Small market sizzle


Randy Russon
By
September 9, 2020

Their combined population is less than 10,000 residents.

Located along rugged highways between the much bigger places of Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury, the small market towns that house the Blind River Beavers and Espanola Express are separated by a mere one hour drive.

And looking ahead to the 2020-2021 Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League season, Blind River and Espanola seem set up to be formidable foes.

Which would be a boost for the Beavers-Express rivalry that has favoured Blind River over Espanola in the standings since the Express entered the NOJHL as a first year franchise in 2015.

In its NOJHL debut season of 2015-2016, the Express managed to edge out the Beavers for the fifth and final playoff spot in the West Division by just three points as Espanola posted a 12-39-3 record compared to a 10-40-4 mark by Blind River.

In the four seasons since, though — coincident with the arrival of coach and general manager Kyle Brick in Blind River — the Beavers have finished well ahead of the Express in the West Division standings.

In 2016-2017, Blind River finished 48 points in front of Espanola as the Beavers had a record of 32-20-4 compared to the Express mark of 9-45-2.

The margin was even greater in 2017-2018 when Blind River finished a whopping 64 points ahead of Espanola as the Beavers fashioned a record of 33-19-4 compared to an awful Express mark of 2-52-2.

Over to the 2018-2019 season, Blind River had a 34 point advantage over Espanola with the Beavers going 25-24-7 and the Express bringing up the rear with a 10-43-3 mark.

It was more of the same in 2019-2020 as Blind River wound up 39 points ahead of Espanola as the Beavers registered a 37-15-4 record compared to a 17-34-5 showing by the Express. Espanola did manage to return to the playoffs in 2019-2020 for the first time since the 2015-2016 campaign.

Now, in a glance ahead at what the 2020-2021 season might have in store, the Express appears poised to offer more of a competitive balance in its rivalry with the nearby Beavers.

Jason Rapcewicz

Second year president and general manager Jason Rapcewicz has set the bar for potential prominence in Espanola in putting together a roster of returning and incoming players that figure to give new head coach Brent Hughes plenty to work with.

As it stands now, Espanola is expected to feature no less than seven skaters who are Ontario Hockey League draft picks, including splendid 2003 birth year forward Devon Sevignac, who, ironically, was recently acquired in a trade with Blind River.

Sprinkle them with several good returnees and a few highly-touted rookies and Rapcewicz has set a tidy table for Hughes, his new coach.

The 38-year old Hughes, while he does have a good past that includes three straight winning seasons (2016-2017, 2017-2018 and 2018-2019) with the Cape Breton Eagles of the Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League, certainly has a credible act to follow in former Express bench boss Dave Clancy.

The crusty Clancy did a good job in his second season in Espanola in 2019-2020, coaching the Express back into the playoffs for the first time since the 2015-2016 campaign and winning the NOJHL’s coach of the year award.

But Clancy and Rapcewicz could not agree on terms of a new contract for the upcoming, 2020-2021 season, thus the hiring of Hughes as the new conductor on the Express.

In a classy move, Rapcewicz has not been shy to acknowledge the work done by Clancy and his staff in Espanola.

“I can say that Dave and his staff did a great job for us,” Rapcewicz began. “Unfortunately we could not come to an agreement on terms for a new contract.

“When you are operating a business such as this, you have to stay within the budget … and I was not willing to overspend to keep Dave and his staff. However, let me say that they did a really good job establishing a solid base for us to be able to move forward towards this season,” added Rapcewicz.

At any rate, with the majority of the Espanola roster for the 2020-2021 already signed or committed, Rapcewicz is hopeful that the Express is primed for advancement with the aforementioned Hughes at the helm as the new head coach.

“As you know, Brent is coming from the Q (Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League) and he has goals and aspirations to get back to that level. I think with what our program wants to do in terms of player development and what Brent’s philosophies are and what his goals are, I think that together, we will be successful this coming season and be in a position to be challengers, maybe even contenders,” relayed Rapcewicz.

Kyle Brick

Meanwhile, over in Blind River, the Beavers are out to extend their winning ways to five straight seasons under aforementioned coach-GM Kyle Brick and his staff of assistants that included trusted lieutenants Dylan King and Craig MacDonald and goalie coach Jamie Disano.

Brick is regarded as one of the top coach-manager combos within the Canadian Jr. A Hockey League, King is a former NOJHL, OHL and minor pro defenseman of several seasons and MacDonald has earned a reputation over the previous four NOJHL terms as a tireless scout and recruiter.

And notably, as of now, Blind River has commitments from more than a dozen players for the looming NOJHL season, including a number of impact returnees and high end rookies among multiple OHL draft picks.

Meantime, just imagine the rabid rivalry that will be formed if Espanola can be a serious match for its small market counterparts down the road in Blind River.

Could be some nasty nights on the North Shore this winter.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *