By Sam Laskaris
BRACEBRIDGE – Mitchal Payette is making a rather substantial commitment in order to play his final season of junior hockey eligibility.
The 20-year-old defenceman, who is from the M’Chigeeng First Nation, had spent the past two seasons with the Espanola Express, members of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League (NOJHL).
As for this season, Payette, who is also a first-year student at Sudbury’s Cambrian College, finds himself toiling for the Bracebridge Pioneers, who compete in the Canadian Premier Junior Hockey League (CPJHL).
Payette was originally planning to suit up for the Express again this season. But he said he decided to leave the Espanola organization following some pre-season disagreements with Express coach Tom McCarthy, a former National Hockey League player.
Since he’s now also a student in Sudbury, Payette, a 5-foot-11, 250-pound defenceman, would have had a commute of just under one hour to Espanola if he was still on the Express roster.
But now that he’s with the Pioneers, Payette has to travel two and a half hours to get to Bracebridge. The Pioneers play the majority of their contests on the weekend allowing Payette to juggle his academics and hockey.
“It’s not as good as the NOJHL,” Payette said of the CPJHL, a 10-team circuit that was founded in 2016.
“Some teams have maybe one line that can compete with teams in the NOJHL. But I still love it. I love playing the game.”
Though he has not officially been released by the Express, Payette was able to sign with the Bracebridge squad since the CPJHL is not sanctioned by Hockey Canada. Instead it is sanctioned by the United Hockey Union, which is part of the American-based Amateur Athletic Union.
After walking away from the Express, Payette thought he wouldn’t be playing anywhere in his final season of junior hockey. But former Espanola associate coach Jason Rapcewicz recommended Payette to Pioneers’ coach/GM Bernard Cheverie.
“I’m just happy to be playing somewhere,” said Payette, who has earned six assists in his first 15 games with the Pioneers.
Though this is Payette’s final season of junior hockey, there is a possibility he could be continuing his career next season. He said Cheverie has extensive contacts overseas in the hockey world and the pair have had some preliminary discussions that could lead to Payette possibly landing a spot with a pro club somewhere.
“It’s in the back of my mind right now,” Payette said of the possibility of playing pro, perhaps in Europe. “I’d have to talk to my parents about it if that time comes.”
Even if a pro opportunity did arise, Payette would have to weigh the pros and cons of any potential deal. He might prefer to stick with his schooling as he is now aspiring to be either a police officer or a teacher.
He’s currently taking general arts classes at Cambrian while trying to determine which career path to pursue.
Cheverie is thrilled Payette has joined the Bracebridge organization this season.
“He’s pretty committed,” Cheverie said. “It’s a long trek for him to get here.”
When he ventures to Bracebridge, Payette stays with his coach in a house he rents. Some other out-of-town Pioneers’ players also stay at the coach’s house.
“He brings leadership to our club,” Cheverie added of Payette. “And he’s very calm and very good with our young players. They are always calling him.”
The Bracebridge squad has also had its share of success this season.
With a 14-7-0-1 record, the Pioneers are currently in third place in the league’s five-squad West Division.
Bracebridge, which has 30 points, is trailing the division-leading Essa Stallions, who have 46 points, and the Coldwater Ice Wolves, who have 37 points.
The West Division also includes the Lake Erie Eagles and the Seaforth Generals.
Meanwhile, the league’s five-team East Division consists of the Almonte Jr. Sharpshooters, Smith Falls Settlers, Maniwaki Mustangs, Grey Highlands Hawks and Ottawa’s Eastern Ontario Hockey Academy (EOHA).