It is bigger — the biggest it has been in its modern era.
But will bigger mean better?
We shall see.
And we shall hope.
With 12 teams and two divisions — from Sault Ste. Marie in the west end to Kirkland Lake on the east side — the first puck will drop on the 2015-2016 Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League season during the second week of September.
Which — warm weather and cold beer on steamy decks aside — is just a couple of months away.
And if you are a fan or a supporter or a parent — or in this case, a writer — anticipation lingers in the same hot air that contains the breeze of summer.
I like to tell it like it is.
And as much as I like my deck in the front yard and the two in the back and the snap of caps and the sweet smell of summer, there are idle thoughts of mine that drift ahead to hockey season.
Yes, I like the Ontario Hockey League, in particular the northern Ontario and Michigan teams.
Yes, I pay considerable attention to selected teams in the Great North Midget Hockey League, the North American Hockey League, the North American 3 Hockey League, the U.S. Premier Hockey League and the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
But I was born and raised and still live in the north — and call Sault Ste. Marie my home and other tidy towns of the region my hockey homes away from home — so the NOJHL does hit home a bit more than the other leagues.
I cannot wait — even though the calendar says I have to — for the return of the cross-border, International Bridge rivalry that is Soo Thunderbirds v. Soo Eagles.
Yes, the Michigan-based Eagles are back where they belong in the NOJHL after a three-year hitch in the NAHL that was mostly good.
Just not quite as good, rivalry-wise, as the NOJHL.
Some of the best, most-intense, junior hockey games that I have seen in 40 years as a sportswriter and sportscaster have been ones that involved the Twin Soo teams.
How happy are the Eagles to be back in the NOJHL?
“I am thrilled beyond belief and we haven’t even played our first game yet,” Eagles primary owner Ron Lavin told me.
“It feels good to be back in the NOJHL,” Eagles general manager Bruno Bragagnolo told me. “There are 12 teams now and the potential is there to be better than ever.”
Bragagnolo also added: “I would be lying to you if I didn’t say that we missed the rivalry we had with the Thunderbirds.
“I have been with the Eagles for five years now,” continued Bragagnolo, “two in the NOJHL and three in the NAHL. The best crowds we have ever had, on a consistent basis, were when we were in the NOJHL, especially when we were playing the Thunderbirds.”
But there is more to the NOJHL than the Eagles and Thunderbirds.
So much more.
There are revived franchises in Espanola and Rayside-Balfour and the highway rivalry from the old days that the Express and Canadians are bound to renew.
Espanola has been home to the Eagles and the Rivermen and is now set to embrace the Express.
Rayside-Balfour is back with a relocated team and an owner in Mike Mooney who has family and generations of hockey roots in the Greater Sudbury hub that has been home to junior teams dating back to 1962.
There is an expansion team in French River and there are new beginnings in Iroquois Falls, which is one of the best-supported, small-market franchises in all of Ontario.
Ah, Iroquois Falls.
Fresh air and good people where there is no room for those who are not loyal to their hometown hockey roots — that is just some of what describes Iroquois Falls, a resilient town of about 4,500 that does not know the meaning of the word quit and says “scoot” to those who choose to leave.
Meanwhile, up in Cochrane, Ryan Leonard has grown from NOJHL player to trainer to assistant coach to what he is now — a self-made owner, general manager and coach of the Crunch.
All Leonard did in his first season in Cochrane was take the Crunch to the NOJHL championship series before losing to the Thunderbirds.
Cochrane is just a tad bigger than Iroquois Falls population-wise, the towns are less than 45 minutes apart and the rivalry between the Crunch and the Eskis will only become more passionate and heated.
Yes, the NOJHL.
A 12-team league with coaches who have played thousands of games in the OHL and the NHL — guys like Tom McCarthy in Espanola, Moe Mantha in French River, Paul Gagne in Timmins, Jordan Smith in the Soo, Jason Young in Rayside-Balfour et al.
Yes, the NOJHL has become bigger.
But will it become better?
These are sentences that have been repeated.
These are words that don’t have an answer just yet.
But there is promise and anticipation that will make winter a season that many will look forward to.
Especially if you live in or near a good NOJHL town.
PHOTO: The NOJHL rivalry between the neighbouring Cochrane Crunch and Iroquois Falls Eskis defines closeness and intensity. (Photo by Timmins Daily Press.)