The first pucks of the regular season are set to hit the ice as the 2019-2020 Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League campaign soon becomes official.
Meantime, here are just a few of the story lines that figure to come into play as the 12 teams of the NOJHL embark on their 56-game, regular-season schedules.
BORDER BATTLE: It is a time honoured ritual that features the Michigan-based Soo Eagles and the Ontario-based Soo Thunderbirds.
The cross-border rivals are separated by a mere two miles of International Bridge at Sault Ste. Marie and regular season and playoff games between the Eagles and Thunderbirds have, over the years, produced tens of thousands of written words — and verbal clashes.
This season should be no different.
The Eagles will be out to try to close the gap in the standings that favoured the Thunderbirds by 29 points last season.
Returning more than the usual assortment of players from last season to this, the Eagles are led by no-nonsense general manager Bruno Bragagnolo, who will begin his 10th term at the helm of the Michigan Soo squad.
Entering his second season as the Eagles head coach is Bragagnolo’s hand-picked bench boss, Doug Laprade.
Even-keeled and easy to get along with, the 50-year old Laprade is a former Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association championship player and assistant coach from his years with the Lake Superior State University Lakers.
A student of the game who puts a major emphasis on practice time and individual player development, Laprade coaxed a lot out of the Eagles during his first season with them in 2018-2019. Without question, the Eagles became a much improved team as last season went on.
Now, with so much more veteran talent to work with this season, look for Laprade to position the Eagles to build on their 60-point, third-place finish in the NOJHL’s West Division from a year ago.
To add a bit more extra spice to the already-torrid rivalry with the Thunderbirds, the Eagles will feature four forwards who played a lot of hockey growing up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
They are returning forwards Caleb Wood, Raf Praysner and Owen Shier and rookie Jacob Bumbaco. Bumbaco signed with the Eagles during the summer after playing for the Sault Ste. Marie high school hockey champion St. Mary’s Knights last season.
Meanwhile, the Thunderbirds are coming off of a 2018-2019 season in which they rang up a league-best 89 points before losing in seven games to the Hearst Lumberjacks in the NOJHL championship series.
As for their ongoing, border battle rivalry with the Eagles, the Thunderbirds have a fiery head coach in 48-year old John Parco, who has never been known to back down from any type of hockey challenge.
Parco is about to enter his third season with the Thunderbirds and the former Ontario Hockey League scoring star and world-class player and coach from his professional days in Italy, the Sault Ste. Marie native carries a reputation as a strong systems coach whose teams are well prepared and well conditioned.
Like the Eagles, the Thunderbirds have a number of top players back in the fold, many of who are local products. But the Thunderbirds have also lost a lot from last season and will be hard-pressed to finish 29 points ahead of the Eagles again.
Look for the Eagles and Thunderbirds to account for their fair share of NOJHL drama this season.
Look for staff from the Eagles to chirp staff from the Thunderbirds. Look for staff from the Thunderbirds to chirp staff from the Eagles.
Look for the Eagles to again average more than 600 fans per game to venerable Pullar Stadium and look for the Thunderbirds to be lucky to average 200 fans per game to John Rhodes Community Centre.
When it comes to marketing, business management and catering to their fans, it says here that the Eagles are way, way ahead of the Thunderbirds in the consumer standings.
Of which there will be much more to write about over the course of the upcoming season.
LOVE, HATE COMMISH: When all are happy within the NOJHL — players, coaches, managers, owners and fans — it is virtually unanimous that Robert Mazzuca is the best commissioner the league has ever had.
But when the 57-year old Mazzuca hands out a particularly harsh suspension or when a ruling goes against a certain team, he suddenly becomes the worst commissioner the league has ever had and is a blow-hard tyrant who plays favourites.
To be sure, Mazzuca has probably seen it all and heard it all in the eight years that he has been the full-time, effective leader of the NOJHL.
And there is more that is yet to come, no doubt.
Love him? Hate him? Depends on who, what, where, when and why.
From this corner, we like him. (Most of the time.)
SMALL TOWNS: Every year, players from southern Ontario, elsewhere in Canada, and into the United States of America, head north to play in the towns that make up the NOJHL.
Many have never even heard of places such as Blind River, Cochrane, Espanola, French River and Hearst before their arrival. But they quickly become attached to the small towns and hearty citizens of wherever they end up spending a winter or two.
On the Michigan side, the Soo Eagles take in players from all over the state and throughout the USA. They too, along with their parents and family members, grow attached to the Original Hockeytown USA.
All through the NOJHL this season, friendships will be made and bonds will become strong.
Regardless of what some who have their own agendas might think and write, the NOJHL is a well-run, good, solid league with a level of play high enough that it develops players for not only the OHL but the college ranks.
HOCKEY NORTH SHOW: The NOJHL will continue to be a major feature of the Hockey North Show, which will return for another season on Sault Ste. Marie radio station ESPN 1400.
The Hockey North Show will air on Tuesdays from 5-6 p.m., beginning on September 24.