It remains 12 teams strong. Yes, there has been an off season ownership change and the relocation of a franchise — but both for the good, it would seem. And, to be sure, the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League is durable, well rounded, well grounded, set, stable, sound and valid ahead of the emerging 2023-2024 regular season.
For starters, formerly the Elliot Lake Red Wings, they are now the Elliot Lake Vikings — and with local ownership as a bonus. Next up, formerly the Cochrane Crunch, the NOJHL is back in Iroquois Falls after an absence of way too many years. Ownership remains the same under good dude Tom Nickolau but the Crunch has given way to the Storm as the franchise has shifted down the rugged highway from Cochrane to Iroquois Falls.
• Timmins Rock heads into the ’23-24 season as the reigning NOJHL champs. Timmins finished first overall atop the regular season standings in 2022-2023 but had to overcame the odds to win the ’22-23 playoff championship. Down two games to one to the Soo Thunderbirds in the league championship series, the Rock stole Game 4 on the road to even the best of seven set. Timmins then took the series lead in Game 5 at home before completing its franchise-best playoff run by again winning in the Soo in Game 6 to bring home the NOJHL championship trophy. If the Thunderbirds thought the series was over after they grabbed a 2-1 series lead ahead of Game 4 at home, they seriously underestimated the Rock and its relentless, well prepared, hard driven head coach Brandon Perry. Meantime, Timmins may have graduated a good group of players from the ’22-23 title team but the Rock is ready to roll again in ’23-24 with a mine full of top returnees and a number of plum newcomers. And as the aforementioned Brandon Perry is a top coach, he is also one of the better general managers in the league. Besides his leadership abilities and performance, Perry is also as good and honest a guy as one will find in the junior hockey game.
• And as Timmins looks to be well stocked and positioned to not only defend its East Division title but the NOJHL crown, the Thunderbirds of the Soo look to be in good shape again heading into the ’23-24 campaign. It doesn’t seem to matter who owns the Thunderbirds or who their coaches are. Since coming into the NOJHL as an expansion team in 1999, the Thunderbirds have had six different ownership groups — and, remarkably, have never experienced a season with a losing record. As far as head coaches, the Thunderbirds have done well with the likes of Bart Jarrett, Jim Capy, Toots Kovacs, Patrick Carricato, Sean Gagnon, Preston Mizzi, Jordan Smith, John Parco, Denny Lambert and Cole Jarrett at the helm. As a sidebar, Kevin Cain is still the most successful general manager in Thunderbirds history and has stayed in the game as the president of his Eagle Hockey Management group.
• Then there are perennial contenders such as the Hearst Lumberjacks, Powassan Voodoos, Sudbury Cubs and Blind River Beavers. All are well owned, well managed and well coached as they head into another NOJHL season. Hearst looms as a top option to possibly dethrone Timmins in the East Division while Sudbury will be on a mission to unseat the Soo after losing to the Thunderbirds in last spring’s West Division finals. Notably, Timmins and Hearst are among the NOJHL attendance leaders. As for Sudbury, the Cubs have the luxury of having Mark Burgess as the owner and Blaine Smith as managing director. Burgess and his family owned the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario Hockey League for 30 years and Smith served various roles as president, general manager and marketing director as a loyal soldier. Besides now being the managing director for the Cubs of the NOJHL, Smith does some work for the OHL’s Central Scouting division as one of the true good guys in the game.
• Among the dark horse teams for the looming ’23-24 NOJHL season are the French River Rapids on the East side and the Espanola Paper Kings and Soo Eagles in the West end. French River operates in the shadows as the smallest of the small market NOJHL teams but is well managed and very well coached by Paul Frustaglio. Espanola, meanwhile, turned the corner and made the playoffs well above the .500 mark last season under the direction of president and head coach Jason Rapcewicz and first year general manager Marc Gagnon. As for the Eagles, they missed the playoffs for the first time in 10 years in ’22-23 while under the operation of president and general manager Bruno Bragagnolo. And the hard-nosed, old school Bragagnolo is determined to not let that happen again. Behind the bench, the Eagles are in good hands with veteran head coach Doug Laprade poised to return for another season and former National Hockey League enforcer Ken Belanger on the coaching staff. Belanger is well known in the Twin Soo area for his KBX Hockey Academy, which trains players in many facets of the game, both on and off the ice.
• There is considerable excitement in Iroquois Falls with the return of the NOJHL. Formerly known as the Abitibi Eskimos for a number of years as one of the best supported teams in the NOJHL, Iroquois Falls nonetheless first lost its NOJHL team in 2015 when the local operator at that time turned his back on the faithful fans and scooted out of town in a skulking manner. And over in Elliot Lake there is similar exhilaration and elation following two years of out of town ownership. Local lad Jef Jarmovitch not only took over operation of the franchise but changed the team name from the Red Wings to the Vikings. Junior hockey made its debut in Elliot Lake way back in 1965 and from then until 1997, the team was known as the Vikings. More than 25 years later, thanks to Jarmovitch and his people, the good ship Viking is ready to again set sail. And there are natural rivalries there for the taking as the Vikings get set to do battle with the nearby foes of the West Division, particularly Blind River, Espanola and Sudbury. To focus on one rivalry — it has been said by many hockey fans in the North Shore that there is nothing better than a Saturday night match in the middle of winter between Blind River and Elliot Lake.
• Good, old fashioned rivalries are just some of what makes the NOJHL. There are the aforementioned northeast nook towns of Hearst, Timmins and Iroquois Falls in the East Division. There is big market Sudbury versus everyone else in the NOJHL. And the closest rivalry is the two miles of International Bridge at Sault Ste. Marie that separates the Ontario-based Thunderbirds and the cross-border Michigan Soo Eagles. What helps to enhance the rivalry is Pullar Stadium, the venerable rink that houses the Eagles on the Michigan side of the St. Mary’s River. Along with Timmins and Hearst, the Eagles are among the better supported NOJHL teams at the gate. And on a side note, one would be hard pressed to find a better home made burger than the ones that are sold at the stately Pullar, which is located just outside the downtown area of the Michigan Soo on Portage Avenue.