NOJHL is still a plus 11

Randy Russon
May 10, 2020

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.

What you think about “NOJHL is still a plus 11”

  1. You are right our team had a rough year we also come from a small community off the beaten path a HUGE part of our team financially depends on fundraising. The team gets ALOT of money from fundraising at events like the street dance, drag races and other summer festivities with the announcement that ALL of those are canceled. COMBINED with the fact that our small business sponsors will be hurting it was the smartest choice the board could make.

  2. Thank you that is absolutely the position that was taken without sponsorship/fundraising opportunities etc how do we ice a competitive team. We just are not in a position to do so without the financial support of our local sponsors and community. We will be back bigger and better and hope the community supports the team when we make that new entrance. We hope everyone stay safe and well during this pandemic which has truly altered how we conduct ourselves in both business and our personal lives.

  3. I’m seriously disappointed in the negative nature and clear bias nature in this article. Northern communities struggle as it is, financially … these times do not make it any easier. I am not a hockey fan, but I am an Elliot Lake fan who is very aware of the struggles the wildcats have faced over the last couple of years, yet they continue to work hard and their team has provided incredible support to the community through it’s volunteer efforts. They have had to adjust to a number of issues that have been entirely out of their hands, such as the arena closure. To say they are using the ‘covid card’ in a negative light is unfair….many businesses are suffering and this team has suffered issue after issue with this being just another issue that is beyond their control. Give them a break!

  4. This is the first time hearing about Elliot Lake leaving and there was nothing about it on the NOJHL website. Elliot Lake was so excited to get actual junior hockey back and not the fake outlaw hockey league team based in Elliot Lake as the Bobcats and then they get promoted to the NOJHL and the the team left to Cochrane and an expansion team was awarded to Elliot Lake and they’ve been here since the COVID-19 outbreak. Chances are if they go on leave they mostlikely won’t come back because most teams do that. They say the’re on a leave of absence and then they’ll say they’re folding later. It’s happened with the Rayside-Balfour Sabrecats.

  5. I am wondering about the status of the thunderbirds their attendance is horrible how are they able to survive

  6. Team should be moved to New Liskeard, great town, great arena, I still don’t understand how there isn’t a team there

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