On the ice, they are winning. At the gate, they are packing them in. So far, so good for the first-year Hearst Lumberjacks of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.
A tiny town of less than 5,000 tucked away in a northeastern Ontario nook a good 340 miles away from Sault Ste. Marie, Hearst is a hockey hotbed that is the birth place of Claude Giroux, the 29-year old captain of the Philadelphia Flyers of the National Hockey League.
In fact, Giroux made a big financial contribution to the Lumberjacks that allowed them to purchase the Iroquois Falls Eskis franchise and relocate it to Hearst in time for the start of the current NOJHL season.
The Lumberjacks play out of the Claude Larose Recreation Centre — named after another Hearst hockey hero.
Now 75-years old, Claude Larose was a hard-nosed forward who rose to NHL fame with the Montreal Canadiens. In all, Larose played in more than 1,000 NHL games, playoffs included — and wears multiple Stanley Cup championship rings.
At any rate, thus far this NOJHL season, Hearst is showing signs of being a contender in the tough East Division with a record of 5-2-0 through its first seven outings.
On the attendance chart, Hearst is averaging 678 fans per home game as near-capacity crowds flock into the Larose arena. The attendance numbers for Hearst are second in the 12-team NOJHL, trailing only the Timmins Rock and just ahead of the Michigan Soo Eagles.
Despite being a French-speaking town with a Francophone population of more than 90 per cent, the Lumberjacks have managed to recruit players from several Canadian provinces outside Ontario as well a number of American states.
Meanwhile, the Lumberjacks do have three local Hearst products on their roster. And Hearst native son Marc Lafleur is the reputable coach and general manager of the Lumberjacks.
Lafleur spent five years in a similar role with the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners, who he coached to an NOJHL championship in 2014 and a pair of Dudley-Hewitt Cup, Central Canada Championship appearances.
Lafleur has also had a multitude of international experience serving on the coaching staff of Canada East at the past four World Jr. A Challenge events, including winning a silver medal in 2016. He has also been an assistant coach with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League.
To be sure, the hard-driven Lafleur has set lofty expectations for the Lumberjacks for their debut NOJHL season in Hearst.
“Our expectations are to compete for the league title,” he noted. “Our compete level has been very high since we started skating. A solid skill level will also complement the work ethic and compete level.”
Lafleur also told HockeyNewsNorth.com that a lot of video work via the coaching staff and players is part of program that is geared towards team and individual development and championship aspirations.
Lumberjacks president Patrick Vaillancourt heads up a board of directors that has worked hard to establish and set up an NOJHL franchise in Hearst. The franchise began by naming the team out of respect to the town’s forefathers.
“The Lumberjack name is to thank all the pioneers that founded the town of Hearst,” Vaillancourt pointed out. “We all know that in Hearst, our main hub is still forestry, so that was something that we wanted to have, a name that we stand behind and the whole community stands behind.”
Meanwhile, the Lumberjacks black, orange and white colour scheme is a clear thumbs up and thanks to the aforementioned Claude Giroux and the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers.
Giroux never even hinted at the idea to have the Lumberjacks clad in Flyers colours, Vaillancourt pointed out. Rather, it was the Lumberjacks and their board of directors who decided to honour their hometown hero by including his personal design and Giroux’s no. 28 that he wears with the Flyers on the Hearst logo.
“As a tribute to Claude, because we’re not shy about this — Claude did give us a hand in contributing to the team — so we just wanted to thank him and that was our way of saying thanks to Claude,” explained Vaillancourt.
“His financial support to the team is one of the reasons we have a team now in Hearst, and we really, really appreciate what Claude did for the town.”
To be sure, the NOJHL is off a rousing start up in the historic town of Hearst.
The Lumberjacks are winning and the fans are packing the Larose arena.
Who can ask for more?
Well, Lafleur, as the coach would probably say there is always more that he could ask for — and expect — from his players.
Yes, the Lumberjacks of Hearst are in good hands.
Demanding hands. But good hands.