A second segment in a given season serves as a stretch run towards spots in the standings ahead of the playoffs. It is also about another stage in player development. And with the 2023 sector of schedules back in play let us take a sled through the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League, the Superior International Jr. Hockey League and the Great North Under 18 Hockey League.
Storylines include a tough West Division where five of six teams took records above .500 into the new year and an unbalanced East Division where half the teams are good and the other half are not.
Sudbury Cubs have the horses to remain atop the West Division. Then come the Blind River Beavers and the surging Soo Thunderbirds within range of Sudbury. Close behind, the Soo Eagles and the upstart Espanola Paper Kings are in a furious fight for the fourth playoff position while glancing over their shoulders at the Elliot Lake Red Wings.
What stands out among the Cubs, Beavers, Thunderbirds and Paper Kings is the quality net minding tandems that all four teams have. If the Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association recruiters are not doing due diligence on at least three of the West side goalies, then they must be out to lunch.
Over in the East Division, it can be reasonably expected that the arch-rival Timmins Rock and Hearst Lumberjacks will stay close in the race for first place while very much aware of the lurking, ever dangerous Powassan Voodoos. Adding to the fuel of the East duel is that Timmins and Hearst are the league attendance leaders.
As for the next three, the Cochrane Crunch, French River Rapids and Kirkland Lake Gold Miners are the definite lesser lights. If there is an advantage that Cochrane has on French River and Kirkland Lake it is with the 1-2 goalie duo of Jake Dubinsky and Marcus Ouellet.
Kam River Fighting Walleye and Dryden Ice Dogs are the top two teams among the seven members of the SIJHL. As Dryden is a flagship SIJHL franchise and a model for how a team should be operated, so too is Kam River, which is in just its second full season of existence. Both franchises are of good, honest repute and are properly and professionally operated from the offices of the president to the general managers and coaching staffs.
While the Fighting Walleye and Ice Dogs are similar in the way that both are havens for players who truly want to play there, the managing and coaching styles are rather different. Kam River general manager Kevin McCallum and Fighting Walleye head coach Geoff Walker are cut from a similar style of modern methods. Meanwhile, over in Dryden, Ice Dogs general manager and head coach Kurt Walsten might well have starred in the iconic movie ‘Slapshot’ while filling any one of a number of character roles. But Walsten does manage to artfully combine old school and new school hockey with an approach that is favourable to both rough and tumble and finesse players.
Not surprisingly, Kam River and Dryden are one-two on the SIJHL attendance chart as teams who know how to market and promote their product. And on the ice, the Fighting Walleye and Ice Dogs are poised to continue to skate it out for first place in the standings and then take it to the limit come playoff time.
If there is another good story in the SIJHL, it is how the expansion Sioux Lookout Bombers came into the new year well above the .500 mark as they appear to be the real deal under head coach and general manager Carson Johnstone. Notably, Johnstone is the son of Chris Johnstone, who coached in the Ontario Hockey League from 1990 to 1997 and did some pretty good work with so-so teams in Niagara Falls and Erie.
Soo Jr. Greyhounds have stood out as a powerhouse program with a stacked team of players born in 2006 and 2007. With four 2007 birth year skaters — defensemen Candon O’Neill and Declan Gallivan and forwards Hudson Chitaroni and Brendan Cooke — who are expected to be mid to late round picks at the 2023 Ontario Hockey League priority selections draft, the Jr. Greyhounds are clear cut favourites to win the Great North championship for a second straight season.
It is worth repeating that of the league’s three biggest market towns, the Soo has only one team in the GNU18HL while Sudbury has the U18 and U16 Nickel Capitals and North Bay has the U18 and U16 Trappers. Which just might explain why the Jr. Greyhounds are the top team in the Great North.
Not to take away from the players, though — the Jr. Greyhounds are a team to be reckoned with, not only by way of the above mentioned ’07 players and others with the same birth year including forwards Deven Jones McDonald, Lucas DiBerardino and Carter Huckson, but with a strong ’06 class as well. The ’06ers include goalie Maverick Fletcher, defenseman Evan Roach and forwards Gabe Palumbo, Cole Cond, Jacob Smith, Callum McAuley and Harley Wardell.
Meanwhile, the Kapuskasing Flyers have stayed within reasonable range of the Soo with five veteran forwards who are among the top 25 scorers in the league — J.P. Audras, Xavier Boulanger, Kasey Chevalier, Nicolas Saucier and Damien Lemoyne. And the Flyers can also flash a top end goalie in Alex Boivin.
Over to Sudbury, the U16 Nickel Capitals have played well above the .500 level despite being one of only two U16 teams in the eight member GNU18HL. Among the many plum performers for reigning coach of the year Jordan Cheechoo and the U16 Nickel Capitals are forwards Cole Dubowsky, Max Campbell, Anthony Bertrand, Kenyan Kidd and Coulson Bell, defensemen Alexandre Valade and Carter Carriere and goalie Nick Marson. Led by Dubowsky, Campbell and Valade, all are potential mid to late round picks at this year’s OHL priority selections draft.
Up in Timmins, the Majors are looking to finish above the .500 mark for the first time in many, many years — and with a young team. Timmins has seven players with 2007 birth dates and among the higher performing ones have been goalie Alex Hall, defenseman Cole Ellis and forwards Ian Lachance and Tyson Scott. Ellis, a 6-foot-2, 165 pound defenceman who hails from the remote northern Ontario town of Chapleau, is being tabbed as an intriguing prospect for the 2023 OHL priority selections draft.