Meaningful games have already been played.
Forty one regular season contests have taken place in the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.
And the major teams from the Great North Under 18 Hockey League have played as many as eight mini matches apiece.
Looking ahead, as the north waits to emerge from a 14-day lock down — as opposed to the 28 days that southern Ontario was mandated by the provincial government — we hopefully and pray-fully look ahead to a safe return to play at some point soon in January.
• Meanwhile, two of the very best coaches in the league have their teams at the top of their divisions through the first stage of regular season play in the NOJHL.
Corey Beer and the Timmins Rock of the East Division have the league’s best record at 9-3-0 through 12 outings. And Kyle Brick and the Blind River Beavers have a 5-3-0 mark in eight outings to sit tied atop the West Division with Espanola while holding two games in hand on the Express.
Notably, during the past two NOJHL regular seasons, the 35-year old Beer has coached Timmins to a combined record of 75-31-6.
And like Brick, Beer is a no-nonsense coach who holds his players accountable, regardless of experience.
Brick, to sure, continues to have Blind River set up as an annual contender with an approach built on extensive scouting and recruiting and his own good coaching methods.
Now in his fifth season as the bench boss in Blind River, the 34-year old Brick has yet to experience a losing record at the helm of one of the NOJHL’s smallest market teams.
Indeed, before the arrival of Brick prior to the start of the 2016-2017 campaign, the Beavers had gone through a futile stretch of five straight losing seasons, including a term in which they failed to win a single game.
But with Brick as the hockey boss in Blind River and an accompanying, supportive executive in place, the old days of the bad news Beavers appear to be long gone.
• After going 1-2-1 in four games against Blind River to begin the NOJHL regular season, the Soo Thunderbirds then posted a 3-1-0 mark in their next four outings versus the Espanola Express to maintain third place in the West Division with a 4-3-1 record ahead of the next stage of the cohort campaign.
An indicator of the balanced scoring attack that the Thunderbirds have is that Cooper Smyl, Michael Chaffay and Avery Rebek all have four goals apiece in eight games while fellow forwards Caleb Wood and Tyson Doucette have both dented the twine three times.
But the big boys from the Soo met way more than a mediocre match from small market Espanola, which will take a record of 4-4-2 into the 2021 section of the season.
Three of the four games between the Thunderbirds and Express went down to the wire with the Soo needing empty net goals to clinch two of its victories and Espanola scoring late to take a narrow home ice triumph.
If the Express can cut down on opposition scoring chances when play resumes — it has allowed an average of 49.6 shots on goal through 10 games to date — look for Espanola to be an even tougher team to play against in 2021.
• In good hands with head coach Brent Hughes and former NOJHL scoring star, of many days gone by, Shawn Dubois, the Express is on the right track in the scenic Spanish River town of Espanola.
The 38-year old Hughes came to Espanola this season following three successive winning seasons as an assistant coach with the Cape Breton Eagles of the Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League.
The 51-year old Dubois, meanwhile, is a long-time local resident who originally hails from down the road in nearby Blind River. Like Hughes, Dubois is also in his first season on the Espanola bench.
During his NOJHL playing days that spanned parts of three sensational seasons, Dubois was both a scoring machine and a terror as a 5-foot-7, 170 pound whiz kid.
In just 112 NOJHL games, Dubois scored a remarkable 166 goals, 133 assists, 299 points while racking up 447 minutes in penalties while starring for both the Elliot Lake Vikings and Sudbury Cubs.
He also played briefly in the Ontario Hockey League with the North Bay Centennials and legendary coach Bert Templeton.
Notably, it is a family affair for Dubois in his assistant coach role with the Express. As in, his wife, Virginia Dubois, helps the Express as its billet coordinator and administrative assistant to president and general manager Jason Rapcewicz.
• Over to the Great North u-18 loop, it is coach Jamie Henderson and the Soo Jr, Greyhounds who have the upper hand on their cohort opponents, the Sudbury Nickel Capital Wolves, through eight matches to date.
The Soo has a 4-2-2 record from its eight head-to-head games against Sudbury and Henderson, as the Jr. Greyhounds head honcho, likes what he has seen from his 22-player team.
The Soo is a supreme squad of players born in 2003, 2004 and 2005 that includes potential 2021 Ontario Hockey League priority selection draft picks in 15-year old forwards Cooper Foster and Lincoln Moore and same-age goalie Terry See, among others.
In fact, a good gathering of OHL general managers and scouts got a close up look at the Jr. Greyhounds over the course of four recent games in Sudbury against the Nickel Capital Wolves.
But as Henderson noted, it is about all of his players, not just a few.
“Our draft eligible kids were seen by a number of OHL scouts when we played in Sudbury … and that means a lot,” Henderson relayed to Hockey News North.
“Having said that, for me as a coach, my priorities always have been and always will be developing all of our players and promoting them to scouts and GMs at the higher levels, whether it is the OHL, the NOJHL, or the colleges and universities,” Henderson added.
The hard-driven, hard-driving Henderson carries a reputation as one of the more committed and better player development coaches in all of northern Ontario.
• Meanwhile, a 2005 birth year forward of note from elsewhere in the Great North is Justin Charette of the Timmins Majors.
A local Timmins product, Charette played in the Great North as a 14-year old with the Majors in 2019-2020 and was able to produce seven goals, 14 assists, 21 points in 35 games as the youngest player in the league.
Perhaps, if an OHL scout interested in doing due diligence would find his way up to Timmins, Charette might be a player worth taking a really good look at.