One way of looking at it is, with the Elliot Lake Wildcats announcing a leave of absence for next season, the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League is down one team.
On the flip side, the NOJHL still has 11 teams that have given no indication that they will be following Elliot Lake into self isolation when league play eventually resumes.
In announcing that it is taking a planned one year leave from the NOJHL, the Elliot Lake franchise played the COVID-19 crisis card as the major reason for its decision.
And that is fine and well. Who are we to question motives and/or decisions?
But it is worth noting that Elliot Lake wasn’t exactly an NOJHL pillar of strength during the 2019-2020 season.
Not only did Elliot Lake finish in last place overall with just seven wins in 56 games, the Wildcats scored just 115 goals while allowing 333. In fact, their goals for/goals against differential of minus 218 was twice the amount of the second-worst team in the league in that department.
I am not saying that Elliot Lake deciding to take a leave of absence will amount to addition by subtraction for the NOJHL as really, no league ever wants to see a member team in such a state. But as noted, Elliot Lake was a disaster of an on-ice product over the full course of the 2019-2020 season.
At any rate, as it currently stands in this state of global uncertainty that extends well beyond junior hockey, the NOJHL is in the midst of varying plans of procedure for the next season.
Best case scenarios are that the league begins regular season play at some point in September, either the early, mid, or latter part of the month. And an October start is on the planning board as well, as are possible beginnings as late as November and December.
(There is also the possibility of there being no junior hockey anywhere in Canada next season — but that is something that is the absolute worst-case outcome.)
Meanwhile, Elliot Lake and its issues aside, I have been in contact with representatives of several other NOJHL teams within the past few weeks. And let me say that there has been nothing less than cautious optimism being relayed — while at the same time, realistic of the current climate — from those associated with teams that I have communicated with.
For example, coach-general manager Kyle Brick of the small market — as in a town population of 3,500 — Blind River Beavers tells me that he and the team’s board of directors are preparing for next season, while maintaining social distance, of course.
As well, president-general manager Jason Rapcewicz of the Espanola Express, boss man Paul Frustaglio of the French River Rapids and coach-general manager Marc Lafleur of the Hearst Lumberjacks — three more smaller market operations — have all relayed a similar hopeful outlook.
And so too have managing director Blaine Smith of the Rayside Balfour Canadians and president Ted Gooch of the Timmins Rock, two of the bigger market franchises of the NOJHL.
Of further example and in a different vein, owner Ryan Leonard of the Cochrane Crunch has his house for sale ahead of family relocation to Renfrew, Ontario, where he will become the coach and general manager of the Renfrew Wolves of the Central Canada Hockey League.
But Leonard tells me that he wants to retain ownership of the NOJHL franchise in Cochrane to the extent that he has an agreement to bring aboard a long-time veteran of the league in Jim Capy to be the coach and general manager of the Crunch. (Capy has been a head coach and general manager in the NOJHL dating back to 2000 and including gigs with the Soo Thunderbirds, Blind River Beavers, Soo Indians and Soo Eagles.)
And over in Michigan, the Soo Eagles are the NOJHL’s lone American entry. Should restrictions lessen and play resume, the Eagles will be good to go and in good hands with Bruno Bragagnolo, who is one of the better operators — on the business and hockey sides — at this level of the game.
Meantime, and to be sure, it is what it currently is with regards to Elliot Lake. And by the same token, it is what it currently is for the NOJHL — as in the league is a plus 11 when it comes to the number of teams.
Also, in times of crisis, any good league such as the NOJHL needs good leadership. And the majority of those who carry a say in the NOJHL have indicated that the league has a suitable leader in commissioner Robert Mazzuca.
In the interim, as we wait for COVID-19 to go into some semblance of remission, we yearn for pucks to drop and whistles to blow — while coming to the realization that additional measures relative to the health and safety of players, coaches and spectators is a must and a virtual certainty.