Birds, Beavers set to skate


Randy Russon
By
November 8, 2020
Soo Thunderbirds and Blind River Beavers are tentatively slated to begin regular season play this weekend with a home and home set. (Photo by Bob Davies)

Here we go.

Nearby rivals separated by a mere 80 or so miles, Soo Thunderbirds and Blind River Beavers of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League are among those who are back in business.

Following a series of exhibition matches — including a pair between the Soo and Blind River — the NOJHL as a league is slated to begin regular season play this weekend, including a home and home series between the Thunderbirds and Beavers.

The league, along with amateur hockey across the nation, had been dormant from game play since back in March relative to the COVID-19 pandemic.

First up, as the Thunderbirds are poised for the start of the regular season, is a glance at the local laden team that will represent Sault Ste. Marie for the 2020-2021 campaign.

The local lads, in alphabetical order, are as follows.

Michael Chaffay. A 2002 birth year forward, Chaffay was second on the Soo Jr. Greyhounds and fifth on the Great North Under 18 AAA Hockey League scoring parade in 2019-2020 with 34 goals, 19 assists, 53 points. The affable youngster paid his dues by playing three full seasons of U 18 hockey in the Great North and improved his overall game under the coaching of Jamie Henderson.

Jacob Doucette. Oh, brother. A 2001 birth year defender, Doucette will join his younger brother, 2004 birth year forward Tyson Doucette, in the Thunderbirds lineup. The older Doucette has prior NOJHL experience of 63 games over two seasons with the Espanola Express, totaling one goal, nine assists, 10 points while racking up 89 minutes in penalties.

Tyson Doucette

Tyson Doucette. A 2004 birth year forward, the 5-foot-8, 140 pound Doucette — he has grown several inches over the past few months — had modest totals with the Jr. Greyhound U 18 team in 2019-2020, totaling 13 points from two goals and 11 assists in 24 regular season games. He has strong athletic bloodlines from both sides of his family and is known for his hockey smarts. The youngster makes the jump to the junior A ranks despite having two seasons of midget eligibility remaining. But Thunderbird management and the coaching staff has deemed the determined Doucette to be ready for the next step.

Kaden Dundas. A 2003 birth year defenseman, Dundas is moving up to the Thunderbirds and the NOJHL after two seasons with the Korah Colts high school hockey program under the good coaching of Greg Arbour.

Parker Morgan. A 2000 birth year forward, Morgan played the past two seasons for the Sault College Cougars of the American Collegiate Hockey Association where he totaled 16 goals, 20 assists, 36 points in 56 games while greatly developing his game under crackerjack coach Mike Hall.

Ethan Novello. A 2003 birth year forward, Novello is known for his work ethic. Novello spent the 2019-2020 season playing high school hockey for the St. Mary’s Knights. In the two seasons prior, he skated for the Soo entry in the Great North Under 18 AAA Hockey League and with the AA level Root River Rangers.

Avery Rebek. A 2000 birth year forward, Rebek netted 15 goals, 27 assists, 42 points as a top performer for the Thunderbirds in 2019-2020. He has good bloodlines as the son of former Ontario Hockey League (Owen Sound Attack) and European pro defenseman Jeremy Rebek. A true team leader, young Rebek will serve as the Thunderbirds captain this season.

Kurtis Rogers. A 2001 birth year forward, the relentless Rogers hustled his way to 11-3-14 totals for the Thunderbirds last season. Look for Mr. Rogers to again be one of the hardest working players in the neighbourhood.

Brock Santa Maria. Another 2002 birth year forward, Santa Maria came through with 7-12-19 numbers despite limited ice time as a rookie last season. He has the potential to be an increased scoring threat this season, having been a leading scorer during his days with the Soo entry in the Great North under 18 AAA loop.

Cooper Smyl. A 2002 birth year forward, Smyl produced 31 points, including 16 goals, and made an immediate impression as a rookie forward in the NOJHL for the Thunderbirds in 2019-2020. He looked exceptionally good in a pair of exhibition wins over the Blind River Beavers last weekend. This is a skilled, smart skater who could be a point per game force for the T-Birds over the course of the upcoming season.

Connor Toms. A 2004 birth year defenseman, Toms was a third round pick, 44th overall, by the Soo Greyhounds at the 2020 Ontario Hockey League priority selections draft. He netted nine goals, 17 assists, 26 points in 38 regular season games for the Soo Jr. Greyhounds of the Great North Under 18 AAA Hockey League in 2019-2020. He is the son of Jeff Toms, a former star left winger with the 1993 Memorial Cup champion Soo Greyhounds who went on to play in 237 games in the National Hockey League and several seasons of high level pro hockey in Europe.

Ty Zachary

Caleb Wood. A forward with a 2000 birth date, Wood played the past two NOJHL seasons with the Michigan Soo Eagles. In total, Wood played in 111 NOJHL games for the Eagles and was a productive performer with 39 goals, 35 assists, 74 points. Quiet by nature, Wood is known to lead by example.

Ty Zachary. A 2002 birth year forward, Zachary was fourth on the Greyhound midget scoring chart and 15th in Great North league scoring in 2019-2020 with 11 goals, 28 assists, 39 points. The son of Thunderbirds general manager Trev Zachary, the youngster makes and earns his own way with a work ethic that is second to none. It says here that this is a kid who will earn his own keep.

