What a difference one season can make. A year ago, the Hearst Lumberjacks used seven different goalies en route to a fifth-place finish during the regular season and a quick ouster in the preliminary round of the playoffs.
Following the 2017-2018 season, which was the first for Hearst as members of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League, Lumberjacks coach-general manager Marc Lafleur vowed that things would be different in 2018-2019.
“Being a first-year team in the league, I went against some of my philosophies and beliefs and allowed some players to be bigger than the team,” Lafleur said last spring. “That won’t happen again.”
And it didn’t.
From a 23-30-3 regular season record and fifth place finish in the East Division of the NOJHL in 2017-2018, Hearst vaulted to first place in 2018-2019 with a tidy record of 33-16-7.
Built around a team concept from the goalies to defensemen to forwards, the Lumberjacks showed more resolve in this spring’s NOJHL playoffs.
Down three games to one to the Timmins Rock in the East Division semi-finals, Hearst hustled back to win the next three matches to take the series 4-3.
The Lumberjacks then swept the Powassan Voodoos in four straight games in the East Division finals before meeting the West Division champion Soo Thunderbirds, who had finished first overall during the regular season with a record of 44-11-1. The Soo’s 89 points during the regular season was 16 more than Hearst managed.
At any rate, many predicted a seven-game series between the Lumberjacks and the Thunderbirds — and that held true.
A small-market franchise in only its second season of existence — with a town population of about 5,000 — Hearst came through on the road in Game 7 to win the NOJHL championship in stunning fashion.
Overcoming a 2-0 deficit at a jam-packed, overflowing John Rhodes Community Centre in Sault Ste. Marie, the Lumberjacks rode the clutch goal-tending of regular season and playoffs most valuable player Nick Tallarico to a 6-3 road decision over the Soo Thunderbirds.
The victory gave Hearst the best-of-seven NOJHL championship series four games to three.
To be sure, it was a see-saw championship-series set.
The Thunderbirds won the series opener only to have the Lumberjacks win the next three. But the Soo then forced Game 7 by winning Game 5 and Game 6 to extend the series to the limit.
Of note, the Thunderbirds were without head coach John Parco for Game 6 and Game 7 due to a league-imposed suspension from Game 5.
On to the Game 7 title tilt, the Thunderbirds came out flying and took a 2-0 lead into the late stages of the first period before the visiting Lumberjacks finally scored.
Lucas Theriault and Nick Smith staked the Soo to the 2-0 lead before Jake Desando scored for Hearst.
The Lumberjacks then seized control of the match in the second period, firing four goals past Thunderbirds goalie William Anderson in a six-minute span to take a 5-2 lead.
Alec Johnson, Max Johnson, George Young and the always-hustling Dawson Waddell found range on the four-goal Hearst barrage.
The Soo got a spark towards the end of the second stanza, however, when Theriault dented the twine for his second goal of the match to make the score 5-3.
A free-wheeling third period was sparked by a number of highlight-reel stops by Tallarico in the Hearst crease before high-energy forward Bradley Golant scored into the empty net to seal the championship deal for the Lumberjacks.
As he was a standout during the regular season in winning league MVP, the pint-sized Tallarico was sensational during the playoffs and was in goal for all 12 of Hearst’s victories. A true workhorse, Tallarico played every minute of the Lumberjacks 18 playoff games in winning another MVP award.
Meanwhile, in sentimental fashion, the Hearst organization had dedicated the series to the memory of one of its biggest fans, Raymond Lafleur, who is the father of Lumberjacks coach, the aforementioned Marc Lafleur.
Mr. Lafleur passed away during this spring’s playoffs.
As for Lafleur as the hockey boss of the Lumberjacks, he called his team “the most resilient group of players I have ever coached.”
And it should be noted that the 43-year old Lafleur has been a head coach of some successful teams in the past, having coached the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners for five years — and leading them to an NOJHL championship — before moving back to his hometown of Hearst in 2017 to coach and manage the Lumberjacks.
Prior to being a head coach and general manager in the NOJHL, Lafleur was an assistant coach with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League for two seasons. And before that, he was an assistant coach with the Bemidji State University Beavers for two seasons after having played Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association hockey at the Minnesota school for four years.