Geographically, the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League map extends over 400 miles from Sault Ste. Marie in the west end to Cochrane on the east side. In between, there are rivalries aplenty along the rugged highways of the Canadian Shield.
Under the veteran leadership of commissioner Robert Mazzuca — who was born, raised and still resides in the Greater Sudbury Area — the NOJHL is sui generis in its own way as a 12-team league, 11 of which are based in northern Ontario and the other in northern Michigan.
And with its distinct northern habitation, the rivalries among member teams are both natural and spontaneous. Let us check out four, in particular.
Separated by a mere two miles of International Bridge and St. Mary’s River, the rivalry between the Michigan-based Soo Eagles and the Ontario-based Soo Thunderbirds defines cross-border intensity.
Whenever the two teams face off, there always seems to be some sort of friction and fuss among players and coaches, not to mention fans and supporters.
And year in and year out, the Eagles and Thunderbirds invariably meet up in the playoffs.
The last two years of playoff competition between the fierce foes only added fuel to the fire.
In the spring of 2017, the fourth-seeded Eagles swept the top-ranked Thunderbirds in four straight games in the West Division semi-finals.
Then, in the spring of 2018, the Thunderbirds overcame a three games to one deficit to oust the Eagles in the seventh-and-deciding match of the West Division semis.
While the Thunderbirds finished last in attendance in the 12-team NOJHL over the course of the 2017-2018 season, they are a main attraction for games at Pullar Stadium in the Michigan Soo, which is home to the Eagles.
The Eagles finished second in attendance during the 2017-2018 season with a per-game average of 615. And for one home game against the Thunderbirds, the Eagles drew a season high crowd of 1,226 to the venerable Pullar.
The Twin Soo rivalry could be further heightened come the 2018-2019 season as the Eagles and Thunderbirds recently combined to sign five forwards from the Soo Greyhounds of the Ontario-based Great North Midget Hockey League.
Signing with the Eagles were Caleb Wood, Raf Praysner and Owen Shier. Signing with the Thunderbirds were Avery Rebek and Camden Findlay.
All five were teammates with the Soo major midgets in 2017-2018, with Rebek, Wood, Praysner and Shier finishing first, second, third and fourth, respectively, in team scoring.
Perhaps the only thing in need of improvement as far as the Twin Soo border battle rivalry goes would be a boost in attendance at Thunderbird home games.
The organized junior hockey rivalry between the Blind River Beavers and Elliot Lake Wildcats (formerly the Bobcats and Vikings) dates back to the mid 1960s. Back then, the Beavers and Vikings were members of the erstwhile International Jr. B Hockey League.
Nowadays, as members in good standing with the NOJHL, the Beavers and Wildcats have kept up the age-old competition between the neighbouring towns of Blind River and Elliot Lake that has a way of turning heated and at times, hostile.
Separated by about 40 miles, Elliot Lake sees itself as a big brother of sorts to Blind River. Elliot Lake has a population of close to 11,000 residents while Blind River is home to about 3,500 hearty souls.
On the ice, though, the Beavers have clearly been better than the Wildcats the past two seasons. As the Beavers have posted back-to-back, franchise-best, winning seasons under coach Kyle Brick, the Wildcats have had successive, just below the .500 mark, losing seasons under bench boss Corey Bricknell.
Brick and Bricknell have had a few verbal clashes over the past couple of seasons. Both are demanding hockey guys who show qualities of great intensity, energy, concentration and vehemence.
A troika of a simmering rivalry between the Espanola Express, Rayside-Balfour Canadians and French River Rapids is looming.
Not only are the three towns separated by less than 90 miles, Espanola and French River have new coaches in place. Both coaches hail from Sudbury and are likely intent on closing the overall gap between their lowly teams of 2017-2018 and Rayside-Balfour, which finished atop the West Division this past season.
Veteran Dave Clancy, former coach and general manager with Rayside-Balfour, has taken over the reins as the new bench boss in Espanola.
And in French River, up-and-coming, former Sudbury minor hockey coach Shawn Frappier is the new head coach of the Rapids.
As Espanola, Rayside-Balfour and French River all compete for players within the Sudbury District, the presence of Clancy aboard the Express and Frappier riding the Rapids could really enhance a rivalry with the Canadians on the ice and among spectators.
At the gate, attendance has increased over the past two years for Rayside-Balfour, which is under the even-keeled leadership of owner, president and general manager Adrian Gedye.
Representing heritage hockey towns with a rich history, Cochrane Crunch, Hearst Lumberjacks, Kirkland Lake Gold Miners and Timmins Rock all play within a radius of about 160 miles.
All were part of a closely-contested East Division of the NOJHL in 2017-2018 with Cochrane eventually going the distance to upend West Division champion Rayside-Balfour to win the NOJHL title.
Timmins, meanwhile, stunned the first-place overall Powassan Voodoos in the East Division semi-finals before losing to Cochrane.
Meanwhile, Hearst — as a first-year entry in the NOJHL in 2017-2018 — and Kirkland Lake have history with coach Marc Lafleur, who left winters of success with the Gold Miners to take charge of the Lumberjacks last season.
A virtual league of its own up in the northeast nook of Ontario, Cochrane, Hearst, Kirkland Lake and Timmins are legendary hockey towns with various levels of present day support.
To be sure, the Crunch, Lumberjacks, Gold Miners and Rock all have good coaches running their respective programs.
Run-and-gun, shoot-from-the-hip, shoot-from-the-yap Ryan Leonard is the man in charge in Cochrane.
The aforementioned, reputable Lafleur is determined to build a winner in Hearst, just as he did in Kirkland Lake.
Referee-turned-coach Ryan Wood did well with a young team in Kirkland Lake in his first season on the job and has expectations for advancement in 2018-2019.
And first-year head coach Corey Beer did a really nice job in his first season in Timmins after having replaced retired icon Paul Gagne.