It is a rivalry first experienced when the kid here was broadcasting games in the old International Jr. B Hockey League for Blind River-Elliot Lake radio stations CJNR and CKNR in the mid-1970s.
In fact, Blind River and Elliot Lake — two northern Ontario towns that are separated by less than 40 miles of rugged highway — have been junior hockey rivals since at least 1971 when both were members of the erstwhile IJHL.
It is a competition that still exists to this day in the form of the Blind River Beavers and Elliot Lake Wildcats of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.
But it is a rivalry that has seen better days.
The rivalry was terribly one-sided in 2014-2015 to the extent that Elliot Lake finished third overall in what was then a nine-team league while Blind River lost all 52 of its games to finish at the bottom of the standings.
And as the Wildcats are expected to build on their success of 2014-2015 into the 2015-2016 campaign, the Beavers are planning a return to their competitive ways that ended five years ago after a run of six winning records in a span of seven seasons.
Todd Stencill, who is now the general manager in Elliot Lake, coached Blind River for three seasons during the winning years. In fact, Stencill is the only coach to lead the Beavers into the second round of the playoffs since they entered the NOJHL in 2001.
But as Stencill is enjoying success in Elliot Lake as the Wildcats GM, he knows that it is better for his team and the NOJHL in general if the Beavers return to a competitive state.
“The better the Beavers are, the better it is for their fans, our fans and for the league as a whole,” Stencill said evenly. “If both teams (Blind River and Elliot Lake) are competitive at the same time, it will generate a lot more fan interest for games between two neighbouring teams.”
The Wildcats boast a healthy following among their fans.
Elliot Lake drew a per-game average of 508 fans in 2014-2015, which was a close second to Iroquois Falls.
On the other hand, Blind River averaged just 176 spectators per outing in 2014-2015, putting it near the bottom of the league.
Still, as recent as 3-4 years ago, the Beavers were averaging about 325 fans per game and there is no reason not to expect a return to those numbers if the team can at least become competitive again.
And there is definitely hope for the Beavers in Blind River.
For starters, there is a new-look board of directors led by incoming president Rachelle Nyman. And on the ice, former Ontario Hockey League first-rounder and erstwhile Ontario Jr. Hockey League coach Brad Barton has been hired as the Beavers new coach-general manager.
“We are working hard to turn things around,” said Nyman. “We are moving in a positive direction and we are confident that our fans and supporters and the league will see a much-improved Blind River Beavers hockey club.”
Without question, the Blind River-Elliot Lake rivalry has good history on its side.
Fans from both towns have been known to follow their teams on the road in large numbers.
There is a lot of hockey pride among the 3,500 residents of Blind River. And they do not like losing to the neighbours in Elliot Lake and its population of just over 10,000.
Just as Elliot Lake wants to beat Blind River — especially if the Beavers are as competitive as the Wildcats.
Healthy competition makes for a more-intense rivalry.
And it will be win-win for both sides if the Wildcats and Beavers are an even match on any given night.