For puck sakes. The 2022-2023 version of regular season play in the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League is scheduled to get underway next week. And here we are with a point of view perspective on the 12 teams of the NOJHL.
West Division to East Division, teams are listed in alphabetical order.
Blind River Beavers. Coach-general manager Kyle Brick joined the Beavers in 2016 and immediately turned around an NOJHL franchise that had gone through five straight losing seasons, winning only 41 games in the process. Brick piloted the Beavers to a record of 32-20-4 in his first season on the job and Blind River has carried on with a winning formula ever since as a model small market franchise. Blind River began play in the NOJHL as the Beavers in 2001. And besides Brick, only two other coaches — Jim Capy and Todd Stencill — have had winning seasons in Blind River. Including the abbreviated 2020-2021 regular season in which Blind River played just 21 cohort games relative to the ‘vid, Brick has coached the Beavers to a record of 161-106-26 while also establishing himself as one of the best general managers in the Canadian Jr. A Hockey League. Will the Beavers show their teeth again in ’22-23? Bet on it. From the step brother net minding pair of Gavin Disano and Charlie Burns on out, Blind River figures to once again be an intriguing West side story.
Elliot Lake Red Wings. This is the Red Wings second season as a new NOJHL team and they are already on their fourth head coach. Hmmmmm. But they do seem to have a general manager in Mark Savery who knows how to put together a team through trades and recruiting while dealing with distraction. After all, he did manage to get the Red Wings into the playoffs in ’21-22. The Red Wings have 15 or so players back from ’21-22 including goalie Cameron Smith, defenseman Ethan Mercer and forwards Alex Antoine, Kaden Laverdiere, Brody Kearns and Josh Tomasi. Which certainly appears to be an indication of solidity.
Espanola Paper Kings. The Express has left Espanola. The Paper Kings have taken over. A name change from the Express to the Paper Kings is just some of what owner and head coach Jason Rapcewicz spent the summer working on. Rapcewicz brought in Marc Gagnon from the Provincial Jr. C Hockey League to become general manager of the Paper Kings and was also able to forge a key player affiliation agreement with the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario Hockey League. The arrival of Gagnon takes some of the management work load off of Rapcewicz and the team partnership stands to benefit both the NOJHL Paper Kings and the OHL Wolves. At any rate, Espanola will be out to try to return to the playoffs in ’22-23 after missing out in ’21-22. Sub standard goal tending in the second half of the ’21-22 campaign resulted in Espanola being overtaken by Elliot Lake for the fifth playoff spot in the West Division. To that end, Rapcewicz went out and acquired goalie Jake Marois in an NOJHL trade with the Sudbury Cubs during the summer.
Soo Eagles. As undeviating and uniform an NOJHL franchise as there is, the Eagles under the watch of president and general manager Bruno Bragagnolo are well known for being a club that annually challenges for the divisional lead and invariably advances a nest of players to the American college hockey ranks. The Eagles of this season will showcase several returning players including forwards Chase Tallaire, Brian Fiddes and Jack Mortson and defensemen Kris Clark, Coby Fox and Isaiah Gagerman. They also added forward Kenny Belanger from their arch-rival Soo Thunderbirds in an off season trade. Can the Eagles soar to the top of the West Division? It may well depend on the new goalie duo of Logan Raffaele and Reid Ramsay and how they respond to being tutored by veteran Eagles goalie coach Bill Vanderleest.
Soo Thunderbirds. A flock of Birds from the ’21-22 title team flew the coop to teams in other leagues during the summer and this looms as a rebuild season for general manager Jamie Henderson and head coach Cole Jarrett. There are some good holdover players to build around for this season including forwards Michael Chaffay and Brock Santa Maria and defensemen Kolby Fellinger and Kaden Dundas. But will they and an array of fresh faces be enough for the Birds to fly to championship heights again in ’22-23?
