It will take a lot for the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League to measure up to the drama and production of the 2021-2022 season. Having said that, there is estimation and computation that could have the NOJHL on track for similar adventure and elation in 2022-2023.
The ’21-22 regular season not only produced close races in both the East Division and West Division but culminated in a thrilling playoff run that included multiple seventh and deciding games, including a climax overtime match that had the Soo Thunderbirds edge past the visiting Hearst Lumberjacks to win the league championship.
The upset-minded Lumberjacks, who had entered the playoffs as the no. 3 seed, actually had a three games to none lead on the no. 1 seed Thunderbirds before the Soo came back to win the next four games, including the stunning Game 7 overtime victory. Amazingly, in a 35 day span, Hearst played in a league high 20 playoff games last spring, which was five more than the Soo skated in.
Prior to the playoffs, the ’21-22 regular season showed parity among the 12 teams of the league. For example, in the East Division, the Timmins Rock finished in first place, a mere one point ahead of Hearst and just six points up on the third place Powassan Voodoos. And in the West Division, four of the six teams finished with records over the .500 mark with the Sudbury Cubs edging the Blind River Beavers for third place by just two points.
At any rate, hustle and bustle from among a top shelf group of coaches, general managers and owners is what, in many ways, defines the 12 team NOJHL, which has its share of the junior A market as a decided upon league for 16-20 year old players from across Canada and into parts of the United States. Indeed, not including the signing of free agents and graduated under-18 players, NOJHL general managers have made in the neighbourhood of 70 player transactions since the league re-opened for business on June 1 ahead of the ’21-22 season.
One such busy boss has been Timmins coach-general manager Brandon Perry. Perry, who guided Timmins to a first place finish in the East Division as a rookie NOJHL coach in ’21-22 before the Rock lost in heartbreaking style in Game 7 of the divisional finals, pulled off a series of summer sizzle swaps. After obtaining 19-year old goalie Patrick Boivin from the NOJHL’s Blind River Beavers, Perry pulled the trade trigger to bring in three 20-year old high performance skaters from the reigning Superior International Jr. Hockey League champion Red Lake Miners — points producing defenseman Kenyon Nyman and top end forwards Brady Harroun and Ethan Pool. It speaks volumes about the Rock as an organization that not only did Nyman, Harroun and Pool all ask to be traded from Red Lake but the talented trio requested to be moved to Timmins, if possible.
To be sure, the cash exchange acquisitions of Boivin from Blind River and SIJHL champions Nyman, Harroun and Pool from Red Lake have poised Timmins to once again be an NOJHL contender in ’22-23. As good a coach as Perry is, he is also a bookish, diligent GM who does his homework in a manner befitting that of the prominent Queen’s University graduate that he is.
Hearst, meanwhile, while it has not had as hectic an off season as its arch-rivals from Timmins, has made three notable transactions. The Lumberjacks added defensemen Adam Shillinglaw from the NOJHL’s Espanola Paper Kings and Ethan Kitsch from the Renfrew Wolves of the Central Canada Hockey League while also acquiring goalie Ethan Dinsdale from the Richmond Royals of the Eastern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.
Player transactions, though, are just part of what has been a summer of excitement and change relative to various teams in the NOJHL.
For example, the French River Rapids recently welcomed 2018-2019 scoring star Phillipe Daoust back to town. Daoust led all NOJHL rookies in scoring back in ’18-19 before signing as a free agent with the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League and then, amazingly, being drafted into the National Hockey League by the Ottawa Senators. After parts of two seasons with Moncton, Daoust was traded to the Saint John Sea Dogs midway through the ’21-22 campaign and helped spark the QMJHL team to this year’s Memorial Cup championship.
Showing that he has clearly remembered his NOJHL roots, Daoust recently returned to French River and brought the Memorial Cup with him, meeting up with Rapids owner, GM and coach Paul Frustaglio and signing autographs and posing for pictures with fans.
