth Aegard is the team's standout defenseman who makes good reads and sees the ice well, also showing little hesitation to rush the puck when he has space... Jordan Smith and Christian Cicigoi will tandem in net and should face no shortage of shots in the tournament.
Biggest Question: Not being overly familiar with Bantam AAA teams of late, how will Thunder Bay come out of the gates at the start of the tournament? If they can get a surprise win early on, it could set the stage for something more.
ETA | Whitby Wildcats
Regular Season Finish: 1st (ETA East)
Playoffs: Defeated Central Ontario 6-0; Defeated York-Simcoe 7-3; Won OMHA Championships in Barrie
MyHockeyRankings: 6th (Ontario '01)
Team Profile: If you're simply looking for high-end talent, you're probably not going to find it with this Whitby squad. If you're looking for a cohesive team, you've come to the right place. After losing Ethan Keppen and Ryan Callan to the GTHL, the Wildcats were no worse for the wear as they churned through the 15-16 schedule picking up tournament wins at the Red Wings, Kitchener Blue Line, and OMHA Championships. Heading into the OHF's it would be very unwise to count them out as they have a tremendous knack of staying in games and producing wins when it would seem unlikely.
Key Players: Brock Haley was one of the top performers at the ETA Championships and has formed some excellent chemistry with Jacob DiDanieli to provide the Wildcats with a legitimate top line... Ethan Langevin lacks ideal size in net but is an excellent positional goaltender who is capable of making the type of big saves you need from your goaltender in a tournament like this.
Biggest Question: While they're definitely a favourite to at least make it to the semi-finals, can their offense provide the necessary support if they get into a situation where they need some goals against London or the Rebels?