It has been a sunny and warm summer up here in the Sault Ste. Marie area. And as summer heads towards autumn and the annual change in seasons, games of hockey will soon be played.
At any rate, as we await the start of the 2019-2020 campaign, let us take a look at a number of area teams ahead of the upcoming season.
SOO JR. GREYHOUNDS: There is big change with regard to the local presence within the Great North Midget Hockey League.
That is, Sault Ste. Marie will be represented by one team — a major midget entry — in the Great North for the 2019-2020 season. The Soo iced minor midget and major midget teams the past two seasons and both were known as the Thunderbirds.
The moniker has since been changed to the Soo Jr. Greyhounds and the major midget squad will be coached by Jamie Henderson, who was bench boss of the Soo Minor Thunderbirds in 2018-2019.
Henderson played a significant role in the development of two plum defensemen who were among the top 44 picks at the 2018 Ontario Hockey League priority selections draft. Jack Matier went in the first round, 21st overall, to the Ottawa 67’s while Tyler Dunbar was a third-round pick, 44th overall, by the Flint Firebirds.
As for the 2019-2020 edition of the Soo major midgets, newcomers of note include 2002 birth year defenseman (and team captain) Mateo Perri, who was the top defender in the local high school league in 2018-2019 while skating for the Korah Colts.
The incoming, 2003 birth-year class includes goalie Gavin Disano and forwards Jake Kovacs, Ethan Esposito and Dylan Szabo while goalie Noah Metivier, defensemen Connor Toms and Michael Beltrano and forwards Devin Mauro and Tyson Doucette are among the rookie skaters with 2004 birth dates.
In all, 19 players are currently signed for the 2019-2020 edition of the major midget Jr. Greyhounds with one card still open.
SOO INDIANS: Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario resident Patrick Carricato has returned to coach the major midget team that plays within the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association after three years away from it.
The 47-year old Carricato, who also previously coached the Soo Thunderbirds of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League, said he is refreshed and refocused and determined to return the Indians to winning ways after a couple of seasons at the lower end of the MAHA scale.
Venerable Michigan Soo resident Mike (Zeke) Kaunisto remains at the helm of the major midget Indians as their long-serving general manager.
SOO EAGLES: About to enter his 10th season as general manager and part owner, Bruno Bragagnolo has helped to make the Eagles one of the best-run and more-respectable franchises in the 12-team Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.
Averaging in excess of 600 fans per home outing at venerable Pullar Stadium in the Michigan Soo, the Eagles have moved about 100 players on to higher levels of hockey in the time that Bragagnolo and co-owner Ron Lavin have been at the helm.
Looking ahead to the upcoming season, among the returnees who Bragagnolo said have indicated they will be a part of the Eagles in 2019-2020 are goalie Shane Brancato and forwards Dominic Skrelja, Caleb Wood, Kyle Quinn, Raf Praysner, Owen Shier and defenseman Cam Parrott.
Brancato finished as the Eagles no. 1 goalie in 2018-2019 with a regular-season record of 13-7-3 alongside a 2.75 goals against average and .918 save percentage.
Meanwhile, Skrelja netted 18 goals in just 40 games while Wood dented the twine 19 times in 55 outings, Quinn scored 14 times in 52 games and Praysner had 14 tallies in 54 contests.
Wood, Praysner and Shier all played major midget hockey in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario before signing with the Michigan-based Eagles last season. Of note, Praysner has dual North American citizenship.
As for the dependable Parrott, he played in 51 games for the Eagles last season and with a 2001 birth date, was the youngest defenseman on the team.
The Eagles have also signed rookie forward Jacob Bumbaco, who played for the Sault, Ontario high school hockey champion St. Mary’s Knights last season.
And the Eagles have also committed to rookie goalie Ryan Gilmore, who was a first-team, all-state, Division 1 high school all-star while playing in the Lansing, Michigan area in 2018-2019.
Former Lake Superior State University Lakers national championship player and assistant coach Doug Laprade will return to the Eagles for a second season as head coach in 2019-2020.
A good, solid individual, Laprade carries a tidy reputation as a development coach.
