Northern breeze

Randy Russon
August 22, 2017

Holding steady with 12 teams and two divisions, they are taking to the practice ice preparatory to another Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League season.

To be sure, the winds of change are noticeable along the rugged highways of the NOJHL.

In fact, the last two NOJHL championship teams have undergone major change since the end of the 2016-2017 campaign.

Reigning champion Powassan Voodoos have a new head coach with Beau Moyer taking the helm from Scott Wray.

Moyer is fresh from seasons of developing top talent with the Vaughan Kings midgets while Wray has been rewarded for his good work in the NOJHL by landing an assistant coach position with the North Bay Battalion of the Ontario Hockey League.

Soo Thunderbirds, who won the 2015-2016 NOJHL championship and finished atop the West Division standings in 2016-2017 only to be swept by the cross-border Soo Eagles in the first round of the playoffs, also have a new bench boss.

John Parco, a former OHL scoring star with the erstwhile Belleville Bulls who went on to a long and illustrious playing and coaching career in Italy, has returned to his hometown to coach the Thunderbirds. Parco is replacing Jordan Smith, who has moved up to the OHL as associate coach with the Sudbury Wolves.

One of the really good guys of the game and just an all-around good person, Parco is a hockey guy through and through. He literally lives at the rink, be it with the Thunderbirds, his hockey skills development business, or continuing to help out with his young son’s team that plays out of the Soo Pee Wee Hockey League.

As coaches Wray and Smith have moved up to the OHL, the venerable Paul Gagne has retired as coach of the Timmins Rock.

Gagne, one of the more-respected coaches in the history of the NOJHL, has given way to young Corey Beer. Beer has shifted to the NOJHL and Timmins from an assistant coach position with the 2017 Royal Bank Cup champion Cobourg Cougars of the Ontario Jr. Hockey League.

As Beer takes over from Gagne as coach of the Rock, Kevin Peever settles in as the new GM in Timmins.

Meanwhile, a sore spot in the NOJHL over the past two seasons has been the French River Rapids.

The Rapids have finished last overall in each of their two seasons of NOJHL existence but have new leadership and direction heading into the 2017-2018 campaign.

Paul Frustaglio is the new operator of the franchise and former OHL and Austrian pro scoring standout Ken Strong is the new head coach. And in a further touch of credibility, the ageless Sherry Bassin, who expertly managed Oshawa Generals, Soo Greyhounds and Erie Otters to OHL championships, has lent his name and reputation to French River as senior director of hockey operations.

The NOJHL has also undergone bittersweet change.

The good and supportive folks of Iroquois Falls have lost their beloved Eskimos via relocation to Hearst.

It’s a new beginning for the NOJHL up in the remote northeastern Ontario town of Hearst where the team will be known as the Lumberjacks and led by coach-general manager Marc Lafleur, who had good success over a number of years in a similar role with the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners.

Ryan Wood has moved in to Kirkland Lake from the Greater Metro Jr. Hockey League to replace the reputable Lafleur as coach and GM of the Gold Miners.

As notable change has occurred throughout the north region, much good has remained the same in other areas.

In the Michigan Soo, the well-seasoned coach-management team led by Bruno Bragagnolo and Jim Capy returns to the Eagles with their decades and decades of experience.

As they change with the times, Bragagnolo and Capy will get youthful assistance from newly-hired video-analytics coach Nick Perri, who arrives in the Michigan Soo and the NOJHL via the North American 3 Hockey League.

Without question, the Eagles are one of the better-run NOJHL franchises and among the league’s annual attendance leaders, just behind Timmins.

The fortunes of the Blind River Beavers turned around in a big way in 2016-2017.

Just a few years removed from a win-less season, the Beavers made it all the way to the NOJHL finals in 2016-2017 and Kyle Brick returns for a second season as head coach in 2017-2018.

Status quo is also being maintained in Rayside-Balfour.

Canadians owner Adrian Gedye has brought stability and day-to-day attention to the Rayside-Balfour franchise. And for good measure, Gedye will again look to former NOJHL championship coach Dave Clancy as his no-nonsense coach and GM.

One of the NOJHL’s more colourful characters also returns as a successful operator up in the wilds of Cochrane.

Ryan Leonard owns, manages and coaches the Crunch of Cochrane and under his watch, the team has been an annual contender. Never short on words or appetite, Leonard eats, breathes and sleeps junior hockey.

Elsewhere, the Espanola Express will be looking to get back on track after missing the playoffs last season.

NOJHL coaching veteran Tommy McCarthy returns to his adopted hometown of Espanola after a bench stint in Romania last season and along with GM Chad Clarke, will try to conduct the Express on the right course.

And in Elliot Lake, the Wildcats will try to return to their successes of years prior.

The Wildcats won only 23 of 56 regular-season games in 2016-2017 and average attendance dipped to 289 — a decrease of almost 100 fans per outing from 2015-2016.

Whatever or whoever the reason, the on-ice performance and support at the gate have sharply declined in Elliot Lake since the departures of high-end coach Nathan Hewitt and respectable GM Todd Stencill.

Following a slate of exhibition matches, the 2017-2018 NOJHL season begins on September 7.

What you think about “Northern breeze”

  1. Ryan… I have heard Temiscaming and Iroquois falls will join as expansion for 2018-2019, plus a new American team to make the league have 3 divisions of 5

  2. That’s awesome to have as many as 15 teams.

    I can picture the NOJHL being like this in 2018-19

    Div TBA
    French River
    Elliot Lake

    Div TBA
    Kirkland Lake
    Iroquois Falls

    Div TBA
    Blind River
    Soo Eagles
    Soo Thunderbirds
    American team TBA

  3. I personally think making the league larger, more teams, is worse. The maximum number of teams the NOJHL should have is 8 teams. Less hockey players in minor hockey, especially across the north means less quality players. If we are talking about quality hockey then less teams is the answer. More teams just means watering the league down. Commissioner and owners may like it and it would make 20 unqualified junior players happy but it would lead to a lessor brand of hockey being played on the ice.

    1. Too bad some teams have to charge player fees because they can’t operate on their own budgets through their sponsors and season ticket sales and money collected at the gate through ticket sales. At the same time, teams have raised their single game adult tickets from $10 to $12. I have a feeling adult tickets will be $15 in the next few years. Are team owners getting greedy, or do they have a hard time keeping their teams in the league?

  4. Northern Guy I like the way you think. I am on same page. We have 12 we live now with it but you are correct not enough players and watering down if we keep expanding. The league made huge strides over the past 6 yrs in perfect world IMHO 10 is perfect number if we ever lost any teams. That’s my honest opinion from someone who has been around for a long time.

  5. Look at the Superior International Junior Hockey League. They’ve never had more than 7 teams. Now the league stands at 6 and will reach 8 if they’re lucky.

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