As the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League develops its share of players for the Ontario Hockey League, it is also serving as a training ground for coaches.
Two championship head coaches from the past two NOJHL campaigns have earned promotion to the OHL during the current off season.
The NOJHL coaching pipeline to the OHL began when the North Bay Battalion hired Scott Wray away from the Powassan Voodoos as an assistant coach to veteran bench boss Stan Butler.
And the Sudbury Wolves followed suit in looking to the NOJHL to bring in Jordan Smith from the Soo Thunderbirds as associate coach to recently-hired headmaster Cory Stillman.
While it carries an under-rated reputation — in some areas — as a development league, the numbers don’t lie when it comes to adding up the many NOJHL-trained players who skated in the OHL during the 2016-2017 season.
No less than 18 players who have seen considerable service in the NOJHL suited for OHL teams in 2016-2017 — several of them in steady to high-performance roles.
NOJHL grads who were notable as OHL performers in 2016-2017 included forward Boris Katchouk who scored 35 goals for the Soo Greyhounds, forward Steve Harland who finished second in scoring on the North Bay Battalion with 65 points, defenseman Medric Mercier who scored 21 goals for the Oshawa Generals from his blue-line position, twin-terror situational forwards Darian Pilon and Drake Pilon of the Sudbury Wolves, puck-moving defenseman Owen Headrick of the league champion Erie Otters, goalie Mario Culina of the Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires, goalie Garrett Forrest who won 13 games for the Flint Firebirds, two-way forward Bradley Chenier of North Bay and shutdown defenseman Nolan Makkonen of the Guelph Storm.
Katchouk (who is also a signed, second-round National Hockey League draft pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning), Mercier, the Pilon brothers, Headrick and Culina are all graduates of the Soo Thunderbirds, Harland and Forrest are alumni of the Powassan Voodoos, Chenier is formerly of the Rayside-Balfour Canadians and Makkonen is a product of the Michigan Soo Eagles.
And back to the coaches who have recently moved up from the NOJHL to the OHL, Wray and Smith are not likely to be the last who will eventually get a shot at a major junior job.
To be sure, NOJHL commissioner Rob Mazzuca is proud — and rightfully so — of his league’s gaining reputation as a development league for the OHL.
“Our numbers speak for themselves not only for players but coaches and it goes to show you that the programs being offered by our member teams for development meets the high standards of the no. 1 development league in the world, which is the OHL,” Mazzuca relayed to HockeyNewsNorth.com.
As a sidebar, Mazzuca himself is no stranger to the high level of the OHL, having starred as a high-scoring, hard-rock defenseman with the Sudbury Wolves during the late 1970s and early 1980s. In one OHL season of particular note, Mazzuca scored 16 goals and racked up 162 penalty minutes from his defensive position.