Northern Ontario has long had a prominent presence in the junior A hockey game. Nowadays it is the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League and the Superior International Jr. Hockey League. But from 1965 until 1981 it was the International Jr. B Hockey League that had a town filled existence in Northern Ontario and Northern Michigan.
Ah, those were the days. There were rabid rivalries with games that were high scoring and penalty filled as part of a rough and tumble junior B league with teams in towns that highlighted local and area hockey players. Games were played in cold rinks where fans braved the chills of winter to hoot and root for the home team and boo and hiss the visitors — and then piss outside in the snow between periods when the washroom lineups inside were too long.
Jr. B teams that set up shop in the old IJHL included the Blind River Beavers, Chapleau Huskies, Elliot Lake Vikings, Marquette Americans, Soo Indians, Soo Thunderbirds, Thessalon Flyers and Wawa Travellers.
It was a run, gun and gritty league and not for the faint of heart, with brawls galore — as in on the ice between the players, in the stands among unruly fans, and in the beer soaked, smoke filled, honky tonk bars of Blind River, Elliot Lake, the Michigan Soo, Thessalon and Wawa — before, during and after the games.
I speak from experience.
I was there as a broadcaster or a writer for many of the goon shows in many of the towns. And I was no innocent bystander when it came to drinking beer before, during and after games.
Back then, none of the rinks served beer. But there was always beer to be had before game time via the trunk of someone’s car. Then there were those who were not above sneaking cans of beer into the various rinks in the deep pockets of winter coats. And one of the best places to be in between periods of a given game was at the Thessalon Memorial Arena with two nearby bars on the same street that were packed during intermissions — and where thirsty patrons would sit or stand with a beer in each hand.
Then, of course, there was the legendary ‘Bomb Shelter’ that was located adjacent to Pullar Stadium in the Michigan Soo. Beers back then were like 20 cents a can and one could get a good buzz going for a buck — before, during, and after a given game of the erstwhile Jr. B Indians of the Michigan Soo.
My goodness, what a series of brawls and beers and goals and assists and spilled blood.
I watched games at rinks in every one of the above mentioned towns except Chapleau — and the only ones that were actually comfortable were Lakeview Arena in Marquette and Pullar Stadium in the Michigan Soo. But it was a blast of fun in just about every town and I can’t say I ever had a time that was less than enjoyable.
To be sure, it was a different time. And while times and the game have certainly changed, there were skills and thrills — besides the spills — from those days that remain etched in the memory bank of yours truly.
Here and there, I covered the venerable Jr. B loop from the mid 1970s— which was around my first year in the media — until it folded, in the early 1980s.
I reported on the IJHL as a sportscaster for CKCY Radio and CJIC TV in Sault Ste. Marie and as a play by play announcer for radio station CJWA in Wawa, not to mention numerous colour commentary and intermission appearances on CJNR in Blind River and WSMM in the Michigan Soo.
While my main focus back then were the Soo Greyhounds and the Ontario Hockey League, I really liked covering the erstwhile IJHL as well.
Sadly, many of the towns no longer have junior teams. Most of the radio stations have signed off the air. But the flashbacks still hold dear to the tests and times of the old junior B loop.
There was rarely a dull moment in being at an IJHL game and covering a league that was maintained on volunteer help and fan loyalty — and where finances were often an issue and some of the teams travelled by car, stayed in roadside motels and dined on ham and cheese and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to save money. The players may not have been spoiled but they didn’t want for much either.
I remember many of the players from many of the teams who were memorable for either scoring goals, stopping pucks or being rugged hombres with menacing ways.
Soo Thunderbirds were not only a team made up exclusively of local kids but there were enough Soo, Ontario boys to either cross the river into Michigan to play for the Soo Indians or head up the highway to Thessalon to suit up for the Flyers.
The IJHL had volunteer commissioners who operated with little or no budget, guys like John Reynolds, Ken Elliott and Ron Valentine. And there were coaches and managers who were the best of volunteers, men such as Abbie Carricato and Hec Pozzo of the Thunderbirds, Paul Theriault, Don Lillie and John Becanic Sr. of the Indians, and Paul Tait and Mike Mania from up in Wawa.
Forwards and defensemen who stood out to me from the five or six years that I covered the league included Dave Antonello, Chris Braido, Tom Buchan, Carlo DiCandia, Brent Jarrett, Toots Kovacs, Paul Luciani, Mike O’Connor, Danny Russell, Randy Sandvik and Darren Zack of the Thunderbirds, Dave Cappellani, Jim Capy, Johnny Cucullo, Fred Devuono, John Ferroni, Charlie Gimpel, Jerry Harwood, Tim Lee, Dave Lillie, Pat Lillie, Daryel McCarrel, Lee Rodgers, Larry Suurna and Jim Watchorn of the Indians, Chris Beacock, Pat Evoy, Frank Gaccione, George Kennedy, Kevin King, Pat King, Tom Mitchell, Karli Paat, Lorne Robinson and Mike Vine of Thessalon, and Gilles Begin, Paul Begin, Earl Dereski, Nelson Duchesne, Chuck Farand and Barry Keating from Wawa.
Goalies who I can still picture in the net are Larry Briffett, Ron Elliott and Steve Nolan of the Thunderbirds, Joe Shawhan and Tim Watchorn of the Indians, Al Holden and Randy Sherman of Thessalon and Pierre Dumont from Wawa.
They were the good, old days of junior B hockey. But having said that, both of the aforementioned NOJHL and SIJHL have forged an identity as credible junior A hockey leagues with teams based in the north.
The NOJHL currently features the Soo Eagles, Soo Thunderbirds, Blind River Beavers, Elliot Lake Vikings, Espanola Paper Kings, Sudbury Cubs, French River Rapids, Powassan Voodoos, Timmins Rock, Iroquois Falls Storm, Kirkland Lake Gold Miners and Hearst Lumberjacks. And in the SIJHL are the Thunder Bay North Stars, Kam River Fighting Walleye, Dryden Ice Dogs, Red Lake Miners, Fort Frances Lakers, Sioux Lookout Bombers, Kenora Islanders and Wisconsin Lumberjacks.
The NOJHL and the SIJHL, not to mention the old IJHL, will not be mistaken for the OHL when it comes to overall skill level. But the legacy of the grassroots junior A and junior B leagues of the north is one that is and was, tried, tested and true.
And besides that, we in the north are well represented in the OHL with the Soo Greyhounds, Sudbury Wolves and North Bay Battalion. All are well established OHL franchises with committed ownership groups. So, in that respect, many of us get to experience the best of the varying junior hockey worlds.