NET GAINS

The Thunderbirds will have a new goalie tandem for the 2020-2021 NOJHL season.

The recent acquisition of 2001 birth year net minder Alex Bugeja from the Fort Frances Lakers of the Superior International Jr. Hockey League gives the Thunderbirds an experienced Jr. A twine tender.

Thunderbirds GM Trev Zachary referred to the 5-foot-10, 190 pound Bugeja as “a very good goalie with focus and work ethic.”

Hailing from Vancouver, B.C., Bugeja posted a record of 10-14-3 with a 3.80 goals against average and .901 save percentage with Fort Frances last season.

Bugeja was a standout with a 49 save performance in a Thunderbirds exhibition season win over the Blind River Beavers.

Earlier during the off season, the Thunderbirds made Scott Young, a twine tender with a 2000 birth date, their first goalie signing. Young spent a portion of the 2019-2020 season in Sweden.

Prior to that, the 6-foot-5, 180 pound Young played at the junior B level with his hometown Calgary Royals, backstopping them to a league championship in 2018-2019.

The Thunderbirds are coming off of a 2019-2020 season in which they finished in third place in the West Division of the NOJHL with a record of 30-19-7.

BENCH STRENGTH

The Thunderbirds seem ready to fly under the watchful eyes of new head coach Denny Lambert and assistant coaches Gary Roach, Micky Sartoretto, Jeremy Stevenson and Aidan Wright.

The 50-year old Lambert played three Ontario Hockey League seasons with the Soo Greyhounds and later coached them for eight years, both as an assistant under Craig Hartsburg and as the head master.

Denny Lambert

In between playing for and coaching the Greyhounds, Lambert skated in more than 500 National Hockey League games as a journeyman left winger. A model for perseverance and for never giving up on his hockey dreams, Lambert reached the top despite never being drafted into the OHL or the NHL.

Now, Lambert takes over a Thunderbirds team that is coming off of three straight winning seasons under head coach John Parco, who has since taken a high ranking executive job with the Italian Ice Hockey Federation.

As for the 46-year old Stevenson, he is also a former left winger with the Greyhounds — he actually began his OHL playing career with the Cornwall Royals — who went to play in more than 225 NHL games, including playoffs.

And the 45-year old Roach is another former Greyhound, having patrolled the blue line of the red and white from 1991 to 1995 before being traded to the North Bay Centennials in what was a blockbuster OHL deal back then. Roach was a part of the Greyhounds 1993 Memorial Cup championship team.

The 29-year old Sartoretto is yet another former OHL winger, having played three seasons with the Kitchener Rangers and Saginaw Spirit. He then closed out his junior career as captain of his hometown Soo Thunderbirds, leading them to the NOJHL championship.

And the 27-year old Wright is a former high-end defenseman who played four seasons of Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association hockey with the Lake Superior State University Lakers.

Of note, Stevenson, Roach, Sartoretto and Wright all have combined, extensive coaching experience within the Sault Major Hockey Association.

BEAVER BROTHERS

Over to Blind River, one focus is on a pair of high performance players with speed and smart skill sets.

Justin Mauro

And they just happen to be siblings.

To be sure, a brother act is prepared to take the stage for Soo’s cohort rivals from Blind River.

As in, Devin Mauro has joined his older brother Justin Mauro as Beavers forwards. The boys are the sons of Tom and Rachel Mauro of Sault Ste. Marie.

Devin, who has a 2004 birth date, finished second on the Great North Under 18 AAA Hockey League scoring chart in 2019-2020 in netting 30 goals, 32 assists, 62 points in 38 games for the Soo Jr. Greyhounds.

A 5-foot-6, 150-pound forward, Devin was subsequently taken by the Sudbury Wolves in the 11th round of this year’s Ontario Hockey League priority selections draft.

Justin, meanwhile, has already played two full seasons in the NOJHL for Blind River and in impressive fashion, has totaled 26 goals, 54 assists, 80 points in 92 games while battling injuries.

A 5-foot-8, 150-pound forward with a 2002 birth date, Justin was picked by the Erie Otters in the 15th round of the 2018 OHL priority selections draft.

The Mauro boys are the sons of Tom and Rachel Mauro of Sault Ste. Marie.

Kyle Brick, who is the successful coach and general manager of the NOJHL entry in Blind River, told Hockey News North that the Mauro brothers just may end up playing on the same line once the 2020-2021 season gets underway this week.

“Justin has been really good for us and we look forward to him having a big year for the Beavers,” Brick began. “The last two seasons he has had to battle injuries, which was tough for him.

“We are definitely going to be leaning on Justin to be a major points producer for us this season,” Brick noted.

Devin, meanwhile, has Brick excited about what the younger Mauro will bring to the Beavers lineup.

“And who knows, Brick pointed out, “maybe Justin and Devin will even be line mates for us this coming season.”

At any rate, there are ongoing expectations in Blind River for the small market franchise.

To be sure, under Brick and a staff of assistants that includes Dylan King and Craig MacDonald, the Beavers have established themselves as a top end NOJHL franchise with four straight winning seasons, including a 37-15-4 mark during the 2019-2020 campaign.


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