The setting was a recent edition of the Hockey North Show that airs weekly on Sault Ste. Marie radio station ESPN 1400. At the same table, making guest appearances on the show were Blind River Beavers assistant coach/assistant general manager Craig MacDonald and Soo Eagles president/general manager Bruno Bragagnolo.
There was no tension whatsoever between the two Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League rivals.
In fact, prior to the start of the show, MacDonald and Bragagnolo greeted each other with firm, friendly hellos. The two chatted sociably during commercial breaks and the mutual respect that they have for each other and their respective programs was obvious and evident.
Proof positive, perhaps, that an intense rivalry does not have to include screaming, yelling, swearing and pointing fingers.
To be sure, Blind River and the Michigan Soo have a good, healthy rivalry as members of the NOJHL West Division representing towns that are a mere 90 clicks — and a two-mile International Bridge — apart.
The Beavers and Eagles have faced off four times thus far this 2018-2019 NOJHL campaign with each team winning twice. And they will go head to head four more times before the end of the regular season.
The most recent match between the two teams resulted in an early week, 7-4 home ice decision for the Beavers that featured 94 shots on goal that were evenly divided.
Having passed the midway point of the 2018-2019 season, the Beavers are in a battle for second place with the Rayside Balfour Canadians while the Eagles are trying to fend off the Elliot Lake Wildcats for fourth spot ahead of the sixth-seed Espanola Express in the West Division.
All teams are chasing the pace-setting Soo Thunderbirds.
And while the Thunderbirds are perched comfortably atop the standings in the NOJHL West, neither MacDonald of the Beavers or Bragagnolo of the Eagles are feeling overwhelmed by the Soo, Ontario squad.
“They are a good team … really well coached,” MacDonald said of the Thunderbirds. “They are in first place in our division because they deserve to be. But we have played them three times so far and all three games have been really close.”
While the Thunderbirds have defeated the Beavers in all three games the two teams have played against each other thus far this season, two of the contests were decided in extra time with Blind River gaining a point on both occasions. The other game was a 6-4 home-ice win for the Thunderbirds in which the Beavers gave up a 4-0 lead after running into penalty trouble.
The Beavers and Thunderbirds will face off five more times over the remainder of the regular season schedule.
Meanwhile, the Eagles have already played the cross-river Thunderbirds five times and the rivals have five games still to play as part of 10 regular-season matches between the bitter foes. Thus far, the Thunderbirds have won four of the five games but Bragagnolo feels as though the Eagles are closing the gap.
In a recent home-and-home set between the fierce foes, the teams each scored home-ice victories, though Bragagnolo thought the visiting Eagles out-played the Thunderbirds in defeat.
“Like Craig said the Thunderbirds are a good team, no question about it,” Bragagnolo relayed. “But they are by no means invincible. There is still a lot of hockey left to be played and we have five more games against the Thunderbirds.”
As far as the parity within the West Division, both MacDonald and Bragagnolo agreed that “any team can beat any team on a given night.” Bragagnolo went a step further by noting that “I like it that way. I like it that there are no easy games and that we have to be ready to play hard all game, every game.”
As the Beavers are battling for second place in the West while the Eagles are trying to maintain fourth spot, the two teams with the hard-driven, yet amiable rivalry have the mutual respect for each other that both MacDonald and Bragagnolo touched on.
“We both have good programs and there is a competitive respect that we have for each other,” MacDonald noted. And as Bragagnolo pointed out: “Craig and (Beavers coach/general manager) Kyle (Brick) have really turned that program around in the few years that they have been in Blind River.”
As the weekly radio show ended and the two guests departed, it was an easy, unforced exchange between the two.
“See you later Craig, nice talking to you,” said Bragagnolo.
“Good seeing you too, Bruno,” replied MacDonald. “Take care, man.”
PHOTO: Action from a recent game between the Blind River Beavers and visiting Soo Eagles.