Give the NOJHL some love

Randy Russon
March 27, 2018

It is not the Ontario Hockey League. But there are players aplenty who get to the OHL via the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.

For those who haven’t noticed — and for those who are blinded by the bright lights of the southern Ontario junior A loops — the NOJHL is a really good league with really good players.

Just from one team alone — the Soo Thunderbirds — current OHLers who got there from the NOJHL include Soo Greyhounds star left winger Boris Katchouk, Kitchener Rangers standout goalie Mario Culina, Erie Otters recently-turned-pro defenceman Owen Headrick, Sudbury Wolves pepper pot forwards Darian Pilon and Drake Pilon and Guelph Storm rookie pivot Keegan Stevenson.

I have had a reputable OHL general manager in Dave Drinkill of Saginaw tell me how impressed he is with the NOJHL and how happy he is with the way top Spirit prospect Camaryn Baber has developed as a rookie centre with the Thunderbirds.

“We are beyond thrilled with how Cam has developed in the NOJHL and under a good coach such as John Parco,” Drinkill relayed to me a while back. “The NOJHL is good league.”

Why it is not more widely respected is mind-boggling.

I mean, you would think, having seen how many players that are developed by the NOJHL for the OHL, that there would be some level of interest shown by Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association schools, including the nearby Lake Superior State Lakers, Northern Michigan Wildcats and Michigan Tech Huskies.

Let’s be serious and honest and up front here.

That is, if a player from the NOJHL is good enough to make it to the OHL, then he is certainly good enough to play in the Division 1, Western Collegiate Hockey Association, of which Lake Superior State, Northern Michigan and Michigan Tech are all a part of.

Ah, Lake Superior State, which has two NOJHL teams (Soo Thunderbirds and Soo Eagles) within two miles of it and a third (Blind River Beavers) a mere hour-and-a-half away.

What is Lakers coach Damon Whitten — who has been at the helm of four straight losing seasons at Lake Superior State — thinking by turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to those who tell him over and over again how many good NOJHL players there are right in his own back yard?

Oh well.

What’s the old saying? You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.

At any rate, the OHL does rather well by the NOJHL.

It’s just a pity that the WCHA — especially Lake Superior State — chooses not to.

I guess it’s just another loss for the Lakers.

What you think about “Give the NOJHL some love”

  1. Well said Randy. It truly is a shame that the Michigan D 1 programs turn a blind eye on this league when both the talent and the elite student athletes with the academic strength to excel in a U.S College program are playing right in these school’s backyard. In many cases, these players have moved great distances away from home to show case their skills to these programs in the hopes that their careers will continue at the D 1 level. Playing elite hockey while pursuing a degree at the same time.

  2. Are these examples of kids who wanted to play NCAA Div 1 hockey, were good enough to play Div 1 hockey, and who were academically qualified (could make it through the NCAA Clearing House) to play Div 1 hockey? Or did they go to the OHL as their preferred choice? For whatever reason, it seems that most Northern Ontario kids (NOJHL and SIJHL areas) choose to play major junior hockey rather than go the Div 1 route.

    The vast majority of Div 1 programs have much larger budgets than LSSU. Generally if a kid is good enough to play Div 1, wants to play Div 1, and is academically qualified to play Div 1, some school (not just LSSU, NMU, or MTU)will find him and offer him a scholarship regardless of where he plays. Some high profile Div 1 schools are now recruiting players directly out of Europe, primarily Finland and Sweden, so they will go wherever they can to find players.

    True that not a lot of NOJHL players get Div 1 scholarships. LSSU has picked up more than other schools. Jeff Rainville, Barnabas Birkeland, and Owen Headrick come to mind as LSSU recruits, although Owen left LSSU to play for Erie just after the midpoint of last season. They also got a commitment from Brody Brunet a few years back but I believe he had to end his hockey career due to injuries before even playing for the Lakers. The Lakers just did get a new commitment from a Northern Ontario kid, Jesse Tucker, who I think was originally from Longlac and now lists Thunder Bay as his hometown. He currently plays for North York of the OJHL. And MSU did recruit Brett Perlini a few years back.

  3. Cookie- if that’s your name, I think the fact that no Michigan D1 schools have even attended the nojhl showcase the last 2 years sums it up. I also know for a fact that NOJHL players and coaches emails to these schools confirming interest in attending go unanswered.

  4. Heck, forget D1, how many players have the Eagles moved on to D3 college? Out of all the announcements last year of D3 college commitments (Morrisville, etc), I think there were only 2 that actually went to Wisconsin River Falls. Pretty crazy that players who leave the Eagles and go play Tier 3 (NA3HL) for example, move on to play college faster than the ones that stay with the Eagles (Trine, Chatham, Gustavus, etc). Can think of 1 Eagle who moved to OHL last year. If you cant demonstrate moving players to D3 college teams, what makes you think you can move them on to D1 teams? Maybe LSSU coaches know more than you give them credit for?

  5. Not just the LSSU coaches, but all DIv 1 coaches.

    If the more talented Northern Ontario kids would choose to play in the NOJHL for at least a couple of seasons instead of signing on with the OHL right out of midget hockey, then I think that would increase Div 1 recruiting in the NOJHL, not just for them but for other NOJHL players who perhaps take longer to devolop their talent. When they sign with the OHL right out of midgets, that’s telling me that they aren’t seriously considering Div 1 hockey.

  6. Not just LSSU coaches, all Div 1 coaches.

    If the more talented Northern Ontario kids chose to play at least a couple of seasons in the NOJHL instead of signing with the OHL right out of midget hockey, I think that alone would increase Div 1 recruiting in the NOJHL, not just for them but for other kids in the league who just haven’t developed their talent as quickly. If a kid signs with the OHL right out of midget hockey, that’s telling me that he probably hasn’t seriously considered Div 1 hockey.

  7. Lake State does have a decent-looking recruiting class coming in next year, but it’ll take more than that to turn their program around. Seems as if the Lakers are going for the home run ball by recruiting in the USHL, BCHL, and NAHL. Although they’re very high-caliber leagues with tons of talent, most of the higher end players in those leagues are already going to bigger and better programs. The NOJ is only getting better and I’m sure the Lakers and other D1 schools will open their eyes to it soon enough. I’ll always believe in the Lakers but they really need to change things up recruiting-wise if they want to become relevant again.

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