It was a 2021-2022 campaign capped by successive seventh and deciding playoff games of epic entertainment. And there was no scarcity of regular season fanfare in a Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League where eight of 12 teams were clear-cut contestants and younger players were prominent performers.
To be sure, it was a frantic finish to the NOJHL playoff season.
In the East Division finals, Hearst Lumberjacks scored a 4-3 road decision over their arch-rival Timmins Rock in what was a seventh and deciding game in front of 1,868 fans at venerable McIntyre Arena.
Then, in the NOJHL championship series, Hearst took the favoured Soo Thunderbirds to overtime in Game 7 before dropping a 3-2 decision. The title tilt triumph capped a furious comeback for the Thunderbirds, who were down three games to none to Hearst before rallying to win the next four to take the series and the NOJHL championship.
Other notations from the 2021-2002 season that have made the Hockey News North “worthy of repeat list” are as follows.
• The Thunderbirds, who finished first overall during the regular season with 81 points from a record of 38-5-5, put together a win streak for the ages. The Thunderbirds closed out the regular season with 18 straight victories and then began the playoffs with eight successive wins in sweeping through the West Division past both the Blind River Beavers and Soo Eagles.
• In winning the regular season and playoff championships, the Thunderbirds did so led in fine fashion by 39-year old rookie head coach Cole Jarrett, who was also a first-year part owner of the team. Jarrett has a long association with the game as a former journeyman defenseman of considerable note who played in the Ontario Hockey League, American Hockey League, National Hockey League and overseas in a number of countries.
• Jarrett did not win the NOJHL coach-of-the-year award but it did go to a worthy recipient in 33-year old Brandon Perry of the Timmins Rock. Perry was also a rookie NOJHL head coach this past season in leading Timmins to first place in the East Division standings, a single point ahead of Hearst, which was also very well coached by 30-year old Marc-Alain Begin. Begin was an assistant coach under Marc Lafleur — who is now the bench boss of the Powassan Voodoos — when the Lumberjacks won the 2019 NOJHL championship.
• It was a Noah net duo that was second to none that back-stopped the Thunderbirds to first place during the regular season. Noah Zeppa posted a record of 15-1-1 to go with a 2.07 goals against average and .912 save percentage and his sidekick Noah Metivier had a 20-3-4 mark with a 1.88 goals against average and .922 save percentage.
• Veteran Thunderbirds forward Michael Chaffay followed 20 regular season goals in just 38 games with a playoff explosion. In sparking the Thunderbirds to the NOJHL playoff crown, Chaffay netted 12 goals in 15 games.
• Of the NOJHL’s five leading scorers, three were rookies. Robbie Rutledge of the Hearst Lumberjacks and Chase Lefebvre of the French River Rapids were 1-2 to top the league scoring chart while Cooper Foster of the Thunderbirds (in photo above by Bob Davies) was fifth despite playing in only 38 of the Soo’s 48 games. Rutledge rang up 39 goals, 28 assists, 67 points while Lefebvre had 29-37-66 totals and Foster produced 18-42-60 totals. Both Rutledge and Lefebvre have 2004 birth dates while Foster, a second round Ontario Hockey League priority selections draft pick of the Ottawa 67’s in 2021, was born in 2005. Foster made his OHL debut with Ottawa during the 2021-2022 season, playing in 14 games and picking up four assists.
• On the subject of OHL draft picks with a 2005 birth date, rookie defenseman Andrew Gibson became an impact player for the Thunderbirds. The slick defender potted 21 goals, 30 assists, 51 points in 40 games for the Thunderbirds and also skated in six OHL games with the Soo Greyhounds after being a fourth round pick in 2021.
• A pair of rookie forwards combined to make a big presence as being among the top point producers for the Soo Eagles. Seth Ferguson potted 22 goals, 22 assists, 44 points while Marc LaFrance chipped in with 18-25-43 totals that put the dandy duo within the top 20 of the entire league. Ferguson has a 2003 birth date while LaFrance was born in 2004.
