The game has changed, at least for the time being.
In modified form — as in no intentional physical contact — the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League is into its second week of regular season play after a short test drive of exhibition action.
Restrictions aside, the general manager of the Soo Thunderbirds has no real issues with the NOJHL’s new normal, while also liking the makeup of his own team.
Trevor Zachary, now in his fourth season as the Thunderbirds GM, noted that “the game is most likely going to remain the way it is now for the foreseeable future … that is just the way it is as we all deal with COVID-19.”
Appearing on the first edition of the 2020-2021 season on the Hockey North Show, which airs on Wednesdays from 5-6 p.m. on local radio station Eagle 95.1 (on line via http://EagleRadio951.com) Zachary noted that “everyone is working together to get used to the new style of play … players, coaches, officials etc.
“I think that all of us who are involved with the NOJHL in any way, shape or form, are just happy to see that we are playing again after being off for eight months.
“The style if more wide open, that is for sure. And the skill and the speed of the game is really standing out now, which is what a lot of people are saying,” added the 47-year old Zachary, who during his days as a player, skated in the NOJHL for the erstwhile Thessalon Flyers and at the local high school level before moving up to play Canadian university hockey for both the Windsor Lancers and Lakehead Thunderwolves.
As for the 2020-2021 edition of the Thunderbirds, who feature 13 locals on their 21 player roster, Zachary said he certainly likes the makeup of the team, which is being coached by an all-new staff led by esteemed bench boss Denny Lambert and including assistants Gary Roach, Micky Sartoretto, Jeremy Stevenson and Aidan Wright.
“I really like our mix of new and returning players and it certainly is a bonus when you can have 13 local kids on your team,” relayed Zachary.
The list of locals includes six rookies: forwards Michael Chaffay, Tyson Doucette, Ethan Novello and Ty Zachary and defensemen Kaden Dundas and Connor Toms.
Locals with a veteran background include defenseman Jacob Doucette and forwards Parker Morgan, Avery Rebek, Kurtis Rogers, Brock Santa Maria, Cooper Smyl and Caleb Wood.
Of note is the brother act of the Doucette boys, Tyson who was born in 2004 and Jacob who carries a 2001 birth date.
The younger Doucette earned his way onto the Thunderbirds roster after playing for the Soo Jr. Greyhounds of the Great North Under 18 AAA Hockey League last season. And despite having two full seasons of under 18, AAA eligibility remaining, Doucette impressed Zachary and the coaching staff enough to sign an NOJHL card with the Thunderbirds.
“He is more than capable of playing in the NOJHL as a 16-year old,” Zachary said evenly. “Tyson played his way onto our team. Denny and his staff like Tyson’s potential, his commitment and his all around attention to detail.”
Meanwhile, being able to add the older Doucette to the Thunderbirds blue line brigade was an unexpected bonus, said Zachary.
“Jacob is a student at the University of Windsor but he is at home taking classes on line so when he indicated he would like to play for us this season, we took a good look at him and then we signed him.
“He is a good, stay at home defenseman who has some skill and prior experience in our league,” Zachary said of the older Doucette, who has an NOJHL past of 63 games over two seasons with the Espanola Express, totaling one goal, nine assists, 10 points while racking up 89 minutes in penalties in the process.
Meanwhile, among the out of town talent on the Thunderbirds is smart, skilled 2001 birth year defenseman Cameron Dutkiewicz.
A Timmins native, the 6 foot, 190 pound Dutkiewicz spent the 2019-2020 season with the Renfrew Timberwolves of the Central Canada Hockey League 2 division.
He netted four goals, 11 assists, 15 points in 40 games for Renfrew.
A right handed shooting defender with offensive skills, Dutkiewicz spent three full seasons prior to the 2019-2020 campaign on the blue line of the Timmins Majors of the Great North Under 18 AAA Hockey League, developing very well under coach Brandon Perry and his staff.
In 100 regular season games with the Timmins midgets, Dutkiewicz totaled 20 goals, 22 assists, 42 points.
Zachary likes the ability of Dutkiewicz, who was acquired on a recommendation from yours truly.
“We thank you for making us aware of Cam and that he was interested in playing in the NOJHL,” Zachary began. “The kid can flat out play … he has a lot of skill and is one of the strongest players on our team.”
The Thunderbirds also went out of town to bring in a new goalie tandem for the 2020-2021 NOJHL season.
The acquisition of 2001 birth year net minder Alex Bugeja from the Fort Frances Lakers of the Superior International Jr. Hockey League gives the Thunderbirds an experienced Jr. A twine tender.
Bugeja will share net duties with Scott Young, a goalie with a 2000 birth date who spent a portion of the 2019-2020 season in Sweden.
Prior to that, the 6-foot-5, 180 pound Young played at the junior B level with his hometown Calgary Royals, backstopping them to a league championship in 2018-2019.
Following a recent, two game exhibition tuneup, the Thunderbirds will begin the NOJHL regular season this weekend with a home and home set with the Blind River Beavers.
The teams will meet on Friday at 7 p.m. at John Rhodes Community Center in the Soo and on Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Community Center in Blind River.