Story by Jeff Gard/jgsportsmedia.com
Following an extended off-season for his hometown Cobourg Cougars, Erik MacNiel made the most of his time back on the ice recently.
MacNiel’s rookie season with the Cougars ended in early March. Rather than training camp beginning in August and the new Ontario Junior Hockey League campaign starting in September as usual, the team didn’t return to the ice until mid-November for some development sessions.
The Cougars were then able to play seven games of an exhibition series against the Whitby Fury until the Cobourg Community Centre had to be closed the weekend of Dec. 12-13 after users (not related to the team) reported close contact with an individual who had tested positive for COVID-19. The decision was then made to keep the CCC closed until Jan. 11 and that will now be extended due to the provincial lockdown.
While the shutdown prior to the end of the series with the Fury was disappointing, “we were talking about it as a team, even to get that far was great,” MacNiel said.
“It was definitely different (returning to the ice) and just the extended off-season was definitely different, too. I think it benefited a lot of us coming back. We weren’t taking it for granted when we were on the ice. We were really excited out there and I think it gave us a little extra jump. Just to get those exhibition games was lucky.”
There were a lot of changes made to the Cougars roster since the playoffs ended in March and MacNiel is hopeful an OJHL season will still be possible in the new year.
“There’s a lot to be excited about,” the 17-year-old defenceman remarked. “We obviously brought in a lot of new guys and what I see is we’re a way more skilled team this year and the guys are fun to be around. We’re all young and have a good connection that way. I’ve gotten to know a lot of them and they’re great guys on and off the ice.”
MacNiel might also have the opportunity to attend the training camp of the Ontario Hockey League’s North Bay Battalion, which drafted him in 2019.
Getting drafted was the result of a lot of hard work and he was thrilled when he heard his name called by the Battalion in the seventh round of that draft.
“It’s a really good eye-opener and shows you how big the hockey world is and you have to be on your best behaviour at all times,” MacNiel said. “There’s a lot of pressure, but with that you’re young still so it’s okay to make mistakes and you have to grow with it. When you hear your name called it’s a huge relief and it’s very exciting. I remember that day very well.”
This year, North Bay drafted another local player, Dalyn Wakely of Port Hope. MacNiel is certainly familiar with Wakely as they both attend St. Mary Catholic Secondary School in Cobourg and as it turns out have also been beach volleyball players with the Northumberland Breakers.
“I’ve known him for awhile now so it was exciting to see him (drafted by the Battalion),” MacNiel said.
MacNiel is eager to go to North Bay for a chance to play in the OHL, but would still welcome a return to the Cougars, which also keeps his NCAA eligibility intact.
“I recognize that I’m young and I just want to keep my options open,” he said, adding “I would love to play with Cobourg as long as I can because I love being local.”
As the only true Cobourg resident among players on the team, MacNiel is happy to take on a leadership role and show teammates around town.
“I don’t think some of them realize how big of a hockey town we are until they get here and how much the fans are invested and how hard they want to see us work,” he said. “To experience that growing up and going to the Cougar games and now to be on the team, I think it helps telling the boys what it’s like to be a Cougar and what’s expected out of them.”
It has been almost a year since the Rogers Hometown Hockey broadcast on Sportsnet from the Cobourg west harbour and MacNeil had an opportunity to represent the team. During a segment in the crowd, hosts Ron MacLean and Tara Slone interviewed former general manager Adam Yahn, former captain of the RBC Cup championship team Josh Maguire as well as current players last season Mac Lowry and MacNiel.
“It was an awesome event,” MacNiel said. “To be a local kid and experience that and talk on behalf of the team, it was an honour.”