They are three small market Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League franchises in towns with a combined population of about 20,000 residents. Blind River Beavers, Elliot Lake Vikings and Espanola Paper Kings form a three team NOJHL rivalry separated by a mere 60 miles of Highways 17 and 108.
Blind River, Elliot Lake and Espanola represent half of the six teams that are part of the hotly-contested West Division of the NOJHL. Sudbury Cubs and the cross-border rival Soo Thunderbirds and Soo Eagles are the others.
As for the three nearby foes from Blind River, Elliot Lake and Espanola, all are coming off varying levels of attainment in 2022-2023 as they prep for the 2023-2024 season which is scheduled to begin on September 7.
Blind River finished a strong second in the NOJHL West in ’22-23 with 89 points — the most in franchise history — from a record of 42-11-5. Espanola also came through with its best performance in franchise history with 63 points from a record of 29-24-5, which was good for fourth place and a hard-earned playoff spot. Elliot Lake finished in last place and missed the West Division playoffs with a record of 20-25-3 — but it should be noted that its 43 points were more than double the number that the French River Rapids earned in finishing fourth and making the playoffs in the East Division.
Elliot Lake, meanwhile, has undergone significant change ahead of the ’23-24 season as the Vikings are now under local ownership after being operated by out of town personnel the past two years. Earlier this off season — and much to the elation of so, so many hockey fans in town — long-time local resident Jef Jarmovitch took over ownership operation of the Elliot Lake Red Wings from Paul Noad. Jarmovitch immediately rebranded the NOJHL franchise as the Elliot Lake Vikings. Notably, junior hockey made its debut in Elliot Lake in 1965 and from then until 1997, the team was known as the Vikings.
As the Beavers of Blind River and the Paper Kings of Espanola are expected to again be competitive and contending in ’23-24 in what is a wildly combative, parallel and uniform West Division, the new look Vikings of Elliot Lake will be out to keep pace with not only their arch rivals but with the aforementioned Sudbury Cubs, Soo Thunderbirds and Soo Eagles.
The Vikings, without question, have their work cut out for them to try to keep up with the rest of the West Division pack. To be sure, the fellow small market Beavers and Paper Kings are sound, well operated programs. In Blind River, the Beavers have been consistent winners every year since head coach and general manager Kyle Brick took over in 2016. And in Espanola, the Paper Kings have gained a good reputation with the combination of Jason Rapcewicz as the head coach and Marc Gagnon as the general manager.
As for Elliot Lake, there is that unimagined anticipation and excitement in the gritty Highway 108 town with the ownership takeover by aforementioned local resident Jef Jarmovitch and the long-awaited return to the roots of the beloved Vikings moniker of 1965 to 1997. An increase in sponsorship has already been noted by Jarmovitch and a gate boost at Centennial Arena is to be expected.
Relative to the on-ice fortunes, Jarmovitch and his holdover head coach and general manager Chis Keleher have had a ping pong off season. Several former Red Wings players have departed via trade or graduation, though a smattering have returned led by homegrown forward Noah Aboflan. And there are some notable newcomers who are in position to try to enhance the ’23-24 voyage of the Vikings.
Among those with junior hockey experience who will make their Elliot Lake debut in ’23-24 include four defensemen acquired in summer trades — Brinn Burleigh, Blake Menard, Tucker McConnell-Fritz and Sam Verbonac. Burleigh was obtained from division rival Espanola, Menard and McConnell-Fritz were both acquired from the Iroquois Falls Storm while Verbonac was picked up from the Huntsville Otters of the Provincial Jr. C Hockey League. The four veteran blue liners are projected as key additions for Elliot Lake, which will begin the ’23-24 season with three rookie goalies, including two northern Ontario products — Cam Boville from Sault Ste. Marie and Sam Keene of Thunder Bay.
Back to Blind River and Espanola.
The Beavers, like any other NOJHL team, have holes to fill from ’22-23. But there are notable returnees — and with northern Ontario roots — that include forward Jacob Kovacs and defenseman Matthew Kallo. And among the newcomers are Bryce Burnett from the Kerry Park Islanders of the Vancouver Island Jr. Hockey League and two other notable forwards who come from the Great North Under 18 Hockey League. Brendan Cooke has signed with Blind River via the Soo Jr. Greyhounds and Jacob Beemer moves up to the Beavers from the Great North champion North Bay Trappers. Cooke is a 2023 Ontario Hockey League priority selections draft pick of the Flint Firebirds.
Espanola, meanwhile, will be out to build on its 29-win season of ’22-23 with the return of impact players at all three positions — high scoring forward Jake Marois, ever-ready steady defenseman Liam McDonald and workhorse goalie Jake Marois. McDonald will serve as captain of the Paper Kings. Newcomers to Espanola for ’23-24 include three forwards — Hunter Sellers, Owen Ferguson and Nicolas Saucier. Sellers, who is a grandson of legendary National Hockey League goal scoring machine Reggie Leach, played with the Okanagan Under 18 Prep Program in ’22-23, Ferguson has previous NOJHL experience with the Powassan Voodoos while Saucier skated for the Kapuskasing Flyers of the Great North U18HL the past few seasons.
To be sure, it will be a tall order for all three of the small market teams to make the playoffs in ’23-24. Only four teams in each division make the playoffs and as previously noted, the West is extremely tough. Sudbury won the West in ’22-23 with a record of 46-10-2 only to lose to the 36-15-6 Soo Thunderbirds in the division finals of the playoffs. And the Soo Eagles missed the playoffs despite a near .500 record of 26-27-5. In fact, the Eagles 26 victories were more than the bottom three teams of the East Division — French River Rapids, Cochrane Crunch (now Iroquois Falls Storm) and Kirkland Lake Gold Miners — combined.
What can’t be overlooked is the closeness in highway proximity of Blind River to Elliot Lake to Espanola and the potential to really boost a long-standing junior hockey rivalry that has been six decades in the making and is there to be built up and used to its full advantage.