We have teams, players and coaches to keep collective eyes on as junior hockey in the north puts its sticks on the 2021-2022 season.
• From the Soo Thunderbirds of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League to the Soo Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League, this is a Sault Ste. Marie progression story.
Connor Toms, a 2004 birth year defenseman, is slated to move up from one Soo junior team to another this season as a prized prospect of the OHL Greyhounds.
Toms, who the Greyhounds used a third round pick on at the 2020 OHL priority selections draft, has the makings of being a top defender who can skate and who has skill and smarts and who is growing in size.
Toms stood out in a big way for the Thunderbirds during the abbreviated 2020-2021 NOJHL season as he played with confidence and showed that he is a ripening plum ready to make his OHL season debut for the Greyhounds as a 17-year old rookie defenseman.
Mature beyond his years, Toms is also a sensible, respectable kid and is in good hands with a Greyhound coaching staff that includes associate coach Jordan Smith. Smith himself is also a local guy and former standout defenseman with the Greyhounds during his OHL playing days.
• Already a prime time OHL defenseman — and another Soo boy — is big Jack Matier, who will be entering his second OHL season with the Ottawa 67’s.
Towering at 6-foot-5, Matier rose to become a world class defenseman for Team Canada at the under 18 global championship tournament during a 2020-2021 season in which there was no OHL hockey.
A National Hockey League draft pick of the Nashville Predators, the right-hand shooting Matier still has two years of OHL development time remaining.
In addition to his size and strength and obvious hockey ability, Matier is also a character kid with natural leadership traits.
Interestingly, Matier gets to continue his OHL development in Ottawa under new 67’s coach Dave Cameron. After a number of years as a coach in the NHL, the American Hockey League and over in Europe, Cameron is back in the OHL as a bench boss, having previously led both the Greyhounds and the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors to multiple winning seasons.
• At first blush, the NOJHL has the makings of relative parity in each of the East and West divisions.
On the East side, the Hearst Lumberjacks and Timmins Rock both have considerable player experience on their side while sleeper teams include the Cochrane Crunch, Powassan Voodoos, French River Rapids and Kirkland Lake Gold Miners.
Notably, while Powassan will be young, the Voodoos do have a number of OHL draft picks on board and there is a big plus factor in incoming coach Marc Lafleur, who has already won NOJHL championships with both the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners and his hometown Hearst Lumberjacks.
Meanwhile, in the wild West, the Sudbury Cubs are loaded for bear and ready to take a run for the top with a lineup deep in experience and a former NOJHL championship coach on board in Dave Clancy.
After taking last season off, the time tested, no nonsense Clancy is back in the NOJHL as Sudbury’s associate coach. And that looms as a positive addition for the rebranded Cubs, formerly the Rayside Balfour Canadians.
Up next is the rabid rivalry of the Soo Thunderbirds and Soo Eagles.
The Thunderbirds have a new kid on the block in first time junior coach Cole Jarrett, who is also a part owner of the team and a Soo boy to boot. Jarrett is known as a lives and breathes hockey guy who played the game at its highest levels after a standout career as an OHL defenseman.
Jarrett has assembled a staff which includes former OHL and European pro defenseman Jeremy Rebek. Like Jarrett, Rebek is also a Soo boy.
What is shaping up as a spirited, season long rivalry in the West Division is a small market tug of war for fourth, fifth and sixth places between the Blind River Beavers, Espanola Express and the new Elliot Lake Red Wings. The three towns are within an hour’s drive of one another and Blind River and Espanola both have proven NOJHL coach-general manager tandems at the helm in Kyle Brick of the Beavers and Jason Rapcewicz of the Express.
Meanwhile, Elliot Lake is back in business after a year away as the rebranded Red Wings led by managing director Paul Noad, having taken over from the woeful Wildcats of previous administration. Time will tell if the Red Wings hockey staff shows an ability to adapt to the NOJHL, which outsiders often underestimate only to learn the hard way.
• As it gets settled into a first full season as members of the Superior International Jr. Hockey League, the Kam River Fighting Walleye features a credible duo of general manager Kevin McCallum and young, up and coming head coach Matt Valley leading the way.
McCallum had a busy summer in making trades and signing established junior hockey players in the hopes of the Fighting Walleye making a run to be the big fish in the seven team SIJHL, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary season.
The SIJHL will be the host league for next spring’s Dudley Hewitt Cup championship tournament, which also features the winners from both the NOJHL and the Ontario Jr. Hockey League.
Meanwhile, one player of note who McCallum was able to acquire via off season trade is standout veteran defenseman Zachary Fortin.
A local Thunder Bay product, Fortin was obtained by Kam River from the Timmins Rock of the NOJHL. Besides having played two seasons in Timmins, Fortin has the experience of 68 games with the Gatineau Olympiques of the Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League.
Kam River has a built in, cross town rivalry with the more established Thunder Bay North Stars. Notably, the North Stars are coached by Rob DeGagne, who is a former OHL forward of good repute with the erstwhile North Bay Centennials.