Junior hockey up north

July 14, 2021

They are the two primary junior A hockey leagues of the expansive, sweeping northern Ontario region.

As of now, in total, there are 19 teams from northeast and northwest Ontario, northern Michigan, northern Minnesota, and northern Wisconsin that span the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League and the Superior International Jr. Hockey League.

The more established of the two leagues, having been around for more than 50 years, the NOJHL has grown to two divisions totaling 12 teams.

Based in Michigan, the Soo Eagles are the league’s lone American entry. The Eagles play in the West Division with the cross-river Soo Thunderbirds, Blind River Beavers, Elliot Lake Red Wings, Espanola Express and Rayside Balfour Canadians.

On the other side, the French River Rapids, Powassan Voodoos, Timmins Rock, Cochrane Crunch, Kirkland Lake Gold Miners and Hearst Lumberjacks make up the East Division.

Rob Mazzuca

The NOJHL, which is capped at 12 teams, is led by mainstay commissioner Rob Mazzuca, who has been on the job since 2011. Notably, since Mazzuca took over as the NOJHL’s commander in chief 10 years ago, the league has increased its number of teams from seven to 12.

Mazzuca was also recently elected as the new chairman of the board for the Canadian Jr. Hockey League..

As for any further membership in the league and while there are communities — Iroquois Falls as an example — that have proven their ability to support a junior hockey franchise, the only way of getting into the NOJHL now would be by way of relocation of a current team.

And as of now, all 12 NOJHL clubs are signed up to play for the 2021-2022 campaign with a regular season schedule having already been drawn up, approved and released by Mazzuca and the member teams.

Over to the SIJHL, it will be celebrating its 20th season of existence during the upcoming campaign. The SIJHL is led by commissioner Darrin Nicholas, who was only appointed to his position a year ago and then had to lead the league through a 2020-2021 campaign that was severely shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Nicholas has not been sitting idle as he visions the future of the SIJHL, which has a current membership of seven teams including the Kam River Fighting Walleye, Thunder Bay North Stars, Red Lake Miners, Fort Frances Lakers, Dryden Ice Dogs and two American entries — the Wisconsin Lumberjacks and the Minnesota based Thief River Falls Norskies.

Kam River just gained membership into the SIJHL in 2020 as the league’s seventh team. And under Nicholas as commissioner, the Sioux Lookout Bombers are poised to join the SIJHL as its eighth entry for the 2022-2023 season.

Not only that, the SIJHL is looking to expand further, according to the commissioner.

“We are looking to aggressively expand over the next few seasons for sure,” Nicholas told Hockey News North. “I am primarily focused now on communities within our existing footprint so as not to adversely impact travel and operational cost to our teams.

“But we will have to expand our territory eventually,” Nicholas added.

Like the NOJHL, the SIJHL can house as many as 12 teams. And while Nicholas did not say what towns the SIJHL is looking at as potential future sites, sources have told Hockey News North that the northwestern Ontario towns of Terrace Bay and Kenora are possibilities, as is Virginia, Minnesota.

Either way, as the NOJHL is in good hands with Mazzuca at the helm as commissioner, so too do the fortunes of the SIJHL appear to be progressing with Nicholas just having completed his first year on the job.

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