Sudbury Cubs. Great guy owner in Mark Burgess. Great guy managing director in Blaine Smith. Proven coaches in Darryl Moxam and Dave Clancy. Some good veteran talent in forwards Cameron Walker, Cameron Shanks, Pierson Sobush and Billy Biedermann and a blue line led by Nick Toffoli et al. Some exceptional, high end, incoming talent. But will there be a goalie who stops enough pucks for the Cubs to go beyond ‘aw shucks’?
Cochrane Crunch. Heading into his second full season as owner and head coach of the Crunch should provide Tom Nickolau with more of a grasp on putting together a team of ambition and stability. Nickolau and Co. need to put the forgettable two win season of 2021-2022 in the rear view mirror and make strides towards at least overtaking Kirkland Lake for the fifth playoff spot on the East side. Nickolau has gone coast to coast across Canada and into the United States to put together a roster for the upcoming season that includes more than 15 players who were not with the Crunch in ’21-22.
French River Rapids. The Rapids are coming off of their first playoff season since joining the NOJHL as an expansion team back in 2015. Owner, general manager and coach Paul Frustaglio has assembled a team for the ’22-23 season that is laden with players who hail from various cities and towns throughout Northern Ontario. Having had a taste of the playoffs from a breakthrough season of ’21-22 should have all who are associated with the Rapids hungry for more in ’22-23.
Hearst Lumberjacks. Low key Lumberjacks general manager Jonathan Blier isn’t highly visible outside Hearst but he sure knows how to use his connections and resources to put together good teams for head coach Marc-Alain Begin. The Lumberjacks went from finishing second in the East Division in ’21-22 to losing in overtime to the Soo Thunderbirds in the seventh and deciding game in the NOJHL championship series. A glance at the Hearst roster that will begin the ’22-23 season suggests that Blier, Begin and the Lumberjacks will again be in the thick of things in the East. Of note, in three notable off season transactions, the Lumberjacks added defensemen Adam Shillinglaw from the NOJHL’s Espanola Paper Kings and Ethan Kitsch from the Renfrew Wolves of the Central Canada Hockey League while also acquiring goalie Ethan Dinsdale from the Richmond Royals of the Eastern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.
Kirkland Lake Gold Miners. Since parting ways with winning general manager and coach Ryan Wood a few years back the Gold Miners have been spinning their wheels with little momentum. Kirkland Lake had the second worst record in the NOJHL in ’21-22 and only made the playoffs because Cochrane could not get untracked. If the Gold Miners don’t get off to a good start in ’22-23 the executive committee just may look for a third coach-GM since letting Wood walk.
Powassan Voodoos. A perennial contender under Chris Dawson, who is entering his eighth season as the Voodoos under-rated general manager, Powassan underwent a significant coaching change during the off season. Two time NOJHL championship coach Marc Lafleur left the Voodoos for an assistant coaching position in the Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League. But it did not take Dawson long to come up with an equal replacement for Lafleur by landing long-time Ontario Jr. Hockey League bench boss Peter Goulet. One crackerjack coach leaves town, another one arrives. Can we call it the power of Powassan?
Timmins Rock. Timmins coach-general manager Brandon Perry had himself a busy summer ahead of the looming NOJHL season. Perry, who guided Timmins to a first place finish in the East Division as a rookie NOJHL coach in ’21-22 before the Rock lost to Hearst in heartbreaking style in Game 7 of the divisional playoff finals, orchestrated a series of summer time acquisitions. After obtaining 19-year old goalie Patrick Boivin from the NOJHL’s Blind River Beavers, Perry pulled the trade trigger to bring in three 20-year old high performance skaters from the reigning Superior International Jr. Hockey League champion Red Lake Miners — points producing defenseman Kenyon Nyman and top end forwards Brady Harroun and Ethan Pool. It speaks volumes about the Rock as an organization that not only did Nyman, Harroun and Pool all ask to be traded from Red Lake but that the talented trio specifically requested to be moved to Timmins. To be sure, the cash exchange acquisitions of Boivin from Blind River and SIJHL champions Nyman, Harroun and Pool from Red Lake have the Rock ready to roll again.