A better NOJHL? We hope so

June 27, 2015

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.)

What you think about “A better NOJHL? We hope so”

  1. Well said as always RR … I am at camp where its nice and warm and the Buds are cold and you got me thinking about the NOJ … and hey I like it Ha ha. I to cant wait for the Season to begin and get a glimpse of the new Team’s in Rayside and Espie.

  2. Great article here by RR – It displays hints of optimism for the newly formed divisions/12 teamed NOJHL, mixed with emotions renewed by the re-entrance of Espanola and the storied franchise – Rayside-Balfour. Who isn’t excited about revived battle of the International Bridge? The tight-knit communities of Iroquois Falls and the French River will be tested in 2015-16. Timmins joins the party in style with their brass of intense and experienced leadership. The other franchises are showing exceptional enthusiasm as camp dates are being tossed around social media. It’s all fine and dandy to see. The league hasn’t looked better. However…

    More isn’t always better. I think the league has hit a cap at 12 teams and talks of further expansion options shouldn’t be investigated for another half decade or so. Even using the “e” word within the next few years should be cause for alarm in the NOJHL community. The league has emerged as a great product right now and it will continue to grow in a positive trend should all clubs sustain themselves properly. At least that’s the hope. Stability from all teams over the next three to fives years is key. A stable and consistent product will go a long way for the future of the NOJHL.

    It’s great to be excited about what’s happening up north. But also, it’s good to keep a level head as a league and continue to work hard via the same principals that got this product to what it is today. But hey, it’s an awesome experience to take this all in. This is an exciting time for the league and its members.

    I am big on development in junior, but also within the grassroots level(s) of hockey. The expansion of the NOJHL gives kids, parents, volunteers, and towns in the vast landscape of the league something positive to grow with. Junior teams helping out their respective youth teams/programs, schools, and local fundraisers will grow the brand of hockey and who knows, maybe it will inspire its youth to become a part of the NOJHL in the future instead of seeking elsewhere to play junior hockey.

    1. More Teams, More Expectations

      I would also like to point out that with great improvements in the league comes a greater responsibility within those improvement perimeters. It’s easy to set up the glossy East and West divisions and paint the perfect lines throughout the year’s schedule. But within these newly formed divisions and new schedules comes the pressure for this league to produce more. Some might ask, “more what?” – For starters, the league will now be leaned on by future players and their families to produce a better brand of hockey and potentially to add the proper incentives programs for their child to make the jump to Jr. A in the north. I am also very sure that there is a standard to which players and their families hold when entering a 10+ team league. If you have a 10+ team league, there will certainly be the demand to have quality (and parity) throughout all teams which brings program promotion to the forefront more than ever. The increasing strains of recruiting players and prospects becomes all the more intriguing. With the scouting and recruitment tools available to teams in this new, high-speed era, better program promotion methods will need to be adopted league-wide and also by the league itself.

      A player’s first question is always – Why? – Why the NOJHL? and not the GOJHL, OJHL, SIJHL, etc. I think the league needs to look at this simple questions and build its promotion model around that for the better future of the league. I understand there is one thing that hold a lot of these ideas back – budgets. I won’t touch that issue for right now. That is in a league of its own.

      “We Hope So” – RR

      More teams, higher expectations to ice a prime hockey product, and the upped requirements of quality player recruitment will definitely be only some of the challenges that franchises will face over the next few years or so. For all of us NOJHL fans, we surely hope for the best possible results. It will be interesting to see how well all teams, owners, and communities are able to adapt to the league’s new skin and hopefully do so in a positive way. As RR says in this article – “we hope so”.

  3. The rivals Eskis and Cochrane will be worth it to watch these Games – 2 great little hockey-towns with great fan’s in both towns. I am with you on this Randy / and keep up all the good work that ya do.

  4. Good Owners make good Teams who make good League’s suceed IMHO. There are many good Owner’s in the NOJHL off hand I will mention those that I know of e.g. Mooney, Bruce and Donnan. It is good that we have no more “DB’s” in the NOJ – no more Dirt Bags no more Doushe Bags no more DB what so ever.

  5. Teams are having to work way harder than ever before now to get players. Glad to see The Express in Espanola,three good guys who care about the players and the community. There has been a person spreading made up negativity lately but hopefully the past stays there in the past.

  6. WOW!!!! Just heard about Scott Marshall being head of the NOJHL until a new commissioner is found. WOW again, sure hope he doesn’t screw the league and all other teams like he did the town of Iroquois Falls! Remember all you team owners, old and new, he left his home town with a debt of more than 100K and ran down the highway to Timmins, pretty slimy Mr. Marshall!!! Heard that Goldcorp made a huge 3 year sponsorship deal with the Rock, wonder what Mr. Marshall will do when the 3 years is up? Will he keep running down the highway to another town??? Also, for a person in the role he is in at the moment, a position who is supposed to be there to help out all teams, he sure isn’t very cooperative with the team in I.F. To all the owners in the league and to sponsors of the Rock, be very careful, Scott Marshall may seem like he’s a good business man, but good business men don’t create 100K of debt and run, just keep a close eye him.

    1. Not very cooperative? Didn’t Scott give the new Eskies two local kids and their team name for free? What else do you want, maybe the skate sharpener and some rolls of tape?
      The executive could have sold the team to Mr. Donnan with its $100 000 of debt and started an expansion team in Timmins a lot cheaper. The town of I.F. stands a better chance of getting their money back now that the team is in Timmins than had they stayed in I.F. and gone belly up in a year or two.
      I hope the new team in I.F. is successful, as that would be good for the league. However now that they are run by a business and not a volunteer board, don’t expect them to stick around for fifteen plus years if they lose money. Just ask the fans in Mattawa how it works….

  7. Sad to see that Elliot Lake isn’t back, judging by their omission in any of your articles. I thought they had a really good team last year, finishing barely behind Kirkland and Soo. And they were a first year team too. What a shame.

    1. Espofan, you may want to do some research. Elliot Lake is certainly back this season after a very successful year on and off the ice. They just had there prospects team at TEP Showcase in Toronto this weekend and will certainly ice a good team again this season with Todd Stencill running the show.

  8. Glad to hear it. I saw them a few times in the Soo last year, and thought them very skilled up front and in goal. I thought with all the talk of rivalries with other teams, and no talk whatsoever of EL, something must have gone sideways for them. Thanks for clarifying.

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