SOO THUNDERBIRDS: As the cross-river Eagles finished third on the attendance chart with a per-game average of 634 last season, the Thunderbirds finished at the bottom of the 12-member NOJHL, averaging a mere 198 fans per outing.
But while the Thunderbirds attract few fans beyond family members and friends of the players, the on-ice product is a different story.
The Thunderbirds finished in first place during the 2018-2019 regular season before being upset by the Hearst Lumberjacks in the seventh-and-deciding game of the league championship series.
Standout coach John Parco is set to return for a third season as the Thunderbirds bench boss and he figures to have a number of high-end, holdover players to work with including goalie Colin Ahern, defenseman Tristan Cicchello and forwards Nick Smith, Nolan Ford and Avery Rebek.
As far as rookies of note, hard-working forwards Brock Santa Maria and Kurtis Rogers are on board with the Thunderbirds for 2019-2020 as both carry on a progression from the local minor hockey ranks.
Rogers was captain of the Soo major midget entry in the Great North Midget Hockey League last season.
BLIND RIVER BEAVERS: There is no reason to expect that the small-market NOJHL franchise will not be a contender in the West Division again this season.
After all, coach-general manager Kyle Brick and his trusted, jack-of-all-trades assistant Craig MacDonald, have totally turned around the fortunes of the Beavers since taking over in Blind River in 2016.
Since 2016, the Brick-MacDonald duo has led Blind River to records of 32-20-4, 33-19-4 and 25-24-7 for an overall mark of 90-63-15.
By comparison, in the years before Brick and MacDonald arrived in Blind River, the Beavers had respective records of 10-42-4, 0-51-1 (yes, 0-51-1) and 10-40-4 for an overall mark of 20-133-9.
SOO GREYHOUNDS: Having averaged 45 wins over the past seven seasons, the Hounds may be headed for a decline in the victory department come the 2019-2020 season.
Then again, it may not be wise to bet against a team that has been such a model for consistency over seven successive seasons under three different head coaches, namely Sheldon Keefe, Drew Bannister and now, John Dean.
All in all, at least at this stage of the pre season, the Soo is seen as a third-place team in the five-member West Division and a sixth-ranked club from among the 10 who make up the Western Conference.
Still, if Barret Hayton does not make the National Hockey League with the Arizona Coyotes as a 19-year old, he will give the Greyhounds a superstar OHL forward to build around in 2019-2020.
The Hounds do have others who are on the cusp of being very-good OHL players, notably defensemen Ryan O’Rourke and forwards Jaromir Pytlik, Cole MacKay, Ryan Roth and Joe Carroll.
SAULT COLLEGE COUGARS: After winning the Division 3, American Collegiate Hockey Association championship in 2018-2019 — and as the only Canadian school competing — the Cougars will move up to the Division 2 level in 2019-2020.
Intense, albeit reserved coach Mike Hall be back of the bench to lead the Sault College men and the Cougars will also welcome back scoring machine Ryan Vendramin.
Vendramin, the 23-year old captain of the Cougars, was named most valuable in the Division 3, ACHA ranks last season. And for good reason.
Vendramin netted an amazing 55 goals, 41 assists, 96 points in 24 regular season games as the Cougars roared to an impressive record of 23-2-1.
Sault College then posted a perfect 5-0 record to win the Division 3, ACHA championship at the national tournament in Dallas, Texas. Vendramin tallied 13 goals, 7 assists, 20 points in the five games.
Add up the numbers and through 29 games over the course of the 2018-2019 season and Vendramin had amazing totals of 68 goals, 48 assists, 116 points.
LAKE SUPERIOR STATE LAKERS: The Lakers of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association are coming off of a 2019-2019 season in which they posted an overall record of 23-13-2 and won a playoff round.
The winning record was the first by Lake Superior State since the 2011-2012 season when Jim Roque was the head coach.
The Lakers prepare to skate into the 2019-2020 season in what will be Damon Whitten’s sixth season as head coach.
Whitten has indicated that he feels the Lakers will be a WCHA threat again in 2019-2020.