Exhibition games are already being played in the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League as the start of the 2019-2020 regular season looms.
Having noted that, here is a hockey writer’s forecast for some of what we see happening on the frozen stages of the NOJHL this season.
EYES ON THE EAGLES: Soo Eagles won the NOJHL championship in 2010-2011 and despite some good seasons since, have not raised the title trophy again.
But the Michigan-based Eagles, who annually turn around the majority of their roster as players move on to school or to teams in the North American Hockey League, will return more talent than usual for the upcoming season.
The Eagles are well supported at venerable Pullar Stadium and have two very good men at the top of their hockey department in ageless general manager Bruno Bragagnolo and second-year head coach Doug Laprade.
Look for the Eagles to at least come out ahead of their Border Battle, season series with the cross-river Soo Thunderbirds this time around.
The Thunderbirds have a good coach of their own in John Parco and some good returning players as well but are no match for the Eagles at the executive and management levels.
LEAVE IT TO BEAVERS: Small-town Blind River has several area skaters signed up to play for the coming season as the Beavers pursue a fourth straight winning record under coach-general manager Kyle Brick and his top assistant, Craig MacDonald.
Leading the way is Blind River product — and captain — Caleb Serre, who has already played three full seasons for his hometown NOJHL team and scored 76 goals in 187 games, playoffs included.
Fellow forwards from the area who figure to have a positive impact in Blind River this season are returnees Justin Mauro (Sault Ste. Marie), Tyler Nott (Sault Ste. Marie) and Jack McLeod (Thessalon.)
And new to Blind River is St. Joseph Island product David Campbell, who scored 17 goals as an NOJHL rookie for the Powassan Voodoos last season.
Mauro (Erie Otters) and Campbell (North Bay Battalion) are both Ontario Hockey League prospects from the 2018 priority selections draft.
It says here that Blind River will have yet another winning season and again contend for the lead in the West Division.
EXPRESS THEMSELVES: Long-time junior hockey coach and scout Dave Clancy is back for a second season with the Espanola Express, which has a new president in Jason Rapcewicz.
The goal for Clancy and the Express is to at least get into the playoffs after missing out on the post season in each of the past three seasons and winning just 21 of 168 games in the process.
For that to happen, Espanola will have to get past the Elliot Lake Wildcats and sneak into fifth place in the six-team West side because from this end, it appears that the top four spots in the division will be taken by Rayside-Balfour, Blind River and the two Soo teams.
Speaking of Elliot Lake, the Wildcats have signed a pair of rookies from Sault Ste. Marie, namely forward Nick Jameus and defenseman Jordan Ritchie.
RBC ON THE MARK: The NOJHL as a league operated the Rayside-Balfour Canadians last season.
But take it to the bank that RBC is now in ownership hands that are second to none with Mark Burgess having purchased the franchise from the league.
Burgess and his family owned the Sudbury Wolves of the OHL for 30 years and were one of the best-run, more-profitable businesses in the league during that time.
The Wolves never did win an OHL championship — they did come close — during the Burgess ownership years but the players, coaches and managers were generally very well taken care of.
As the aforementioned Mark Burgess takes the helm of the NOJHL franchise in nearby Rayside-Balfour, he has brought in the hard-working, well-connected Jeff Forsyth in as the general manager.
The affable, well-respected Forsyth did some very good work the past few years as the northern Ontario scout for the OHL Wolves.
Bet on Rayside-Balfour to be at or near the top of the NOJHL standings this season.
BEASTS OF THE EAST: Amazingly, just six points separated five of the six teams in the East Division of the NOJHL last season.
And it was the first-place Hearst Lumberjacks who eventually won the NOJHL championship last season as they ousted the West Division-leading Soo Thunderbirds in a seven-game thriller.
Led by relentless coach-general Marc Lafleur, Hearst figures to be good again this season and so do the Powassan Voodoos, Timmins Rock and Cochrane Crunch.
Timmins has a crackerjack coach of its own in Corey Beer and Cochrane will again be led by its inimitable owner, general manager and coach Ryan (Lenny) Leonard.
Standings-wise this season, it could well mean that it will be the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners trying to hold off the French River Rapids for the fifth playoff spot in the NOJHL East.
French River missed the playoffs for the fourth straight season in 2018-2019 but the Rapids do have some good returnees for incoming head coach Corey Bricknell.
Bricknell is no stranger to the NOJHL, having previously coached both the Elliot Lake Wildcats and the erstwhile Iroquois Falls Eskimos.
PHOTO: Blind River Beavers celebrating a home-ice playoff victory last spring.