They are of good repute across the midwest of the United States and into the north of Michigan and Ontario as an established junior A hockey franchise that promotes and develops its players in a first class setting and surrounding. And a main constant of the Soo Eagles of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League is co-owner, general manager and assistant coach Bruno Bragagnolo.
With old school values and a modern day approach, the ageless, Chicago-born Bragagnolo has been a firm fixture with the Eagles since 2010, when he assisted with the purchase of the Michigan Soo franchise — and the NOJHL’s only American team. The Eagles at that time were in financial difficulty and reportedly on the verge of folding when Bragagnolo et al came to the rescue.
Success would come quickly for the new look Eagles in 2010-2011 with Bragagnolo as the head coach and general manager. After a second place finish in the West Division standings, the Eagles would go on a three round playoff flight, upending the Blind River Beavers, Soo Thunderbirds and Sudbury Jr. Wolves en route to becoming NOJHL champions with an overall post season record of 12-5.
Fast forward and under Bragagnolo as the president and GM and a succession of good coaches including Jim Capy and current bench boss Doug Laprade, the Eagles have continued to mostly be contenders ever since. They have never missed the NOJHL playoffs and have had a winning record every season but one en route to becoming a model, cornerstone franchise.
With similar importance, the Eagles have been very active in the Sault Ste. Marie community, are consistently among the NOJHL attendance leaders with a per game average above 600, and on the player scale, have sent more than 80 of their graduates to higher levels of hockey, including college, major junior, and professional.
Impressive, to say the least, the Eagles have for 12 years now been under the hands-on, business-like watch of Bragagnolo, complemented by his hand picked staff of coaches and volunteers. Not only does Bragagnolo oversee hockey operations for the Eagles but he also manages the concession and beer stands on behalf of the team at its venerable Pullar Stadium home.
As for this season, the Eagles are part of a wild West Division of the NOJHL in which there is very little separation from among the six teams. And Bragagnolo, recently appearing on the Hockey North Show Podcast, called the parity in the division “a good thing. I always say the better the competition, the better a team plays.”
As for his own team, Bragagnolo noted the leadership and production of two 20-year old forwards — captain Jack Mortson and his sidekick Chase Tallaire.
“They both have a great skill set and ability and are determined players who want to play college hockey next season,” Bragagnolo said of the two high scoring forwards. “There should be a lot of interest from schools for these two boys … and some of our other players as well.”
Notably, Tallaire, who hails from the tiny Upper Peninsula town of St. Ignace, which is a mere 50 miles south of Sault Ste. Marie and just north of the Mackinac Bridge, comes by his goal scoring ability naturally. The youngster’s dad, Sean Tallaire, played four seasons of Division 1 hockey with the Lake Superior State University Lakers from 1992 to 1996 and scored 102 goals in 169 games while being part of national championship teams.
Among others, Bragagnolo also lauded the early season play of 20-year old goalie Logan Raffaele, a Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan product who was the Eagles third string goalie in 2021-2022 behind the since graduated duo of Gabe Rosek and Ryan Gilmore.
“He has played real well for us,” Bragagnolo said of Raffaele. “He works hard in practice to get himself ready for the games. Hopefully he can keep on playing well for us. He has a great attitude and works hard at getting better.”
The Eagles also have a pair of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario residents in their lineup in 18-year old forward Kenny Belanger and 17-year old rookie defenseman Michael Starzomski.
“Kenny has been one of our top scorers and he should continue to be a key player for us as the season goes on. He has good size and some good skill,” Bragagnolo said of the 6-foot-4, 185 pound Belanger, who was acquired by the Eagles from the cross-border Thunderbirds in an off season trade.
Starzomski has been a big surprise, said Bragagnolo.
“He is kind of a no name player who we didn’t know much about when he came to our tryout camp,” Bragagnolo said of the 6-foot-3, 185 pound defender who played high school hockey with the St. Mary’s Knights in 2021-2022. “But he came in, made our team and he has played with an edge for us. He has a lot of potential and has played as well as any of our defensemen so far. We really like Starzomski. He and another rookie defenseman, Michael Step, have played real well for us on the back end.”
As for the ongoing support that the Eagles get in a town of just over 13,000 that also houses the aforementioned Lake Superior State University Lakers of the Division 1, Central Collegiate Hockey Association and the under 18 AAA Soo Indians of the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association, Bragagnolo has always been thankful and appreciative.
“And this season we are noticing that we are getting more younger fans at our games,” Bragagnolo relayed. “In all of my years here the fan support has always been great. As a team we do a lot of work in the community and we in turn get great support from our fans and sponsors.”