In a sense, the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League is already ahead of the game as it plans and prepares for next season.
It includes the fact that Elliot Lake has confirmed a return from its 2020-2021 leave of absence for the 2021-2022 campaign — complete with a new name, a new coach and a new general manager.
Then there are examples of verity that elite full-time coaches such as Kyle Brick of the Blind River Beavers and Brent Hughes of the Espanola Express have affirmed their return for the 2021-2022 season to Hockey News North.
Even though it was but a 12 game sample, Hughes put a firm stamp on the Express in his first season in Espanola in leading it to a 5-4-3 record — and doing so at the helm of the youngest team in the NOJHL with not a single 20 year old player on its roster.
The 38-year old Hughes has confirmed that he has commitments from the majority of his players to return to Espanola for the 2021-2022 season.
Prior to his arrival in Espanola, the no-nonsense Hughes was part of three straight winning seasons as an assistant coach with the Cape Breton Eagles of the Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned Kyle Brick, as the coach and general manager in Blind River, is looking forward to the return of arch-rival Elliot Lake to the NOJHL.
“We are excited to have our nearby division rival back in business … there is nothing better than Blind River vs. Elliot Lake on a Saturday night,” Brick relayed to Hockey News North.
“I am happy for that organization to get back on their feet. It wasn’t the same without them. With that being said, I love nothing more than beating Elliot Lake and the same goes for our fans … let’s drop the puck,” added the 35-year old Brick.
Brick, who has been with the Beavers for five seasons, is the most productive coach as far as winning percentage go in Blind River’s modern NOJHL history, which began in 1999.
The hard-driven Brick has managed to go beyond what predecessor coaches Jim Capy and Todd Stencill accomplished during their respective, multiple winning seasons in Blind River.
Elliot Lake, on the other hand, will be out to make a fresh start as the newly-named Red Wings in 2021-2022 after sitting out the 2020-2021 season on a leave of absence.
Among the other changes that have been made has the Elliot Lake franchise in agreement with a management company headed by Paul Noad to look after team operations of the rebranded Red Wings, who will now sport red and white as their colours.
Further to that, holdover Elliot Lake president Len Kutchaw has named John Buchanan as the Red Wings new general manager and Brian Noad as the new head coach.
The new coach and management team will be out to reverse the franchise’s on-ice fortunes once play resumes next season.
Elliot Lake’s most recent NOJHL season — the 2019-2020 campaign — resulted in a 7-46-3 record for the then-called Wildcats and a last place finish in the 12-team league.
The last time Elliot Lake posted a winning record was the 2015-2016 season.
Reflecting, as teams look ahead to what is hoped is a less COVID-19 affected season in 2021-2022, the NOJHL actually did well in 2020-2021 in spite of the pandemic.
Led by veteran commissioner Rob Mazzuca, the league stick handled around the COVID-19 opponent with a careful game plan. And by following all of its own rules and the ones set forth by public health, the league’s efforts and diligence resulted in not a single player testing positive for COVID-19.
To be sure, the NOJHL stared down adversity and came away with an ‘E’ for effort in an abbreviated 2020-2021 season.
Of the 71 games that were scheduled for play, only five were called off. And those five were only postponed as precautionary measures.
Now, looking ahead, it is actually refreshing to learn that the NOJHL as a league and its teams are already going ahead and planning for next season.