NOJHL playing waiting game

Randy Russon
August 3, 2020

There is no panic coming from Robert Mazzuca.

Espanola Express is one of 11 NOJHL teams that are playing the waiting game

No panic in his voice. No panic in his plans. No panic in his actions.

Instead, the 10th year commissioner of the 11-team Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League is playing the waiting game relative to when the 2020-2021 season might begin.

Meanwhile, the veteran NOJHL boss remains optimistic that the junior league — which includes 10 teams from northeastern Ontario and one northern Michigan based squad — will play at some point this season.

The NOJHL, like all other amateur hockey leagues across Canada, shut down the 2019-2020 season in early March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At any rate, Mazzuca said he and the NOJHL committee have plans in place that could see the league open anywhere from October of 2020 to January into 2021.

“The start date fate of our league and the other junior hockey leagues in the province is in the hands of the premier of Ontario (Doug Ford) by way of the chief medical officer of Ontario (Dr. David Williams) … and as you know, that is something I have been saying all along,” Mazzuca told Hockey News North.

Mazzuca added that the NOJHL has a 44-page return to play policy and procedures guide presentation being sent to Ontario’s chief medical officer of health.

“We are hoping to hear from the chief medical officer at some point later this month,” Mazzuca noted.

The NOJHL currently comprises 11 teams in two divisions.

Hearst Lumberjacks, Timmins Rock, Cochrane Crunch, Kirkland Lake Gold Miners, Powassan Voodoos and French River Rapids are the six teams of the East Division while Soo Eagles, Soo Thunderbirds, Blind River Beavers, Espanola Express and Rayside Balfour Canadians are the five members of the West Division.

Another issue facing the NOJHL at this time relates to the Canada-United States border closure in that not only do teams use American players but the league has one American entry in the Michigan-based Soo Eagles.

The Eagles have a tryout camp scheduled for August 12-14 in the Michigan Soo.

As for the Canada-U.S. border currently remaining closed to all non-essential traffic, Eagles general manager Bruno Bragagnolo said his team is “exploring all options” ahead of the 2020-2021 season.

“We are waiting to see how this all plays out,” Bragagnolo told Hockey News North. “If the border remains closed for the foreseeable future, we have talked about playing a series of exhibition games with the two American teams in the SIJHL, for example.

“And before that, we could still bring in our players, like for example, in early October and do a lot of extra work on skills and development,” Bragagnolo added.

The SIJHL, which is the Superior International Jr. Hockey League, is largely based in northwestern Ontario but has two American teams — the Wisconsin Wilderness and the Thief River Falls Norskies — who are located in Minnesota.

Meantime, Bragagnolo said he is hoping that, perhaps, the Canada-U.S. border could open at Sault Ste. Marie, noting that as of now, there are no active COVID-19 cases in either Sault, Michigan or Sault, Ontario.

In the interim, as the Eagles have their tryout camp slated for August 12-14, their cross-border rival Soo Thunderbirds have organized a prospects camp for August 14-16 at John Rhodes Community Centre.

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