June 1 is the official start of the junior hockey season in Canada, following the conclusion of national championship tournaments (except when they’re cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
It’s when general managers around the country can begin to talk trade again. And Victoria Grizzlies GM and head coach Craig Didmon has been doing just that this week, hoping to re-tool a team that was swept from the first round of the B.C. Hockey League post-season in early March.
On Wednesday, the Grizzlies’ hockey boss added another big piece to his forward group, swinging a deal with the Oakville Blades of the Ontario Junior Hockey League for the rights to veteran forward Thomas Maia. Going the other way to Oakville is 19-year-old forward Brendan Bowie, who just finished his rookie season in Victoria after being signed out of St. Andrew’s College prep school in Ontario last summer.
After an impressive season in Oakville two years ago, helping lead the Blades to the league title and a berth in the national championship tournament, Maia, who’ll turn 20 late next month, headed to NCAA Div. 1 hockey with the Rochester Institute of Technology.
But before he could even get an official game in with R.I.T, a fluke on-ice accident last fall put him on the sidelines for the entire 2019-20 season.
“Really early on, maybe the third game, I was out taking the morning skate and skating around strapping on my helmet when I caught a groove in the ice and fell awkwardly and hard to the ice,” Maia recalled Wednesday, over the phone from his home in Milton, Ont.
“I just remember a real sharp pain and could barely move my leg.”
Turns out Maia broke his fibula (small bone in the lower leg) and tore the muscles surrounding it. He hasn’t played a game of hockey since.
“Was out five months and then just when I got back practising, this whole virus thing hit and everything got shut down. Was just a real bad year for me.”
But last week, things started looking up again for the speedy five-foot-10, 165-pound winger who racked up 58 points in 53 regular season games for the Blades two seasons ago, and another 17 in 19 playoff games as he led Oakville to the 2019 RBC Cup (now Centennial Cup) tournament in Brooks, Alta.
He has finally got a place to play hockey again and some lofty goals.
“I’m super-excited about coming to Victoria. I’ve got a fresh start again, a great place to play, so it’s time to get back to winning again. Time to take another run at the national title.”
And he’ll have a familiar face around to help him. Maia and Grizzlies veteran Alex DiPaolo went to high school together in Mississauga, playing hockey alongside one another along the way.
“Alex is a big reason I’m going to Victoria,” said Maia.
“When he heard I was taking a year off school and needed a place to play, he spoke highly of Victoria, how beautiful the city is and what a great organization it is, so my decision was easy.
“And everyone knows the BCHL is the best Junior A league in Canada so it’s going to be a great challenge for me coming back from a long layoff.”
Trying to get himself back in top shape during a pandemic hasn’t been easy, though.
“It’s definitely been strange,” he added. “I’ve had to build a home gym and I’ve been out playing lots of roller hockey and working on jumping and stuff to get my leg back to where it was.
“And just now the rinks are starting to open again here so hopefully I can get on the ice soon.”
Maia is lucky that last season was considered a red-shirt year for him so doesn’t count as a year of NCAA eligible hockey and he’s now free to chase down another scholarship.
“I liked it at R.I.T., but it’s just time for a fresh start somewhere and hopefully, if I have a strong season in Victoria, all the other stuff will take care of itself.”
For Didmon, it was tough to trade away a prospect like Bowie, who is NCAA committed to St. Lawrence University in 2021, but it was hard to pass up a proven winner like Maia.
“Thomas has had a real good junior career so far, leading his former team to the RBC Cup and getting the shot at college hockey before unfortunately suffering that injury,” Didmon said.
“But he’s rejuvenated now and ready for a fresh start on the West Coast and he brings some more veteran offence to our hockey club. And more than just his talent, he brings three seasons of playoff experience including being a big part of that RBC Cup run, so he will be invaluable to our team’s quest for the national championship.”
The Grizzlies also shipped out another 19-year-old forward on Wednesday, sending Bryce Anderson to the Alberni Valley Bulldogs for a player development fee. Anderson, who came to Victoria from the Trail Smoke Eaters last summer, had six goals and 18 assists in 51 games for the Grizzlies last season, but was a healthy scratch in the playoffs.