Junior hockey is being played throughout northern Ontario, albeit in modified form, with no deliberate contact, restrictions on team to team travel, and few fans allowed in the rinks.
And unlike the Ontario Hockey League, which is planning on an early February start date to its regular season, the 2020-2021 campaign is already several weeks underway in the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.
To that end, there are good story lines galore relative to the NOJHL, including sports writers who previously ignored the league only to all of a sudden be on the bandwagon with plenty of printed words.
Which, to be sure, is great! I am sure that the NOJHL appreciates the extra attention and will take it for as long as it lasts.
Meanwhile, attention is what the NOJHL gets from this corner year round and even with COVID-19, yours truly has had, and will have, no problem coming up with story lines aplenty relative to junior hockey in the north.
So, here and there we go within the good, old NOJHL as November heads to December.
OHL PROSPECTS: The NOJHL has become a haven for OHL draft picks looking to develop their game and move up to the major junior ranks at some point.
Notably, no less than 20 OHL prospects are playing in the NOJHL this season including several 2004 birth date plums from the 2020 priority selections draft.
The list of OHL draft picks who were born in 2004 and who are playing regularly in the NOJHL this season includes defensemen Connor Toms of the Soo Thunderbirds (Soo Greyhounds), Mason Chitaroni of the Blind River Beavers (London Knights), Wilson Farrow of the Rayside Balfour Canadians (Sudbury Wolves) and Lucas Littlejohn of the Espanola Express (Niagara Ice Dogs) as well as forwards Devin Mauro of Blind River (Sudbury Wolves), Samuel Assinewai of Rayside Balfour (Sudbury Wolves) and Luke Bibby of Espanola (Owen Sound Attack.)
Of note, Bibby has been an early season sensation for Espanola with five goals, three assists, eight points in six games.
LOCAL BIRDS: Soo Thunderbirds have, off and on, strayed from the local- above-all-others player mandate that original operator Sam Biasucci insisted on when he founded the NOJHL franchise back in 1999.
But this season, current operator Darren Smyl, along with general manager Trev Zachary and head coach Denny Lambert, have returned to the days and ways of having a lineup dominated by local players.
No less than 13 locally developed skaters are on the Thunderbirds roster.
Comprising the Soo crew on the Thunderbirds are seasoned forwards Parker Morgan, Avery Rebek, Caleb Wood, Kurtis Rogers, Brock Santa Maria, Cooper Smyl, veteran defenseman Jacob Doucette and six rookies in forwards Michael Chaffay, Ty Zachary, Ethan Novello and Tyson Doucette and defenders Kaden Dundas and Connor Toms.
Morgan, Rebek and Wood all have 2000 birth dates, Rogers and Jacob Doucette were born in 2001, Santa Maria, Smyl, Chaffay and Zachary were all born in 2002, Dundas and Novello have 2003 birth dates, while Tyson Doucette and Toms were both born in 2004.
EXPRESS LANE: In its five-year existence as an NOJHL franchise, the Espanola Express has never posted a winning record and has missed the playoffs on three occasions.
And while it is only six games in, the Express is off to a good to the 2020-2021 campaign with a record of 3-1-2.
Not only that, the Express is 3-1-0 since starting out 0-0-2 and is fresh from a weekend sweep of the French River Rapids, posting impressive 7-4 and 6-1 road victories over their West Division rivals.
Balance has been a key for Espanola under rookie head coach Brent Hughes — who served a three year apprenticeship, with winning records all three seasons, for the Cape Breton Eagles of the Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League — as no less than 17 of the 20 skaters on the Express roster have at least one point thus far.
James Eng leads the Espanola points parade with three goals, seven assists, 10 points followed by Devon Savignac with 6-3-9 totals, Bradley Brunet with 4-5-9 numbers, rookie Luke Bibby with 5-3-8 stats and Cameron Walker with a 2-5-7 showing.
TRAIN TRACKS: To say that the Express has a liking for players from northeastern Ontario would certainly rank as an understatement.
That is because of the 22 players who are currently on the roster of the small market NOJHL team, no less than nine of them are lads from the north — six reside in the Greater Sudbury Area, two are from Sault Ste. Marie, and one calls Iroquois Falls home.
Express skaters hailing from Sudbury are forwards Josh Boucher, Bradley Brunet, Devon Savignac and Cameron Walker and defensemen Joshua Kavanagh and A.J. Favot.
Sault Ste. Marie boys who are aboard the Express train are forward Cole Delarosbil and defenseman Jordan Ritchie.
And goalie Carson Boutin is from Iroquois Falls.
Of note, Brunet (Niagara Ice Dogs), Savignac (North Bay Battalion), Walker (Kingston Frontenacs), Kavanagh (Peterborough Petes) and Favot (Niagara) are all OHL priority selection draft picks.
Meanwhile, all nine northern boys have additional NOJHL eligibility remaining after this season.
Jason Rapcewicz, who is the president and general manager of the Espanola franchise, told me that having players from the north on the Express “will always be a priority for us.
“If a kid from the north is capable of playing in our league, if he wants to play for us, and if we can accommodate him, it is a win-win situation for all parties,” Rapcewicz added.
ROCK STAR: Simply put, Tyler Masternak is the shutout sensation of the NOJHL.
With a 2000 birth date, Masternak is into his final season of NOJHL eligibility as the whitewash wizard who tends the twine for the Timmins Rock.
Dating back to the 2017-2018 season when he was the backup goalie in Timmins as an NOJHL rookie, Masternak now has 17 — yes, 17 — shutouts.
A slender tender who stands in at 5-foot-11, 170 pounds, Masternak has, season by season, ascended to become a top goalie in the NOJHL.
After being acquired by Timmins from the Powassan Voodoos in 2017-2018, Masternak had a 6-9-1 record with a 2.87 goals against average, .907 save percentage and two shutouts for the Rock.
Then, in 2018-2019, Masternak posted a 29-13-0 record with a 2.51 goals against average, .907 save percentage and six shutouts.
He was even better in 2019-2020 with a 24-6-0 record, 1.66 goals against average, .932 save percentage and eight more shutouts.
And thus far in 2020-2021, Masternak has a 4-0-0 record, 0.73 goals against average, .971 save percentage and his 17th career NOJHL shutout.
LOCAL LUMBERJACK: Late developing, homegrown product Sebastien Doucet has been putting up the points for the Hearst Lumberjacks through six games of this season.
Which is a nice scoring touch for the Lumberjacks in that the 5-foot-9, 170 pound forward with a 2000 birth date wasn’t exactly a scoring threat during his first two seasons in the NOJHL.
Indeed, in 92 regular season games over the course of the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 campaigns in Hearst, Doucet managed mere totals of six goals, 10 assists, 16 points.
Now, through six games thus far this season, Doucet is tied for second on the Lumberjack scoring log with two goals, seven assists, nine points.
To be sure, the local lad is a big reason why Hearst has a record of 5-1-0 to begin the 2020-2021 regular season.