NOJHL return to play outlook

January 22, 2022

Poised to recommence from a pause in play relative to the Omicron variant and rules of the provincial government, the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League will soon begin the 2022 section of the season.

And with practices lined up for January 31 and games scheduled beginning on February 3, coaches and general managers from across the NOJHL region relayed various responses to Hockey News North ahead of the restart time line.

Soo Thunderbirds general manager and assistant coach Jamie Henderson gave kudos to the NOJHL for its part in the process.

“The league has done a great job to do everything in their control to push to get back to playing. These players and others all across the province work so hard and put so much time and effort into playing and it is important for them to get back to playing,” Henderson noted.

The Thunderbirds are in first place in the West Division of the NOJHL with 43 points from a record of 19-4-5. But the Thunderbirds dealt away two of their best players at the January 10 junior hockey trade deadline, moving 17-year old forward Tyson Doucette and 17-year old defenseman Creo Solomon to teams in the Ontario Jr. Hockey League in separate cash transactions.

Having done that, and having allowed only 70 goals in 28 games to date, the Thunderbirds will need to continue to play well defensively and get A-1 goaltending from rookie Noah Metivier and junior hockey veteran Noah Zeppa through the 2022 segment of the season.

Kyle Brick

“We have had great goaltending all season,” said Henderson. “As a group I think our team really takes pride in taking care of our own zone first. When we haven’t been at our best, our goalies have certainly given us a chance to win almost every night. Which is what you need especially once we get back and we know the games will only get more difficult.”

Over in Blind River, where the small market Beavers are a very solid third in the West Division with 30 points from a record of 14-9-2, successful general manager and coach Kyle Brick gave his thoughts on the looming return to regular season activity.

“We are obviously excited to get back on the ice and we understand that the schedule is going to be a struggle,” noted Brick “We like our chances … it is a very tight race in the West Divisions with a lot of good teams. You can’t take any game or any team for granted.”

Wearing his GM’s toque, Brick made a pair of key additions to the Beaver dam at the trade deadline, snagging 18-year old hometown rookie goal-tending stalwart Patrick Boivin from NOJHL rival Espanola Express and getting 18-year old forward Jake Kovacs from the OJHL. As a 16-year old rookie with the NOJHL Thunderbirds two seasons ago, Kovacs lit it up to the tune of 27 goals.

Meanwhile, across the St. Mary’s River into Michigan, Soo Eagles general manager and assistant coach Bruno Bragagnolo likes the makeup of his young team, which is in second place in the NOJHL West with 35 points from a record of 17-6-1.

“First of all, it was great to hear the news from the Ontario government about allowing the return to playing games,” Bragagnolo began. “Hopefully there will be no further interruptions in our league schedule. As for our team, I Iike the way we competed in the first half of the season. We have a good group of hard working and committed kids. I think we can play even better in the second half … but having said that, I have no complaints about the way the kids played and conducted themselves in the first half.”

Eagles head coach Doug Laprade also chimed in.

“I am very pleased that the province has opened up again and that our kids are able to get back to playing the game. I have been very happy with the way we started the season and I am very excited for the second half. I think our guys have really made great strides and I’ll look forward to the competition that our league brings. I know the guys are very excited to get going again,” Laprade noted.

Brandon Perry

Over in the East Division, rookie general manager and coach Brandon Perry of the first place Timmins Rock has sights set on the second segment of the season.

“Obviously, we are super excited to get going again here,” Perry began. “We feel the moves we made at the trade deadline (obtaining 20-year old defensemen Carson Cox and Eric Moreau) makes us a better team and we are looking forward to the battles ahead in 2022. I am just so excited for our guys to get back to playing the game they love.”

Timmins takes a league-best 48 points and a 23-5-2 record into the second half of the season. But the Rock is just one point ahead of second place Powassan Voodoos and two points up on the third seed Hearst Lumberjacks in the hotly contested East Division.

Meanwhile, in French River, owner, general manager and coach Paul Frustaglio is looking to take the Rapids into the playoffs for the first time in an NOJHL franchise history that began in 2015. The Rapids are a very solid fourth on the East side with 35 points from an impressive record of 17-13-1 with play set to resume.

“It is fantastic news that the league, with its dedicated boys, can get back to playing. I think the break may help is as a reset and it allowed a few guys with injuries to get healthy. We are excited and grateful to be playing again and hoping we can continue to improve on our quest to make the playoffs,” said an effervescent Frustaglio.

And from the league office, commissioner Rob Mazzuca and his staff are working on finalizing the full remainder of the regular season schedule.

Mazzuca noted that, “as always, we as a league will continue to follow all of the guidelines that have been set forth by the Ontario government. We are, as you would expect, anticipating a return to regular season play and into the playoffs. We are certainly cautiously optimistic moving forward.”


WEST DIVISION: 1. Soo Thunderbirds, 43 points (19-4-5) 2. Soo Eagles, 35 points (17-6-1) 3. Blind River Beavers, 30 points (14-9-2) 4. Sudbury Cubs, 27 points (13-10-1) 5. Espanola Express, 18 points (8-15-2) 6. Elliot Lake Red Wings, 15 points (7-22-1).

EAST DIVISION: 1. Timmins Rock, 48 points (23-5-2) 2. Powassan Voodoos, 47 points (21-6-5) 3. Hearst Lumberjacks, 46 points (22-7-2) 4. French River Rapids, 35 points (17-13-1) 5. Kirkland Lake Gold Miners, 21 points (9-20-3) 6. Cochrane Crunch, 7 points (2-27-3).

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