First pucks drop on a number of Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League rinks this week as regular-season play begins in the 12-member loop.
Rayside-Balfour Canadians will usher in the 2017-2018 campaign on Thursday night when they play host to the Elliot Lake Wildcats.
A source of new excitement looms on Friday evening when the Hearst Lumberjacks make their NOJHL debut against the visiting Soo Thunderbirds.
Another Friday night game of note involves North Shore rivals as the Espanola Express plays host to the Blind River Beavers.
Yet another Friday night feature has the Timmins Rock home to the French River Rapids.
And what is a Saturday night in early September without junior hockey?
Saturday contests include home openers for the Cochrane Crunch, Soo Eagles and Blind River Beavers.
A new season generally brings with it fresh thinking, positive expectations and optimism — and the NOJHL is no exception. As the league has grown to 12 teams over the past few years it has attracted better players from throughout Canada and the United States.
To be sure, there are story lines waiting to be written in what has become a hotly-contested, high-energy, well-operated league.
In Sault Ste. Marie, the so-called Border Battle between the Ontario-based Thunderbirds and Michigan-based Eagles has more than lived up to its hype over the years.
A year ago, the West Division-winning Thunderbirds seemed poised to continue their dominance of the fourth-seeded Eagles once the playoffs got going. But in a stunning upset, the Eagles out-hustled and out-played the Thunderbirds en route to a four-game sweep.
Both teams are in a transition of sorts this season.
Long-time head coach Jordan Smith has moved on from the Thunderbirds to the Ontario Hockey League as associate coach of the Sudbury Wolves. Smith’s replacement is the affable, reputable John Parco, a former OHL scoring star and pro hockey champion as a player and coach from his years in Italy.
And after their trip to the West Division finals last spring, the Eagles will be a much-younger team this season though they are returning top scorers and team leaders in forwards Jake Palmerio and Jake Saxton, not to mention the time-honoured coaching duo of Bruno Bragagnolo and Jim Capy.
Up in Timmins, a story waiting to happen is how the Rock will move forward with a new-look board room and new coach and general manager.
Long-time president Scott Marshall has scooted out of Timmins and the iconic Paul Gagne has retired as coach-general manager. The refreshing Ted Gooch is the new president, Kevin Peever has taken over as GM and Corey Beer has moved in from the Ontario Jr. Hockey League to become coach of the Rock.
There are many stories that await. Some will be liked, some won’t be and there will be threats of advertising being cancelled by those who can’t handle the truth.
Another season in one of my favourite leagues is set to begin.
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