“It is simply tremendous that Phil hasn’t forgotten his roots, beginning his junior career here as a member of the Rapids,” Frustaglio said of the 20-year old Daoust, who has signed a three year, entry level, NHL contract with the Senators. “We are proud of Phil and all of his accomplishments This was a credit to his abilities on and off the ice.”
A name change in Espanola has also been a highlight of the NOJHL off season. Formerly the Espanola Express, the team is now known as the Espanola Paper Kings. Espanola president and head coach Jason Rapcewicz noted that the franchise is moving in a direction that provides a better depiction of its paper town history and industry with the new moniker.
“We as an organization felt that it is time to represent more of what Espanola is. It has a rich history of being a town of paper makers, with multiple generations of families that have been employed to make paper for over 100 years. We feel that our name change to the Espanola Paper Kings is a more relatable and a greater representation of the Town of Espanola and its residents,” relayed Rapcewicz, who is the sole owner of the franchise.
The Paper Kings then went out and hired Marc Gagnon to be the GM and work alongside Rapcewicz. Gagnon joins the Paper Kings from the Huntsville Otters of the Provincial Jr. C Hockey League where he was the GM and coach since 2017. Before that, Gagnon was in the NOJHL with Powasson as an assistant coach during the Voodoos 2016-2017 championship season.
Sporting a new look, the Paper Kings colours will consist of white, blue, green and gold. And with a fresh start, Espanola will be out to try to make it back to the West Division playoffs in ’22-23 after missing out in ’21-22. To that end, Espanola has signed a number of returnees from ’21-22 who should be able to advance their game in ’22-23.
And the Paper Kings recently addressed their goaltending situation — sub par play between the pipes over the second half of the ’21-22 season clearly cost Espanola a playoff spot — by obtaining veteran Jake Marois from the Sudbury Cubs. Marois was made available to Espanola by Sudbury after the Cubs acquired goalie Nathaniel Boyes from the Westport Rideaus of the EOJHL.
A trade between bitter border battle rivals Soo Thunderbirds and Soo Eagles has also made for off season headlines in the Sault This Week and Hockey News North.
Kenny Belanger, a progressing 2004 birth year forward with size and skill, was obtained by the Michigan-based Eagles from the Thunderbirds in a cash deal. Regular season and playoffs included in ’21-22, the 6-foot-2, 170 pound Belanger netted 12 goals, 11 assists, 23 points in 56 games as a rookie with the NOJHL champion Thunderbirds. He is a son of Sault Ste. Marie product Ken Belanger, who played in 260 National Hockey League games as a left winger and feared enforcer.
To be sure, in a league known for its peppery matchups and duels — Blind River v. Sudbury, Hearst v. Timmins as just two examples — the Twin Soo tug of war between the Thunderbirds and Eagles is as testy as it gets. And the cross border transfer of Belanger from the T-Birds to the Eagles will only add spice to the rack once the ’22-23 season gets going.
Then there is a Highway 17 rivalry that stretches 90 miles from big market Sault Ste. Marie to small town Blind River. And in a summer signing spree, the Beavers were able to lure three plum players from the reigning Great North Under 18 Hockey League champion Soo Jr. Greyhounds to Blind River for the upcoming season, namely goalie Charlie Burns, defenseman Matthew Kallo and forward Noah Aboflan.
Burns, Kallo and Aboflan are poised to join several other Sault Ste. Marie products who were already established on the Beaver pond in goalie Gavin Disano, defenseman Nate Headrick and forward Jake Kovacs — not to mention goalie coach Jamie Disano.
Meanwhile, a centre piece to the rivalry between the Thunderbirds and both the Eagles and Beavers is Jamie Henderson. Not only is Henderson the GM and assistant coach of the Thunderbirds but he is also the head coach of the Under 18 Jr. Greyhounds. Given those positions, Henderson’s middle name might well be ‘Bulls Eye.’