Four of the six teams that comprise the West Division of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League are above the .500 mark and a fifth is not far behind with the schedule at about the one third point of the 2021-2022 regular season.
Let us take a Hockey News North, team by team ride through the wild West of the North.
SOO THUNDERBIRDS. A pair of 2005 birth year skaters who are developing in the NOJHL after being picked at the 2021 Ontario Hockey League priority selections draft have been top performers for the Thunderbirds and a coaching crew led by Cole Jarrett.
Forward Cooper Foster, a second round draft pick of the Ottawa 67’s, and defenseman Andrew Gibson, a fourth round selection of the Soo Greyhounds, are scoring leaders for the Thunderbirds as 16-year old rookie sensations.
Foster and Gibson are just two young shining stars on the Thunderbirds, with 2004 birth year forward Tyson Doucette and ’04 birth year defenseman Creo Solomon being a couple of other standouts.
Between the pipes, the Thunderbirds have a tidy trio in Noah Zeppa, Noah Metivier and Nolan Chartrand.
Notably, Foster, Doucette, Solomon, Zeppa and Metivier are all local products.
SOO EAGLES. Keeping pace with the first place Thunderbirds and holding games in hand on the division leaders, the Michigan Soo squad features an electrifying goal scorer in Chase Tallaire and another high end forward in Jack Mortson.
In goal, Ryan Gilmore has played extremely well between the pipes under the careful watch of Eagle eyed veteran volunteer goalie coach Bill Vanderleest.
As they eye a return to their home rink — venerable Pullar Stadium — with the reopening of the International Bridge border into the United States, coach Doug Laprade and his Eagles have been a pleasant surprise through the early stages of the season.
And once they settle back into the friendly confines of the Pullar, the Eagles figure to be even more of a formidable foe for their NOJHL opponents.
BLIND RIVER BEAVERS. Superbly coached and managed by sixth year hockey boss Kyle Brick, the Beavers continue to be a splendid example of success in a small market.
Arguably the most improved team on the West side since the start of the season, Blind River takes a back seat to no club in the division as the Beavers are in a battle for second spot and within striking distance of the first place Thunderbirds.
Up front, Caleb Minns and Iroquois Falls native Jesse Dupuis have been more than productive as has all purpose defenseman Ethan Pegg. And in net, three goalies have victories — Soo boy Gavin Disano, Jeremi Delaquis and Eric Clark.
In short, the Beavers are as solid as a Brick foundation.
SUDBURY CUBS. A helter skelter, up and down team, the Cubs have been just above or at the .500 level for most of the season despite being deep in veteran and young talent.
Last year skater Kyler Campbell, 17-year old local product Pierson Sobush and 16-year old rookie stalwart Billy (Big News) Biedermann from Manitoulin Island have been putting up big points on the board and while Sudbury’s goal-tending has been a tad inconsistent, the Cubs are more than capable of being at the top of the division.
If Sudbury doesn’t win the championship or at least make it to the finals this season, then philanthropic Cubs owner Mark Burgess and his top executive Blaine Smith will want to know why.
Playing out of Countryside Arena, the new look, community minded Cubs have been a positive presence in Greater Sudbury as the NOJHL’s biggest market franchise.
In fact, its says here that the NOJHL Cubs are probably more effectively marketed than the OHL Sudbury Wolves. Which is a credit to Burgess and Smith at the top.
ESPANOLA EXPRESS. Owner and general manager Jason Rapcewicz, who is in his first season as head coach, has done a workmanlike job in repaving the Express and keeping the team within range of the .500 mark.
Young, 16-year old rookie forward Ty McHutchion is an Espanola points leader and 20-year old retread defenseman Caleb Resch and Blind River born rookie goalie Patrick Boivin have stood out in a big way on the Express lane.
The Express rarely gives an inch and that is credit to Rapcewicz and his coaching staff.
ELLIOT LAKE RED WINGS. It has been a bumpy road for the return of the NOJHL to Elliot Lake after a one year absence.
Formerly the Wildcats, the new look Red Wings have struggled for the most part and while they are entrenched in the basement of the division, making the playoffs remains a possibility, albeit somewhat of a distant chance.
Still, the Red Wings, despite a lopsided win-loss record, have been in a number of close games with the top teams in the division as general manager Mark Savery has been working at trying to fill the gaps in the lineup for rookie coach Tanner Bowditch.
Scoring wise, Josh Tomasi, Jovani Moses and Alex Antoine have been leading the way. Notably, Antoine is an 18 year old local Elliot Lake product who has adapted well to the NOJHL as a first year forward.
Meanwhile, defenseman Devin Shoreman has given the Red Wings a nice offensive boost from the back end.
Elliot Lake has a long junior hockey history and while there have been franchise failures and name changes over the years, the community has mostly supported its NOJHL teams.
(Soo Thunderbirds/Blind River Beavers action photo by Bob Davies)