More and more it has become a league of choice and course of action for players from across Canada and into the United States. It has men who coach for a living, rather than as a sideline. And the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League has parity as evidenced by the fact that seven of its 12 teams finished above the .500 mark — and an eighth came in a mere game below it — during the 2021-2022 regular season.
Yes, there were sweeps during the playoff rounds. But one preliminary round went to a deciding game, as did both the East Division finals and the league championship series. Which also attests to the uniformity and conformity of the league.
Yes, the best team during the regular season, the Soo Thunderbirds, also won the playoff championship and the right to represent the NOJHL at the Centennial Cup, national junior A tournament in Estevan, Saskatchewan. But the no. 1 seed Thunderbirds needed a seventh and deciding game to edge the no. 3 seed Hearst Lumberjacks to become NOJHL champs.
There are good players in the NOJHL. Among them are good players who are poised to move up a level next season, including Ontario Hockey League draft picks and prospects.
Is the NOJHL on par with, say, other junior A leagues such as the Central Canada Hockey League and the Ontario Jr. Hockey League? Maybe, maybe not. But any separation between the NOJHL and other top junior A leagues in Canada has lessened over time.
I have closely covered the NOJHL as a league for a long time, from when the Thunderbirds came into existence in 1999 — and in a more dedicated form when the small town Blind River Beavers first became a factor five years later. And the difference between the NOJHL then and now is like comparing a $5 bill to a $20.
As to the current state of the NOJHL. It is well run and well staffed at the executive and management level. It has a website that is without peer of any member of the Canadian Jr. Hockey League. And, most importantly and to repeat — it is attracting better players and coaches than ever before.
Are there areas the NOJHL can improve on? Absolutely. But the same can be said for any of the top affiliates that form the coast to coast Canadian Jr. Hockey League.
Looking ahead to next season and beyond, I would like to see the NOJHL and the Superior International Jr. Hockey League form more of an alliance. As leagues based in northeastern and northwestern Ontario, respectively, it only seems natural that more interaction between the two would not only enhance the spotlight of the leagues and their players but be a boost for fans and supporters and maybe even a way to attract more sponsorship dollars.
I do know that when the Province of Ontario was in shutdown in January relative to the ‘vid, American-based teams from each of the NOJHL and SIJHL faced off in a pair of exhibition games. Michigan Soo Eagles of the NOJHL upended Wisconsin Lumberjacks of the SIJHL by successive 4-3 scores and both games were well received by management, coaches and players from both sides.
Meantime, a well deserved salute to the NOJHL for the good days and the good ways of now.