Justin MacLeod and Noah Neeposh take home hockey gold in Italy

Share Button

Like most 11-year-olds, Justin MacLeod of Mistissini and Waswanipi’s Noah Neeposh love to play hockey and to play video games – but it’s safe to say that hockey takes precedence.

After successful tryouts last December, MacLeod and Neeposh were invited to participate in the annual European Summer Series, competing in Bolzano, Italy, this past July 25-28 against players in their age group from all over the world. The trip was both boys’ first taste of international elite AAA competition and the two represented Canada and the Cree Nation as part of team ProHockey, a contingent put together by Toronto’s Pro Hockey Development Group.

ProHockey went 3-1 in round-robin play, their only loss coming at the hands of the Czech Knights, before going on a tear in the elimination round. First, they downed Latvia SHD 4-3 in the quarterfinals, then they shut out and eliminated their Canadian counterparts Draftday Canada 4-0 in the semis.

The gold medal match pitted ProHockey against the Czechs once again, and this time goaltending was the difference. After regular time concluded in a goalless draw, MacLeod and Neeposh’s team managed to kill off a penalty in overtime before winning the game and the tournament 1-0 in a shootout.

“It was so intense!” exclaimed MacLeod’s mother Melissa, who was on hand for the entire competition. “The fans on the Czech side, the chanting [in the final], we really had to work hard to drown them out. We were able to kill off the penalty and it went into shootout. The first player to shoot for our side was able to score and then our goalie shut them out!”

Both boys still talk about it every day, she added.

“The friends they made over the course of the 10 days and how those kids were able to work together to win that championship. Now when they play Xbox they’re playing Fortnite [an online video game] with their teammates. It’s amazing how a video game allows them to maintain a connection with those friends who they made outside of the Cree Nation.”

As a defensive defenseman, MacLeod was recognized by on-ice commentators for his skating ability and consistency as a stay-at-home defenseman throughout the tournament. He was described as a shut-down player who was heavily relied upon to neutralize opposing offensive threats.

Neeposh played forward and made an impact with his speed, backchecking and nose for the net. During their games and in the medal ceremony announcers touted him as a “two-way force”.

The two Eeyouch spoke about their individual experiences in Italy in separate interviews with the Nation.

“It was hard work,” said MacLeod. “You put a lot of effort into it and you have to adjust to the fast pace. My favourite part of the tournament was that we won the gold medal. I was really happy when we won, happy to be representing the Cree Nation and Canada.”

Asked to describe a few of his teammates, some of whom he has kept in touch with online, MacLeod opened up a little bit more.

“There’s number 36, Cooper Dennis, he’s a good player – but he’s American. He likes to take [the puck] up, make some plays and always go for the W,” said MacLeod.

“One guy is from Winnipeg, his name’s Wade, he’s a good player, good at dangling. Then there’s number 86 from Toronto, Evan. His dad was the head coach and he’s actually a pretty good player, he’s like Cooper. There’s also a defense named Evan Williams. He’s a big player from Florida and he skates really fast.”

Neeposh’s reflections on his visit to Italy ranged from fine cuisine to sightseeing as well as a few tense moments on the ice.

“The food tasted different and it was so beautiful,” he recalled. “When I was on the plane I could see the cities we visited and one day we went up one of the big mountains and I could see [the arena] where we played. It felt great! I scored two goals in one of the games, I was in front of the net that time, hit top corner and low post.”

Neeposh said he felt nervous in his first game and didn’t skate as he normally would. “But after I got going I wasn’t scared anymore,” he added. “I became more comfortable and all the players were really good. It’s very different in AAA – they’re faster and very smart. But it was our goalie who kept us going. In the semi-final and the finals, they didn’t score any goals on him.”

So what’s next for these two promising prospects from Eeyou Istchee? Speaking to their fathers, the plan is to keep training, attending development camps and competing at a high level.

“In May, [Justin] tried out for the Nickel City Sons, a PeeWee AAA team in Sudbury, Ontario,” said Justin’s father, Anthony MacLeod. “He’s made that team and he’s going to be playing in the Sudbury region against teams out of North Bay, another team out of Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie and Timmins. He’s already got about five tournaments booked.”

David Neeposh noted that Noah played in Chibougamau for the last two years but that he hopes to go out to Ottawa or Sudbury next year.

“Right now, we’re focusing on this season,” said Neeposh. “He’s been training all summer, even before the tournament [in Italy], and he’s going to stay home and try out for the Cree Nation Bears. We’ll see what happens next season.”

Both Anthony MacLeod and David Neeposh were extremely proud of their sons’ accomplishments and both mentioned that there have been talks about ProHockey returning to Europe next summer to defend their title at the Summer Series, to be held either in Finland or Sweden. For now, it’s business as usual for both boys – training regularly and squeezing in some time for Fortnite when they can.

Share Button

Comments are closed.