It stick handled around the COVID-19 opponent with a careful game plan and by following all the rules.
And while not all teams were able to finish what they started, the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League stared down adversity and came away with an ‘E’ for effort in an abbreviated 2020-2021 season.
Of the 71 games that were scheduled for play, only five were called off. And those five were only postponed as precautionary measures.
Still, COVID-19 took its toll on a season that finally got underway on November 13, 2020.
Nine of the NOJHL’s 12 teams were able to see league action this season, some way more than others.
Elliot Lake Wildcats never even hit the ice as they confirmed a leave of absence for this season way back on May 8, 2020.
Powassan intended to begin play in November but arena and municipality issues relative to COVID-19 resulted in the Voodoos never getting a single game in.
Soo Eagles, based in Michigan, were unable to cross into Ontario because of the ongoing closure of the Canada/United States international border. The Eagles did, however, manage to play 17 exhibition games against American development, junior and college teams.
Then, into 2021, the Espanola Express, French River Rapids, Rayside Balfour Canadians, Hearst Lumberjacks and Kirkland Lake Gold Miners all ceased play for the season relative to public health units in their areas as per COVID-19.
And when March rolled around, only four teams were left with their skates on — Blind River Beavers and Soo Thunderbirds in one cohort and Cochrane Crunch and Timmins Rock in another.
Led by commissioner Rob Mazzuca, the NOJHL showed steely resolve and northern gumption in keeping the season going despite COVID-19 restrictions and public health decisions.
If there was one sore spot to the season besides the affects of COVID-19, it was the number of contests between Blind River and the Soo that were negatively impacted by one referee in particular. This ridiculous ref seemed intent about making the game about himself with an ego driven by showing he was in charge by calling one head-shaking penalty after another. Talk about ‘travesty of the game’, this ref — we will leave out his name so as to not glorify him by mere mention — just may have the patent on it.
Other than that, there have been high notes aplenty that can be put into the written word.
• Timmins Rock franchise forward Derek Seguin will end his splendid NOJHL career in style by hitting the 20-goal plateau and averaging one marker per outing this season.
• Seguin’s long-time teammate, Rock star goalie Tyler Masternak, will also depart the NOJHL on a high note with, for the second straight season, a goals against average in the eye-popping area of 1.65.
• Despite graduating a price of admission forward in Jacob Kelly, Blind River can look ahead to next season and the anticipated return of building blocks such as goalie Gavin Disano and defenseman Ethan Pegg, who both made huge progress as rookies under Beavers coach and general manager Kyle Brick and his staff. Disano took over as the Beavers no. 1 goalie as a 2003 birth year rookie and Pegg blossomed in his first NOJHL season as a workhorse warrior with a 2002 birth date.
• Thunderbirds of the Soo were a well-coached treat to watch over a season of 20 plus games and high end talent led by goalie Alex Bugeja, defenseman Cameron Dutkiewicz and forward Cooper Smyl. All can return to the T-Birds next season. And 2004 birth year rookie Connor Toms — an Ontario Hockey League draft pick of the Soo Greyhounds — has plum prospect written all over him. As for Smyl, to be sure, he looms as a potential Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association recruit.
• Brothers Jacob Doucette and Tyson Doucette got to play together as Thunderbirds. Jacob, a defenseman, is three years older than Tyson, a forward. The siblings, because of their age difference, had never played on the same team before.
• Espanola and French River faced off as cohorts eight times, with each team winning four games. Three of the games went to shootout, with French River winning all three to cap improbable comebacks by coach Paul Frustaglio’s Rapids.
• Coached by first-year bench boss Brent Hughes, Espanola not only put together an above .500 record of 5-4-3 from eight games against French River and four versus the Soo, but the Express did so as the youngest team — by far — in the NOJHL with not a single 2000 birth skater on its roster. Espanola had a number of young Ontario Hockey League draft picks on its roster who stood out this season. And the majority of them, led by forwards Cameron Walker (Kingston Frontenacs), Bradley Brunet (Niagara Ice Dogs), Devon Savignac (North Bay Battalion) and Luke Bibby (Owen Sound Attack) have thus far retained their Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association eligibility — and could well return to Espanola next season.
• Two Sault Ste. Marie boys with 2001 birth dates, who have been playing together since their minor hockey house league days, became teammates again in Espanola. Not only that, determined forward Cole Delarosbil and sandpaper defenseman Jordan Ritchie became valued members of the Express. Both can return to Espanola next season. These are players who fall under the ‘heart and soul’ category.
Meanwhile, the summer ahead holds out hockey hope for a number of NOJHL players who could find themselves playing for showcase tournament teams coached by Kirkland Lake bench boss Kyle Smart and aforementioned Espanola head master Brent Hughes.
Hopefully, COVID-19 will be overcome and leagues like the NOJHL can return to some semblance of normal in the times ahead.