Good, old NOJHL coaches

December 10, 2021

It is a junior league that has been a hockey focus of mine for more than 20 years, from around the time that the Soo Thunderbirds became members in 1999. And among the folks who I have encountered and got to know while writing and commentating about the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League is a list of former head coaches.

In alphabetical order, following is my Top 10 list of erstwhile NOJHL coaches who made covering the league fun and adventurous.

Guy Blanchard. Easily one of the shrewdest operators the NOJHL has ever known on both the hockey and business sides, Blanchard was the architect of multiple championships for the old North Bay Skyhawks as owner, general manager and coach. He took advantage of the junior market in North Bay following the departure of the Ontario Hockey League Centennials and before the arrival of the Battalion. Under Blanchard’s watch, the Skyhawks were the NOJHL’s jewel franchise. Now into his 60s, Blanchard — pictured in above photo — is showing absolutely no signs of slowing down as a second to none head coach of the under 16 North Bay Trappers of the Great North Hockey League.

Kevin Cain. Better known for his work as a general manager in leading the Soo Thunderbirds to multiple NOJHL and Dudley-Hewitt Cup, Central Canada championships, Cain also had a prior title history as a head coach. That is, for the 2006-2007 campaign, Cain coached the erstwhile Michigan Soo Indians to a championship in their one and only NOJHL season. Saying he would like to return to the NOJHL if the right opportunity ever presented itself, Cain has stayed in the game as the owner and player advisor for Eagle Hockey Management.

Jim Capy. After coaching his hometown Soo Thunderbirds to four straight league final appearances starting in 2000, Capy put the Blind River Beavers on the map in leading them to the franchise’s first ever winning season in 2004-2005. Capy had two relatively successful stints in Blind River and most recently has been with the Soo Eagles as both head coach and associate coach. The veteran bench boss has kept the door open for a potential return to the game. A passionate family man, Capy recently became a first time grandfather. As an NOJHL coach, Capy was known for being media friendly and was always available for a good quote and a long chat.

Pat Carricato. Hard nosed and not for the faint of heart, Carricato got the most out of Soo Thunderbirds teams that were made up of about 95 per cent local talent. He served the Thunderbirds well as first an assistant coach, then as a head coach in making an appearance at the Dudley-Hewitt Cup championship tournament. Another guy who was media friendly despite being somewhat on the reserved side, he learned a lot about the game from his legendary coach/dad Abbie Carricato.

Paul Gagne

Paul Gagne. The face of the erstwhile Abitibi Eskimos for more than 15 years, Gagne retired from coaching with the Timmins Rock of the NOJHL about four years ago. Gagne perfected the trap style of hockey at the NOJHL level and his Eskimo teams were generally competitive while playing out of Jus Jordan Arena, aka the Igloo. Gagne twice took Abitibi to the Dudley-Hewitt Cup championship tournament.

Toots Kovacs. The personable Kovacs lent his time to the Soo Thunderbirds as head coach, assistant coach and mentor to many teams and players over several seasons with the NOJHL team. A players coach through and through, Kovacs was always known for his frankness and honesty in dealing with his team and the media. While he was the head coach of the Thunderbirds during the 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 seasons, Kovacs had a friendly, albeit intense rivalry with the aforementioned Jim Capy and the Blind River Beavers.

Reggie Leach. The legendary National Hockey League superstar from his days as a Stanley Cup champion and goal scoring machine with the Philadelphia Flyers, Leach served as owner, general manager and coach of the former Manitoulin Islanders for a few seasons. Though the Islanders didn’t win a lot of games during Leach’s time with them, he brought honour and respect to the Manitoulin organization and created countless hockey playing opportunities for First Nations youngsters. Never acting the part of an NHL legend, Leach to this day remains one of the best men I have ever met in the game of hockey.

Ryan Leonard. A winning coach with the old Elliot Lake Bobcats and the man who formed the Cochrane Crunch as owner and general manager, Leonard was an exceptional recruiter who always put a winning product on the ice with multiple top NOJHL teams. Colourful and quotable, Leonard did not shy away from the spotlight or from confrontation during his many years as one of the youngest operators in the NOJHL. Now the coach and general manager of the Renfrew Wolves of the Central Canada Hockey League, Leonard — and some of his shenanigans — are missed within the NOJHL circle.

Gerry (Pops) Lortie. As bench boss of the erstwhile Northern Michigan Black Bears, the late Mr. Lortie was rarely, if ever, out-coached. He could be gruff and demanding and he could drive a saint to swear but Lortie truly cared for his players and they in turn would go through the wall for him. Lortie’s close friend and his former head scout and assistant coach with the Black Bears, Charly Murray, still laughs and shake his head about some of the things that Gerry said and did while with the Black Bears. A nice guy with the heart of a lion, Gerry is genuinely missed to this day.

Todd Stencill. A coach who kept it simple, Stencill was also a top recruiter who did good, respectful work with the Manitoulin Islanders and Blind River Beavers while commuting from his home in Elliot Lake. Another guy who always had time for the media and whose NOJHL teams generally overachieved, Stencill has a good place in the league’s history as a part time coach who put in full time hours.

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