There have been times, over the years, when both the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League and the Superior International Jr. Hockey League were ruled by one dominant team. Such imbalance often meant that the crowning of a champion in either league was a forgone conclusion by early in the season. But the times have clearly changed in both the NOJHL and SIJHL.
To be sure, parity is so very evident in both the two division, 12-team NOJHL and the seven member SIJHL.
As someone who covers both leagues and surfs from period to period, game to game, league to league on a given night or weekend via the live play by play from the exceptional HOCKEY TV network website, there appears to be no clear-cut favourites among the contending teams of the NOJHL and the SIJHL.
There is very little to choose from among the Timmins Rock, Powassan Voodoos and Hearst Lumberjacks when it comes to skill, depth, systems and high end head coaches.
Up in Timmins, rookie head coach Brandon Perry and the Rock specialize in limiting the number of shots on goal by the opposition, a style that was originally introduced by Corey Beer, who was the team’s previous, successful bench boss. (Hometown lad Perry, who formerly coached the Timmins Majors of the Great North Under 18 Hockey League, has maintained a close friendship with Beer, who now coaches at an academy in the Greater Toronto Area.)
At any rate, key performers for this edition of the Rock includes forwards Riley Brousseau and Tyler Schwindt and a dandy duo of high scoring defensemen in Cameron Dutkiewicz and Bode Dunford.
As Timmins is well coached, so too is Powassan with two-time NOJHL champion Marc Lafleur at the helm. And in Hearst, young head master Marc-Alain Begin is a hometown protege of Monsieur Lafleur.
Among the strengths of Powassan is nomadic goalie Alex Bugeja and the high scoring likes of forwards Rodion Tatarenko and Alex Bradshaw.
As for Hearst, it has impact forwards in Robbie Rutledge, Zachary Demers, Raphael Lajeunesse and Mathieu Comeau while the 1-2 goalie duo of Liam Oxner and Matteo Gennaro is as good as it gets.
Meanwhile, as Timmins, Powassan and Hearst are the ‘big three’ of the East, beware the fourth seeded French River Rapids and their explosive offense led by Cooper Bowman, Chase Lefebvre, Dominik Godin and Levi Siau — an attack that can match any in the entire NOJHL. French River hockey boss Paul Frustaglio has put together a goal scoring machine that Timmins, Hearst and Powassan are rightfully aware of.
Who will emerge from the beasts of the East and win the division? Good question.
Pick a favourite from among the Soo Thunderbirds, Soo Eagles, Blind River Beavers and Sudbury Cubs and a first place case — and eventual berth in the league championship series — can be made for any of the guns of the wild West.
To be sure, the Thunderbirds and Cubs may be the big market teams of the league but the West side story has plenty to write home about from the Michigan based Eagles and the small town Beavers.
Notably, all four teams have proven and capable goalies in tandem — puck stoppers who can steal games on a given night. Who has the best net worth in the NOJHL West? Another good question.
Meanwhile, there is no shortage of impact skaters on any of the ‘fab four’ of the West. Notables include forwards Tyson Doucette and Brock Santa Maria and defensemen Andrew Gibson and Creo Solomon of the Thunderbirds, defenseman Trevor Davis and forwards Chase Tallaire and Jack Mortson of the Eagles, forward Caleb Minns and defenseman Ethan Pegg of the Beavers, and forwards Kyler Campbell, Cameron Walker and rookie sensation Billy Biedermann of the Cubs.
Experienced, high end coaches from the West end who have been around the NOJHL lot include Kyle Brick of the Beavers and Doug Laprade of the Eagles. It is also worth noting that the four contenders all have reputable general managers on board from Brick in the dual role for Blind River to Bruno Bragagnolo of the Eagles to Jamie Henderson of the Thunderbirds to Jeff Forsyth in Sudbury.
As for who do we like to win the West? One of the Twin Soo teams? Blind River? Sudbury?
Um, parity does not yet have an answer.
Got a coin? Then flip it. It is a four-headed choice up in the northwestern Ontario rinks of the Superior shores as to who will go on to win it all.
First up, it is hard to argue with the talented roster that hard working general manager Kevin McCallum continues to put together for the Kam River Fighting Walleye, which is the league’s newest team.
A veteran junior A hockey operator, McCallum has given his hand-picked rookie head coach Matt Valley plenty to work with. And Valley has more than reciprocated by elevating Kam River to the top of the SIJHL standings at about the mid way point of the regular season as one of junior A hockey’s up and coming young coaches.
Kam River’s strength is its skilled roster depth at the forward, defense and goalie positions. And as any good teams needs impact players, the Fighting Walleye has a core that features forwards Alex Enegren, Ethan Lang, Trenton Morriseau, Jeremy Dunmore, Carson Gorst, Keaton Mercredi and Tyler Ralph, defensemen Zach Fortin and Kersey Reich, no. 1 goalie Austin Madge and his sidekick, Eric Vanska.
Playing out of cozy NorWest Arena, Kam River has already been able to develop a faithful following of an increasing number of fans as a new franchise that markets and promotes the Fighting Walleye in a first rate manner. Kudos to the ownership and management for that.
Meanwhile, up in small town Red Lake, good coach Geoff Walker and the Miners boast a crew of crackerjack forwards including local product Jordan Baranesky as well as Brady Harroun, Nic Bolin, Ryan Howe, Lucas Piekarczyk, Noah Kramps and Ryan Hunter. No doubt, the Miners can score.
And there is more as Red Lake has the advantage of already having its ticket punched to next May’s 2022 Dudley-Hewitt Cup, Central Canada championship tournament as the host team. Joining host Red Lake at the four-team DHC will be the champions of the SIJHL, the NOJHL and the Ontario Jr. Hockey League. Should Red Lake win the SIJHL championship for the 2021-2022 season, the league’s runner-up team will be the fourth entry into the DHC tournament.
Ergo, in that respect, the Miners are already ahead of any contending team in the SIJHL, not to mention the NOJHL.
Over to Dryden, the explosive Ice Dogs feature productive forwards such as Maxime Collette, Tristan Takats, Brady Frattinger, Cameron Ware, Derek Koivisto and Ondrej Bardos and young, point per game defenseman Dayvan Bull. The Ice Dogs can score, they are big, and they are tough.
Between the pipes, no less than five goalies have won at least one game for Dryden this season including Eric Clark, who was recently acquired from Blind River of the NOJHL.
Kurt Walsten is Dryden’s veteran general manager and coach of many years. The inimitable Walsten has been coaching in Dryden since 2014 and has led the Ice Dogs to two SIJHL championships and two league final appearances during his tenure.
And as the Ice Dogs hockey department is poised for possible additions ahead of next month’s trade deadline, the rabid fans of Dryden may have much more to look forward to into the second half of the season.
Then there are the Thunder Bay North Stars, who can certainly be counted as a legitimate challenger to any of Kam River, Red Lake or Dryden.
Piloted by experienced head coach Rob Degagne — who, by the way, remains one of the more popular players to ever suit up for the erstwhile North Bay Centennials of the Ontario Hockey League — and featuring a trio of 20 year old standouts in forward Hunter Foreshew, defenseman Raj Sangha and goalie Jordan Smith, the North Stars loom as a serious dark-horse threat to the SIJHL title house.
Odds on favourite to emerge as SIJHL champions? Pick any one of the above mentioned four and you probably won’t be far off.
To be sure, as one can make a serious case for Kam River, firm arguments can also be put in place for Red Lake, Dryden and Thunder Bay.