Playing high school hockey in Sault Ste. Marie has proven to be far from the end of the line for a number of performers who have managed to move up an ice level over the years.
In particular, teams in the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League have benefited from the addition of several former Sault Ste. Marie high school standouts.
And not only has there been a cast of many who have advanced from the high school level in the Soo to play in the NOJHL, a few have even gone on to play university and pro hockey.
The most-famous graduate of the Soo high school hockey program is Colin Miller, who is now a 26-year old defenseman with the Vegas Knights of the National Hockey League.
Miller, to be sure, took a path less traveled to get to the NHL as somewhat of a late bloomer.
As a 15-year old, he played high school hockey in his hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, suiting up for the White Pines Wolverines.
From White Pines, Miller moved up to the Soo North Stars of the Great North Midget Hockey League and to the Soo Thunderbirds of the NOJHL before signing with the Soo Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League as an undrafted free agent and then — in stunning fashion — becoming an NHL draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings. After being traded to the Boston Bruins and then moving on to Vegas, Miller made it all the way to Stanley Cup finals last spring while playing top minutes for the Knights.
While Miller may be a one-time find as a player who has moved on from high school hockey in the Soo to the NOJHL then the OHL and now the NHL, others have followed a pretty good path of ascension from humble beginnings.
Another former White Pines skater, center Ryan Maunu, took his game to higher levels after his high school playing days were done.
After graduating from White Pines, Maunu starred in the NOJHL for two seasons — 2004 until 2006 — to the extent that he led the aforementioned Soo Thunderbirds in scoring both years. Maunu then went on to play Ontario university hockey at both Lakehead in Thunder Bay and Nipissing in North Bay before moving on to the Southern Professional Hockey League for a couple of seasons — with diploma in hand.
The late Michael Doan Jr. also used high school hockey in the Soo as a springboard.
After backstopping the St. Mary’s Knights to local and provincial championships in 2009, Doan played two seasons in the NOJHL, tending twine for both the Soo Eagles and Soo Thunderbirds. His stellar play as an NOJHL goalie earned Doan a Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association scholarship with the Northern Michigan Wildcats and from there, he went on to play at the University of Windsor and then at the minor pro level.
Sadly, having just completed his first season as a pro, Doan passed away at age 25 in July of 2017 following a car accident.
Doan was not the only member of the St. Mary’s championship team who went on to see regular duty in the NOJHL. Defenseman James Delayer also moved up to the NOJHL and played two seasons with the Soo Thunderbirds, helping them win the 2011-2012 league and Dudley Hewitt Cup, Central Canada championships.
The main rival for St. Mary’s back then were the Central Algoma Huskies, who featured a high-scoring forward who went to have a good career in the NOJHL. Brett Campbell suited up for the Blind River Beavers and Soo Thunderbirds before going on to play Division 3, National Collegiate Athletic Association hockey.
There have been others who have taken their game from the high school rinks of Sault Ste. Marie to become better than average players in the NOJHL.
In the mid 2000s, a pair of forwards parlayed good high school hockey careers with the Sir James Dunn Eagles to become effective forwards in the NOJHL. Matt Irving took his scoring touch from Sir James Dunn to the Blind River Beavers and Ryan McLean brought his grit and work ethic to the Soo Thunderbirds from good, old SJD.
Prior to that, yet another former Sir James Dunn player, goalie D.J. Robertson, became an Ontario Hockey League draft pick of the London Knights in 1999.
It is worth noting that Robertson, Irving and McLean all played at the Dunn for esteemed coach Remi Gentes, who is now the convenor of the Soo’s high school hockey program.
Are there more players from the Soo high school hockey loop who could be headed for, say, the NOJHL?
Well, just from the St. Mary’s Knights and Korah Colts, who played for the local high school hockey championship this 2018-2019 season, there are four award winning players who also have the experience of having played in the aforementioned Great North Midget Hockey League in 2017-2018.
They are St. Mary’s forward Dale Armstrong and a trio from Korah, namely goalie Dawson Hunter, defenseman Mateo Perri and forward Ty Zachary. And another award winner, goalie Tyler Greco of the Central Algoma Huskies, also played in the Great North loop last season.
Without question, Armstrong, Hunter, Perri, Zachary and Greco — among others who played high school hockey in the Soo this 2018-2019 season — have the potential to play in the NOJHL, should they choose to pursue that avenue.
To be sure, there is hockey that can still played beyond the high school rinks of, in this case, Sault Ste. Marie.
Meanwhile, players are not the only ones who have moved up from the high school level in the Soo to coaching in the NOJHL.
Jim Capy, after coaching at both Sir James Dunn and Korah, then coached for more than 10 years in the NOJHL, manning benches for the Soo Thunderbirds, Blind River Beavers, Soo Indians and Soo Eagles.
And current Thunderbirds associate coach Toots Kovacs also did bench duty at the high school level in the Soo, helping out for a time with White Pines.
Then there is Jamie Henderson, a former high school player at Sir James Dunn who went on to become a championship coach at St. Mary’s and then a banner winner in the NOJHL with the Thunderbirds. Henderson has coached in the Great North midget loop the past two seasons with the Soo Minor Thunderbirds.
And of further note, former Central Algoma high school player and St. Mary’s assistant coach Kyle Brick is now in his third NOJHL season in Blind River. Brick is the coach and general manager of the Beavers after having served a prior NOJHL apprenticeship as an assistant coach with the Soo Thunderbirds.
All of the above mentioned players and coaches are proof positive of the talent that has graced the high school hockey scene in Sault Ste. Marie in recent years.