Who will win the showdown in the wild West? Who will be the beast and who will be the least of the East? The Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League has come on the scene for the 2022-2023 term.
Soo Thunderbirds won the West in 2021-2022 with the best regular season record in the 12 team NOJHL. Rookie head coach Cole Jarrett and his Soo crew then skated to the league playoff championship with an epic seven game, come from behind triumph over the Hearst Lumberjacks.
Repeating those feats will not only be a tall task but a highly improbable one for the Thunderbirds, who have either graduated or traded away several of their top performers from the ’21-22 championship season including their leading scorer, two best defensemen and both goalies. In the Thunderbirds favour is the coaching of Jarrett and a staff of assistants that is top tier. Still, this could well be a middle of the flock season for the Thunderbirds.
Which brings us to the Sudbury Cubs, who might well usurp the Thunderbirds as the best in the West. Darryl Moxam is back in the NOJHL as the Cubs head coach after walking away from a lengthy gig as an assistant with the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario Hockey League. And the Cubs have loaded up for bear, especially at the forward position, with the likes of homegrown northern Ontario products such as Oliver Smith, Cameron Shanks, Cameron Walker, Billy Biedermann and Pierson Sobush.
It says here in a West Division that — besides Gavin Disano of the Blind River Beavers and Cameron Smith of the Elliot Lake Red Wings — is lacking in ratified NOJHL goalies, Sudbury will ride its offensive machine to first place in the West. Then it could well be the Soo Eagles and Blind River in the race for second and third with the Thunderbirds, Elliot Lake and the Espanola Paper Kings trying to hit stride for the fourth and fifth playoff spots and remain free from exile.
As an aside, there is the annual Twin Soo border battle rivalry between the Eagles and Thunderbirds that makes for more than just the average friction. And adding an extra dash of spice to the cross-border conflict is the off season trade of forward Kenny Belanger from the Thunderbirds to the Eagles. Belanger requested a trade from the Thunderbirds and the Eagles were happy to oblige.
Notably, venerable Pullar Stadium in the Michigan Soo is regularly the site for crowds of anywhere from 800 to 1,200 for games involving the Eagles and Thunderbirds. For anyone who has ever watched a game at the Pullar between the Eagles and Thunderbirds over the years, they surely can attest to the old school atmosphere that the rivalry creates. Then there are the home made ‘Pullar burgers’ and the cold beer that is sold in the stands that only enhance the game night experience at the old Portage Avenue barn.
There is a ‘Big Three’ in the East that all have the potential and makings to emerge as the first place beast.
Timmins Rock finished in first place on the East side in ’21-22 just ahead of the Hearst Lumberjacks and Powassan Voodoos — and there is little reason not to expect a repeat of sorts in ’22-23.
Up in Timmins, general manager and coach Brandon Perry earned the nickname ‘Trader Perry’ with a slew of off season acquisitions that landed the Rock first-rate goalie Patrick Boivin from Blind River and no less than four upper end skaters from the Superior International Jr. Hockey League champion Red Lake Miners — defenseman Kenyon Nyman and forwards Brady Harroun, Ethan Pool and Lucas Piekarczyk. If Perry is able to add another defenseman or two, the Rock could well put a lock on the East.
Still, there will be Hearst and Powassan for Timmins to contend with. In just three full seasons as members of the NOJHL, Hearst has made it to the league finals twice, winning once. So, clearly, the Lumberjacks hockey department knows how to put a winner together. Powassan, meanwhile, has brought in long-time Ontario Jr. Hockey League head coach Peter Goulet to try to maintain the Voodoos history of NOJHL excellence. Goulet has a good name from his many years of doing good work with teams in the OJHL.
As the top three have the makings for glory in the East, fans of the French River Rapids, Kirkland Lake Gold Miners and Cochrane Crunch could well be in store for plenty of drama and intrigue to determine the fourth, fifth and sixth place rankings.
French River owner, general manager and head coach Paul Frustaglio got a lot out of the Rapids in ’21-22 as they finished in fourth place and made the playoffs for the first time in a franchise history that began in 2015. With an emphasis on players with northern Ontario roots, French River will look to retain its seeding in ’22-23 and try to fend off the expected improvement from both Kirkland Lake and Cochrane.
The towns of Kirkland Lake and Cochrane are about 95 miles apart along Highway 11. And if the Crunch has a better bunch than it had in ’21-22 then it might be worth a hunch of betting lunch on Cochrane and Kirkland Lake in a ’22-23 tussle of a playoff chase that could be one for followers of both teams to truly embrace. Kirkland Lake and Cochrane are both historic junior hockey towns and there is a ready made rivalry just waiting to re-emerge between the Gold Miners and Crunch.
Cochrane head coach Tom Nickolau is also the owner of the Crunch, having taken over operation of the franchise prior to the Covid abbreviated season of 2020-2021. To put it plainly and simply, it has not been an easy go for Nickolau in Cochrane as the Crunch, in its first full season as members of the NOJHL in ’21-22, won just two of 48 regular season games and missed the playoffs by finishing 20 points behind Kirkland Lake.
But the tireless Nickolau has maintained a steely resolve of vowing to turn around the fortunes of the Crunch. Indeed, the Scarborough, Ontario native spent the 2022 off season trading for and signing multiple players from across Canada — Newfoundland-Labrador to British Columbia — and into the United States of New York, Wisconsin and California.
Among the new players in Cochrane are goalies Jake Dubinsky and Nick Summers, First Nations defenseman Tie Jacobs via the Dryden Ice Dogs of the SIJHL, and a pair of northern Ontario lads in forwards Desmond Brazeau and William Monette. Brazeau hails from Timmins while Monette is from North Bay.