It seems fitting that the Espanola Express and French River Rapids are matched as cohorts, at least through the early going of the 2020-2021 Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League season.
Not only are Espanola and French River small market franchises with a combined population of just over 7,500 inhabitants, the two towns are separated by a mere 90 miles of highway.
And besides that, both the Express and Rapids came into the NOJHL together as expansion teams back in 2015.
At any rate, the two nearby squadrons are poised to begin head to head competition with a pair of games this weekend — Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Espanola and Saturday at 7:00 p.m. in French River.
The two teams are slated to face off against each other six times during the month of November.
With new head coach Brent Hughes — who is coming off of three straight winning seasons as an assistant coach with the Cape Breton Eagles of the Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League — at the helm in Espanola, the Express features no less than nine NOJHL players with northeastern Ontario roots.
They are forwards Josh Boucher (Lively), Bradley Brunet (Sudbury), Cameron Walker (Sudbury), Devon Savignac (Garson) and Cole Delarosbil (Sault Ste. Marie) as well as defensemen A.J. Favot (Sudbury), Joshua Kavanagh (Hanmer), and Jordan Ritchie (Sault Ste. Marie) and goalie Carson Boutin (Iroquois Falls.)
And among the newcomers to the Express and the NOJHL are four young Ontario Hockey League draft picks that include late 2002 birth year goalie Owen Willis (London Knights), 2003 birth year defenseman Wade Bolton (Mississauga Steelheads), 2004 birth year defender Lucas Littlejohn (Niagara Ice Dogs) and 2004 birth year forward Luke Bibby (Owen Sound Attack.)
Espanola is coming off of a 2019-2020 season in which the Express posted 39 points from a record of 17-34-5 and made the playoffs for the first time since its inaugural 2015-2016 campaign.
Meanwhile, over in French River, president, general manager and coach Paul Frustaglio has four of the Rapids top five scorers from the 2019-2020 season on board in forwards Ryan Smith, Ty Chambers, Cooper Bowman and Jack Tos.
Smith is a signed OHL draft pick of the Sudbury Wolves.
The Rapids have missed the playoffs in each of their previous five NOJHL seasons, including the 2019-2020 campaign in which they registered 31 points from a record of 13-38-5.
Of interest, Espanola and French River made an exchange of 2001 birth year skaters during the off season with James Eng boarding the Express and Jaydyn Parnell moving over to the Rapids.