They are similar Under 18 AAA hockey programs that are separated by a mere two miles of International Bridge at Sault Ste. Marie. One team plays in the Great North Under 18 Hockey League under the umbrella of the Northern Ontario Hockey Association. The other is a participant in the USA Under 18 Tier 1 Hockey Federation League as members of the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association.
In the meantime, Soo Jr. Greyhounds from the Ontario side and Soo Indians from the Michigan base of the St. Mary’s River at the International Bridge are finalizing the rosters for their respective teams ahead of the 2023-2024 season.
And there is a good possibility that the two teams could face off in a series of exhibition games this coming season. New Jr. Greyhounds head coach Sean Gagnon, his assistant coach Pat Carricato and Indians general manager Mike Kaunisto all told me that they would “love” to set up a series of games between the two cross-border teams this season. So, hopefully that works out as a “no brainer” for both programs.
The two teams used to meet regularly and while Kaunisto and the Indians wanted to carry on the cross-border competition over the past several seasons, the Jr. Greyhounds and their previous coaching staff opted not to continue. Oh well.
U18 JR. GREYHOUNDS
Gone is the stacked team that blew through the Great North Under 18 Hockey League regular season with a record of 26-2-0 and then won its first four games of the playoff tournament only to lose in the championship match. While the 2022-2023 Soo Jr. Greyhounds were top dogs, the 2023-2024 edition is already being cast as underdogs.
And with good reason, perhaps.
Only three holdovers from the ’22-23 U18 Jr. Greyhounds have signed up to play for the ’23-24 team — defenseman Samuel Gravel and forwards Griffen Albert and Lucas DiBerardino. As for the others with U18 eligibility remaining, nine or 10 of them will play in the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League in ’23-24 while four more have opted to sign with the aforementioned Soo Indians of the USA Tier 1 Hockey Federation League.
And while, in addition to Gravel, Albert and DiBerardino, the Jr. Greyhounds have signed three other locals who played in the Great North with the Sudbury Nickel Capitals in ’22-23 — goalies A.J. Borrelli and Nick Marson and forward Coulson Bell — the Soo program is one that is clearly in transition. And that is fine and well with the aforementioned Sean Gagnon, who is the incoming head coach of the U18 Jr. Greyhounds.
Gagnon, to be sure, knows what it is like to be the underdog. Not only did he make it to the Ontario Hockey League as a player — and become a Memorial Cup champion with the Soo Greyhounds — despite originally being a lowly 16th round draft pick of the Sudbury Wolves, he also had a lengthy pro career and skated in the National Hockey League as an un-drafted defenseman. Thus, it would seem, no challenge is too big for Gagnon — or his players — to face.
“It is a daunting task for sure,” Gagnon relayed to me relative to taking over the U18 Jr. Hounds program ahead of the ’23-24 season and basically starting from scratch. “But things have been pretty good so far. We have been holding off season workouts and a lot of our guys are in the gym working out five days a week. The feedback has been really good. But we do need some of our players to get stronger in order to be able to handle the grind and the pace and the physicality of the Great North league.
“I do believe in my ability to make the players aware of the task at hand and fully prepare them to grow and develop as determined young athletes who accept the challenges and embrace a chance to prove to themselves and others how undervalued they have been perceived as. And as I have told you before, Randy, I love being the underdog. I love to coach. I am still a kid at heart and I love watching these kids progress during our workouts and training,” added the 49-year old Gagnon who, by the way, still looks like he is in playing shape himself.
Besides the six players with Great North U18 HL experience, newcomers who have committed to the Jr. Greyhounds for the ’23-24 season are a collection of forwards and defensemen that (alphabetically) include Jacob Briffett, Sammy Caruso, Sebastian dos Reis, Nathan Dupuis, Espen Escasa, Kadin Johnston, Cameron Kontulainen, Wyatt Leblanc, Danny Macdonald, Brady Real, Stosh Schultz, Liam Watson and Cole Wreggitt. Schultz, who hails from the Petoskey, Michigan area, just recently committed to the Jr. Greyhounds program.
U18 SOO INDIANS
Well before the off season hiring of Gagnon as the new head coach of the Jr. Greyhounds, four local lads who suited up for the Great North U18 HL team in ’22-23 opted to exit the program to sign with the U18 Indians ahead of the ’23-24 season.
As for the Indians and their brain trust of management and coaching staff, what they are saying is that they were all too happy to be able to have signed the four players in question following an early spring open tryout camp.
As was first reported by Hockey News North, Mike Kaunisto, as the general manager of the Michigan-based Indians, confirmed the signing of goalie Nathan Maguire, defenseman Tyler Neveau and forwards Deven Jones McDonald and Carter Huckson. All four players have 2007 birth dates — and two of them were chosen at the 2023 Ontario Hockey League priority selections draft.
• Maguire, a slender tender who had a 1.69 goals against average and four shutouts for the Great North regular season champion U18 Jr. Greyhounds in ’22-23, was a seventh round pick of the Flint Firebirds at this year’s OHL priority selections draft.
• A hulking forward at 6-foot-1, 180 pounds, Jones McDonald was picked by the Oshawa Generals in the 11th round of the ’23 OHL priority selections draft. Regular season and playoffs included for the U18 Jr. Greyhounds in ’22-23, Jones McDonald had 16 goals, 15 assists, 31 points while showing signs of being a power forward.
• A hard-working forward of good character, Huckson came through with six goals, nine assists, 15 points in 28 regular season games for the U18 Jr. Greyhounds in ’22-23 and then clicked for a goal and an assist in five playoff matches.
• And Neveau had two goals, five assists, seven points in 17 regular season games for the U18 Jr. Greyhounds in ’22-23 and followed that up with five assists in five playoff outings from his defense post.
The foursome is poised to join an Indians team that features a pair of fellow Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario residents on its staff — assistant coach Jerry Lortie and goalie coach Terry Barbeau. Both Lortie and — especially — Barbeau have deep ties to the game.
Lortie is a long-time coach within the ranks of the Soo Pee Wee Hockey League and Sault Major Hockey Association who learned the game from his dad, the late Gerry (Pops) Lortie. Meanwhile, the venerable, ageless Barbeau has been a goalie coach of good repute for both the Soo Greyhounds and Saginaw Spirit of the OHL as well as the Lake Superior State University Lakers of the Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association.
And long-time, reputable Michigan Soo hockey coach John Ferroni is the bench boss of the Indians.
Meantime, besides Maguire, Neveau, Jones McDonald and Huckson, the Indians have signed four other newcomers and will return six holdovers from the ’22-23 season for the ’23-24 campaign.