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 Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League from 2003 to 2006.
The erstwhile 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. And 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, the now 34-year old 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 Soo Eagles would take up residence at Pullar Stadium and carry on as a current league member to this day.