For the second successive season there is clear disproportion between the East and West divisions of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League and a playoff format that is cause for consternation as a result.
The NOJHL introduced a new playoff format effective the 2022-2023 season in which the top four teams in each division would make the playoffs. In prior years, the top five teams in each division made the playoffs and the no. 4 and 5 seeds on each side faced off in a preliminary round with the winners joining the other six teams in the next round of play.
The format change proved to be grossly unfair to the two teams in the West Division who missed the playoffs, particularly the fifth place Soo Eagles, along with the last place Elliot Lake Red Wings (now known as the Vikings.)
Despite a record of 26-27-5, the Eagles missed the playoffs in the West Division with 57 points while the French River Rapids made the playoffs in the East Division with a mere 21 points from a record of 9-46-3. In fact, the 26 victories that the Eagles had were three more than the bottom three teams in the East Division combined — French River with nine wins and the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners and Cochrane Crunch (now Iroquois Falls Storm) with just seven apiece. Of further disparity, Elliot Lake finished last in the West Division with 20 wins, which put it well ahead of playoff-bound French River and the two other East Division laggards in the final overall standings.
Thus far this season, it has been more of the same superiority for the West Division over the East Division.
As of this writing, the Espanola Paper Kings are in fifth place in the West with a record of 16-9-0 but would miss the playoffs if the season were to end today. Those 32 points would currently have Espanola tied for first place in the East Division with the reigning NOJHL champion Timmins Rock and the Powassan Voodoos.
Clearly, the NOJHL should do something about the current playoff format, which to be blunt, has a lot of folks with a connection to the league shaking their collective heads. To be sure, there is an easy solution to the situation and that is to have the top eight teams in the NOJHL make the playoffs, regardless of division.
I realize that when NOJHL governors agreed to the current playoff format in the summer of 2022 that it would be for a period of two years. Well, despite that, the NOJHL governors and commissioner Robert Mazzuca should move to right a wrong by changing the format to the top eight teams regardless of division — in time for this season’s playoffs.
The way the format is now is simply just not fair to teams in the West Division. As it currently stands, a really good team is poised to miss the playoffs in the West Division and that just is not right.