There are races for first place in both the West and East sides of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League. Just as there are teams in chases for the final playoff positions in both divisions ahead of the 2024 segment of the NOJHL regular season.
Blind River Beavers will skate into the second half of the 2023-2024 regular season on a franchise record 13 game winning streak. The stunning succession of victories has Blind River in second place overall among the 12 teams of the NOJHL with a record of 27-8-0. Only Blind River’s West Division rival Sudbury Cubs have a better record than the Beavers atop the overall standings of the NOJHL. With a record of 27-7-1, Sudbury is one point ahead of Blind River.
The Beavers have become the NOJHL’s poster for supreme small market success under head coach and general manager Kyle Brick. Not only is Brick a good coach but he is an exceptional recruiter, annually getting players from all over Canada and into the United States to come to Blind River, a gritty Highway 17 town of about 3,500 residents that is located half way between Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury. Just 37 years old, Brick has been the main hockey man in Blind River since 2016 and during that time, the Beavers have never had a losing season.
Among the many top performers for the Beavers this season have been goal a game scorers Jake Kovacs and Daniel Vasic, defenseman Andrey Manov and goalie Noah Tegelaar. Kovacs, notably, is a Sault Ste. Marie product who previously played in the NOJHL for the Soo Thunderbirds.
Meanwhile, as Blind River is currently on a 13 game winning streak, the aforementioned Cubs of Sudbury have remained atop the West side led by a nice mix of veteran and older players under the leadership of coaches Darryl Moxam and Dave Clancy. Despite a rash of injuries to a number of key players thus far this season, Sudbury’s record of 27-7-1 through 35 games speaks volumes of the overall team performance under the watch of battle tested bench bosses Moxam and Clancy.
Following Sudbury and Blind River is a three way horse race for the final two playoff spots in the division. Espanola Paper Kings have 44 points followed by the Soo Thunderbirds and Soo Eagles with 41 apiece. Sadly, one of the three teams will miss the West Division playoffs despite current point totals that would have all three of them in second place in the East Division. Yes, second place.
The NOJHL playoff format was a cause for consternation last season as well yet the league has done nothing since to address it. Why not just have the top eight teams make the playoffs regardless of division? How difficult can that be to alter?
Meanwhile, at the bottom of the West Division standings are the nomadic Elliot Lake Vikings with just 15 points from a record of 5-21-5. The Vikings have been displaced from their shut down home arena in Elliot Lake since the opening game of the season, which has made for a tough going for the players and the operation of the franchise.
The Vikings now practice and play their home games 45 minutes away in the tiny town of Massey. To be sure, the Town of Massey has welcomed first year Vikings owner Jef Jarmovitch and the Vikings with open arms and at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars to upgrade their arena to NOJHL standards. Perhaps the NOJHL Office should be publicly acknowledging the Town of Massey for what it has done to accommodate the Vikings.
Meantime, Jarmovitch, as the committed owner who has worked tirelessly to keep the Vikings going against all odds, gets a Hockey News North salute for what he has done for his team this season. This is a guy who deserves some sort of medal of merit.
Shudder to think what would have happened to the Elliot Lake franchise this season in the wake of the closure of the structurally damaged Centennial Arena without Jarmovitch and his family and the fans and merchants who have kept the team going.
Reigning NOJHL champion Timmins Rock has a six point lead on the second place Powassan Voodoos and a seven point edge on the third seed Hearst Lumberjacks as the second segment of the season lurks. All three teams are above the .500 mark and are all well coached and managed.
The days up to the looming January 10 trade deadline will be worth keeping a close eye on to see what moves the top teams make. In particular, Timmins head coach and general manager Brandon Perry has not been shy to orchestrate key player acquisitions in the past — be it in the off season or prior to the trade deadline. While Perry is an astute judge of player talent and a coach with a peerless work ethic, he does have an extremely generous owner at the helm in Ted Gooch.
The bottom three teams in the East Division have all struggled mightily thus far this season, yet one of them will make the playoffs. As of this writing, the Iroquois Falls Storm has 19 points, Kirkland Lake Gold Miners have 18 and the French River Rapids have 17.
The Rapids, led by all purpose, all around good guy, president, general manager and head coach Paul Frustaglio, were in a similar position a year ago. But led by Frustaglio — who has a good reputation as a very good coach — French River managed to sneak into the fourth and final playoff spot last season.
Regardless of which one of Iroquois Falls, Kirkland Lake or French River makes the East Division playoffs, it is on track to — just like last season — do so with much fewer points than a team that misses the post season in the West Division.
And whether one agrees that the playoff format needs to be changed or not, just put yourself in the position of the team in the West Division that misses out. Just think about that.