Combat. Competition. Conflict. Confrontation. Contention.
Five words that are synonyms for rivalry.
And it is rivalry that fuels the healthy warfare between the nearby teams that comprise the 12-member Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.
Travel wise, the longest trip for any team in the NOJHL is seven hours. But that is the exception, rather than the norm.
Fact is, most road trips for NOJHL teams are three hours or less in length.
In the West Division of the NOJHL, the longest road trip is three hours, which would be Sault Ste. Marie to Sudbury.
But elsewhere, for example, the Soo Eagles and Soo Thunderbirds are separated by a mere two miles of International Bridge; the Soo to Blind River is a drive of an hour and half or so; Blind River to Elliot Lake is about a 45 minute jaunt and Elliot Lake to Espanola takes approximately one hour to complete.
Over to the East Division, while French River to Hearst is the extreme at seven hours and Powassan to Hearst is a little less, three other teams, namely Timmins, Cochrane and Kirkland Lake, are only about an hour and a half of one another.
In fact, the northeastern nook rivalry foursome of the Timmins Rock, Cochrane Crunch, Kirkland Gold Miners and Hearst Lumberjacks is as about formidable as it gets at this level of junior hockey.
Notably, the Rock v. Lumberjacks contention will, this coming season, feature two young, up and coming coaches who are in charge of their respective hometown teams. They are Timmins product Brandon Perry of the Rock and Hearst native Marc-Alain Begin of the Lumberjacks. And it doesn’t hurt that before the COVID-19 affected 2020-2021 campaign, Timmins and Hearst were at the top of the NOJHL attendance chart for three successive seasons.
Also of note, there has been no love lost between the close towns of Cochrane and Kirkland Lake over the past few years. And French River v. Powassan has fuel for fire with the smaller market Rapids up against the Voodoos and an organization that has developed somewhat of a smug, arrogant reputation within the league.
And, as an East Division powerhouse, Powassan has also forged a feisty rivalry with a nearby West Division opponent, the Sudbury area Rayside Balfour Canadians.
Back over to the West Division, the long-standing Twin Soo combat between the Michigan-based Eagles and the Ontario-side Thunderbirds can be downright nasty. Games between the cross-border rivals have been known to attract 800-1,200 fans from both teams when played at venerable Pullar Stadium in the Michigan Soo.
Eagles general manager Bruno Bragagnolo, who is the longest-serving GM or coach from any team in the West Division, duly noted that “it doesn’t get any better than the Twin Soo junior hockey rivalry.
“Having said that,” continued Bragagnolo, “we have established really good rivalries with other teams in our division over the years, especially I would say Blind River. Besides us, I would say that Blind River has the best fans in our division … a lot of them travel to road games.”
Meanwhile, the rabid, often rowdy rivalry between the gritty, nearby NOJHL towns of Blind River and Elliot Lake is poised to be rekindled effective the 2021-2022 season.
Geographically, Blind River and Elliot Lake are separated by a mere 40 miles of rugged highway.
Blind River coach and general manager Kyle Brick is looking forward to the return of Elliot Lake to the NOJHL.
“We are excited to have our nearby division rival back in business … there is nothing better than Blind River vs. Elliot Lake on a Saturday night,” said Brick.
“I am happy for that organization to get back on their feet. It wasn’t the same without them. With that being said, I love nothing more than beating Elliot Lake and the same goes for our fans,” added the 35-year old Brick, who has been with the Beavers for five winning seasons.
Elliot Lake, on the other hand, will be out to make a much-needed, fresh start as the newly-named Red Wings in 2021-2022 after sitting out the 2020-2021 season. Previously known as the Wildcats, Elliot Lake finished in last place in the 12-team NOJHL during the 2019-2020 season.
Also, Elliot Lake previously formed a rather testy rivalry with Espanola and the Red Wings and Express will undoubtedly create their share of animosity come the much-anticipated 2021-2022 season when the NOJHL is cautiously optimistic about returning to regular game activity in the wake of COVID-19.
Rivalries. They are what help make junior hockey, in this case, the NOJHL.