Like any other league, it has its detractors. But with 11 of its 12 teams based in northern Ontario and the other one at the tip of the Upper Peninsula in northern Michigan, it is a neat and tidy league of its own. And for me, there are a number of clicks on my Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League list of likes.
Take the Soo Eagles, for instance. The Eagles play out of the Michigan Soo, which has a population of less than 14,000. But despite playing in the same small town as the Lake Superior State Lakers of the Division 1, Western Collegiate Hockey Association, the Eagles continue to be among the top three on the NOJHL attendance chart with a per-game average of more than 650 fans who gather on a given night at venerable Pullar Stadium.
Then there are the fanatics who support the Hearst Lumberjacks up in the northern nook town of 5,500 hearty souls. Despite its small population, Hearst averages more than 700 fans per game — second only to the Timmins Rock — at Claude Larose Recreation Centre. Do the rough math — one out of every eight people who lives in Hearst heads to the rink to watch the Lumberjacks play hockey.
Good coaching, good management, good scouting and a supportive executive have resulted in a recipe for success that is the Blind River Beavers. It was just a few years ago that the Beavers went through a win-less — yes, win-less — season and there was talk inside and outside the NOJHL that the Blind River franchise should do all concerned a favour and fold. But with Kyle Brick as coach and general manager and with Craig MacDonald as the jack of all trades assistant, the Beavers are coming off their two most successful seasons in a franchise history that dates back to 1999. And the small town Beavers, with a population of about 3,500, are once again an NOJHL contender this season.
Every league, it seems, has its main colourful character and the NOJHL is no exception. Owner, general manager and coach Ryan Leonard brought the NOJHL to Cochrane in 2014 and not only has the Crunch posted a winning record in every season of its existence, it won the league championship last spring. Not only does Leonard put together and coach winning teams, he’s a character like no other with a delightful personality that includes being an outspoken chatterbox with a fiery, competitive edge. Lenny, as he is affectionately known, also has a heart of gold and a temper that can lead to an entertaining tantrum. Here’s hoping that Lenny never changes.
PHOTO: Cochrane Crunch coach Ryan Leonard gets his point across during last spring’s Dudley Hewitt Cup, Central Canada championship tournament.