Soo Eagles have become a settled, stable member of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League. But prior to their formation, the Eagles had a pair of worthy predecessors who represented Sault Ste. Marie and the Upper Peninsula as members of the NOJHL.
They were the erstwhile Northern Michigan Black Bears and the old Soo Indians. The Black Bears were part of the modern day NOJHL for three seasons and the Indians were around for just one. But while their respective presence in the NOJHL was not lengthy, it was notably successful.
They were only in existence for three seasons. But the Northern Michigan Black Bears had winning records in all three of their seasons as members of the NOJHL from 2003 to 2006.
The Black Bears played out of Little Bear Arena in St. Ignace for the 2003-2004 and 2004-2005 seasons before heading 50 miles north to Sault Ste. Marie where they called Big Bear Arena home for the 2005-2006 campaign.
Though they did not win an NOJHL championship, the Black Bears were a contender every season and made it to the league finals. In succession, Northern Michigan posted regular season records of 25-17-6, 28-13-7 and 27-15-6 for a three year total of 80-45-19 in 144 games.
But as good as they were on the ice under coaches that included local product Rick Corbiere, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario residents Gerry (Pops) Lortie and Bart Jarrett — with fellow Sooite Charly Murray on board as head scout and assistant coach — the Black Bears were unable to attract a sizeable following of fans and ownership sold the franchise after three years.
It was the venerable Lortie who took the Black Bears to the league finals with players recruited by his good friend and sidekick Murray. Along the way, Northern Michigan established fierce rivalries with the Soo Thunderbirds and Blind River Beavers. With Lortie behind the Black Bears bench and with Toots Kovacs as the head coach of the Thunderbirds and with Jim Capy calling the shots for the Beavers, there was no shortage of verbal warfare between the testy trio, who all worked day jobs and lived in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
It was as the player personnel boss of the Black Bears that the aforementioned Charly Murray really showed his mettle as a sharp scout and recruiter. Murray went far and wide into Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota to recruit players for the Black Bears, notable ones that included goalies Tony Stoehr and Elliot Hogue, defensemen John Nogatch, Jared Lavender, Ryan Huggett, Jim Ceglarek, Sean Reid and Peter Landem and forwards Russell Law, Michael Herbert, Steve Kruszewski, Chris Kraft, Jordan Boman, Michael Caprio, Isaac Viau, James Ciotti, Sean Farley, Chris Cooper and Joel Rechlicz.
Notably, Rechlicz would go on to play in the Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League before moving up to the American Hockey League and even getting to the National Hockey League, where he totalled 26 games between the New York Islanders and Washington Capitals and racked up 105 minutes in penalties while earning an assist.
Murray also stayed close to home to sign several Twin Sault products such as defenseman J.D. King and forwards Derek Stabile, Jake Watchorn, Bryan Pearse and Chris Towell for the Black Bears. Even the Soo Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League assigned one of their draft picks, forward Anthony Perdicaro, to the Black Bears for a development season.
After the ’05-06 season, the Black Bears would be sold, rebranded as the Soo Indians and win the ’06-07 NOJHL championship under yet another local resident, general manager and coach Kevin Cain.
The Indians would only last one season in the NOJHL but the Michigan town would not be without junior hockey for long as the Eagles would take up residence at Pullar Stadium and carry on as a current league member to this day.
To this day, from this corner, the 2006-2007 edition of the now-defunct Soo Indians remains the most improbable of all NOJHL champions. It was 15 years ago that a rag-tag crew of American-born players from six different states banded together against all odds to win the championship in what was then a seven-team NOJHL.
To be sure, the Michigan-based Indians and their all-Ontario coaching staff were a one hit wonder of a franchise that was assembled just before the 2006-2007 NOJHL campaign started and folded soon after the season ended.
They were owned by a long gone, out of town, out of state, person of interest who rarely visited to watch them play or support them.
Somehow, they came together, rallied to finish first that ’06-07 season and then went on to win the NOJHL championship and represent the league at the Dudley-Hewitt Cup, Central Canada Jr. Hockey Tournament that was held in Iroquois Falls, Ont. The Indians overcame all odds that ’06-07 season and they hold a rightful and delightful place in the NOJHL history books as league champions.
As the 21 players on the Indians were all American, their three coaches, as previously mentioned, were all Canadians who lived and worked on the Sault, Ontario side of the International Bridge. Ah yes, the Indians of 2006-2007 were quite the outfit led by coach-general manager Kevin Cain and his assistants, Al DiPasquo and Warren LaVoy.
Sault This Week covered the Indians throughout that ’06-07 season, all the way to the Dudley-Hewitt Cup play downs that were held at Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls.
A collection of retreads they were, unlikely champions who bested teams of equal and better assembly en route to winning the NOJHL crown. There were no real stars on that Indians team, though they had two high-end goalies who rotated and a third who was almost as good.
Brennan Poderzay and Elliott Hogue were the main men in the nets and Jake Rosenthal was the capable third guy who backed up the one-two tandem. All three went on to tend goal at the Division 3, National Collegiate Athletic Association level.
As for Cain, who would go on to win three more NOJHL championships as general manager of the Soo Thunderbirds, he has fond memories of that title-winning Indians team of ’06-07.
“That was a high-maintenance team, that’s for sure,” Cain recalled with a laugh.
“Having said that, they were a really tight knit team. I think about them as individuals and as a team a lot and when I do, it’s with a smile on my face,” added Cain.
The Indians finished in first place that ’06-07 season with a record of 31-15-2 and after a first-round playoff bye, ousted the North Bay Skyhawks and Sudbury Jr. Wolves to win the NOJHL title and earn the right to represent the league at the Dudley-Hewitt Cup. At the four-team DHC with the host Abitibi Eskimos, the Superior International Jr. Hockey League champion Schreiber Diesels and the Ontario Jr. Hockey League champion Aurora Tigers, the Indians came up short.
But while the Indians as a franchise departed the Michigan Sault almost as quickly as they arrived, the team and its players remain one for the ages.
From the goaltending trio of Poderzay, Hogue and Rosenthal to defencemen J.D. King, Nick Novak, Austin Brown, Jake Russell, Peter Landem and Sean Reid to forwards Shane Bailey, Sam Yearsley, James Ciotti, Nick Zilka, Justin Maciuk, Chris Cooper, Isaac Viau, Mike Connolly, Joe Larson, Ky Moje, Scott Pulak and Sean Farley to coaches Cain, DiPasquo and LaVoy, the Indians NOJHL championship team of ’06-07 remains an iconic team for the ages.