• Eagles coach Doug Laprade opted to carry no less than four goalies and all four — Gabe Rosek, Ryan Gilmore, Logan Raffaele and Caleb Horn — won at least one game for the Michigan Soo. The Eagles finished a strong second behind the cross-river Thunderbirds in the West Division regular season standings and then upended the third seed Sudbury Cubs in a thriller of a six game playoff series.
• French River Rapids made the playoffs for the first time in a franchise history that began in 2015. French River just missed finishing at the .500 level with a 23-24-1 mark and the Rapids were a tough opponent in the East Division for the big three of Timmins, Hearst and Powassan. Led by owner, general manager and coach Paul Frustaglio, French River went on to oust the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners in two straight games in the preliminary round of the playoffs before being upended by Timmins in the East Division semi-finals.
• The race for the fifth and final playoff spot in the West Division went right down to the wire with the Elliot Lake Red Wings edging past the Espanola Express. The Express did showcase one of the league’s brightest rookies in 2005 birth year forward Ty McHutchion. As the youngest player on the Express, McHutchion led Espanola in scoring with impressive totals of 23 goals, 20 assists, 43 points.
• When the Province of Ontario was in shutdown in January relative to the ‘vid, American-based teams from each of the NOJHL and Superior International Jr. Hockey League faced off in a pair of inter-league games at Pullar Stadium in the Michigan Soo. In what were two closely contested contests, the Eagles of the NOJHL upended the Wisconsin Lumberjacks of the SIJHL by successive 4-3 scores. To be sure, the games were well received by general manager Bruno Bragagnolo and coach Doug Laprade of the Eagles as well as Wisconsin GM and coach Doug Lein.
• The busiest goalie in the NOJHL during the 2021-2022 season earned himself a Division 1, American Collegiate Hockey Association commitment. Michael Nickolau, who was a workhorse between the pipes for the last-place Cochrane Crunch, is headed to West Virginia in the fall to play for the Mountaineers, who are an up and coming young ACHA team. The 6-foot-4 Nickolau, who has a 2001 birth date, faced an average of a whopping 54 shots per game for Cochrane during the 2021-2022 season and came away with an impressive .896 save percentage in 2,011 minutes of action on a Crunch team that won only two of 48 NOJHL games.
Now, looking ahead to the 2022-2023 season, here are a few items of note.
• Darryl Moxam has long been a fixture in Sudbury as a high level hockey coach of good repute with multiple affiliations in his home town. And now, the 45-year old Moxam is returning to the NOJHL from the Ontario Hockey League without leaving Sudbury. Fresh from a half dozen years as an assistant and associate coach with the Sudbury Wolves of the OHL, Moxam has opted to depart the major junior team to return to the NOJHL with the Cubs. Moxam was a coach with the erstwhile Sudbury Northern Jr. Wolves when they won the NOJHL championship in 2006. Notably, the NOJHL Wolves at that time were owned by Mark Burgess and managed by Blaine Smith as an affiliate of the OHL Wolves. Burgess owned both teams then with Smith as his chief lieutenant. Ironically, both Burgess and Smith are now in the same positions with the NOJHL Cubs after having moved on from the OHL Wolves in an ownership sale of a few years back. In returning to the NOJHL and Sudbury, Moxam will retain trusted old sidekick Dave Clancy as associate coach. The Moxam-Clancy bench tandem will give the Cubs the most experienced high level coaching duo in the NOJHL.
• The most successful coach and general manager in the NOJHL history of the Blind River Beavers has had his contract extended for another three years following a 2021-2022 term in which the team gained 56 points en route to yet another winning season under his leadership. Kyle Brick first joined the Beavers in 2016 and immediately turned around an NOJHL franchise that had gone through five straight losing seasons, winning only 41 games in the process. Brick piloted the Beavers to a record of 32-20-4 in his first season on the job and Blind River has carried on with a winning formula ever since as a model small market franchise. The 36-year old Brick has coached the Beavers to a regular season record of 161-106-26 while also establishing himself as one of the best general managers in the Canadian Jr. A Hockey League.