There are a mingle of 19 teams that compete within the ranks of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League and the Superior International Jr. Hockey League. In true north form, 11 are based in northeastern Ontario, six are situated in northwestern Ontario towns, one operates in northern Michigan and another is stationed in the north region of Wisconsin. All are working towards the looming 2022-2023 season with ranging measures of outlook and probability.
Following are a plethora of points to peruse ahead of the ’22-23 NOJHL and SIJHL seasons.
• Soo Thunderbirds general manager Jamie Henderson has been wearing his trader’s hat during the off season. Henderson has already made a half dozen transactions that include shipping players out and bringing in newcomers from other junior leagues across Canada. Remarkably, the reigning NOJHL champion Thunderbirds have never had a losing record since entering the NOJHL in 1999. Since then, the Thunderbirds have been to the league finals 14 times and won the NOJHL championship in five of those years. While it may be a stretch to expect the Thunderbirds to revisit glory again in ’22-23, history has shown to never count out the boys from the Soo.
• As if the NOJHL’s border battle rivalry between the Thunderbirds and the cross-river Soo Eagles needed any more rev to it, there is the recent trade involving Kenny Belanger to add spice to the skillet. Belanger, a lanky forward with a 2004 birth date who was relatively productive in modest duty with the Thunderbirds as an NOJHL rookie in 2021-2022, is now a member of the Eagles. Regular season and playoffs included in ’21-22, the 6-foot-2, 170 pound Belanger netted 12 goals, 11 assists, 23 points in 56 games while showing some spark and skill. The acquisition of Belanger gives the Michigan-based Eagles two Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario products in their lineup. Earlier this off season, the Eagles signed hard rock defenseman Dawson Wilson. Wilson, who has a 2005 birth date and who played high school hockey locally for the St. Mary’s Knights in ’21-22, impressed enough at that level that he received an invitation to attend the recent prospects camp of the Soo Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League.
• With the start of the ’22-23 regular season just over a month away, the Eagles, Blind River Beavers and Sudbury Cubs appear to have the makings of being on par with the Thunderbirds in the NOJHL’s West Division. Meanwhile, the Espanola Express will make it a priority to try to return to the playoffs after being eked out by the Elliot Lake Red Wings for the fifth seed spot in ’21-22. Espanola president and head coach Jason Rapcewicz has confirmed the return of several skaters who should be able to advance their performance levels in ’22-23 and assist the Express on a planned playoff route. They include forwards Ryan Rubic, Liam Bridgeman, Atley Gringorten and Kobe Braham, forward-defenseman Garreth Sturgess and offensive minded defender Josh Rumolo, who is already drawing attention from a few Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association schools. As for Gringorten, he netted six goals in 18 games for Espanola in ’21-22 after boarding the Express in a trade with Sudbury. All in all, though, the Express needs to have much better goaltending in ’22-23 than it had in the second half of ’21-22 when sub par net play was a major factor in Espanola missing the playoffs.
• Three East Division teams — Timmins Rock, Hearst Lumberjacks and Powassan Voodoos — were East Division powerhouses in ’21-22 while the surging French River Rapids also kept pace. Given the way those teams operate with top end management and coaching personnel, don’t expect much to change in ’22-23. Timmins, in particular, has had a Rock star of an off season as coach-general manager Brandon Perry traded for a no. 1 goalie in Patrick Boivin from Blind River and then acquiring high grade forwards Brady Harroun and Ethan Pool from the SIJHL champion Red Lake Miners.
• Cochrane Crunch will be out to punch its way back into the East Division playoffs this season with the most likely scenario being to try to overtake the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners for fifth place. Cochrane finished last overall in the 12-team NOJHL in ’21-22 with a disastrous record of 2-43-3. And as he prepares for his second full season as owner and head coach of the Crunch, Tom Nickolau, along with his staff, have virtually gone coast to coast across Canada and the United States to bring in new players. From Newfoundland to British Columbia — and in between — and from the states of Wisconsin and California there are incoming players who are signed to play in Cochrane for this coming season. Meanwhile, the Crunch stayed close to home to sign peppery forward Desmond Brazeau, who hails from nearby Timmins.
• The SIJHL was poised to operate with an all-time high of eight teams in ’22-23 with the addition of the expansion Sioux Lookout Bombers. But the rag tag Thief River Falls Norskies have abandoned ship for the ’22-23 season after pulling the plug midway through the ’21-22 campaign due to a lack of players. The exit of Thief River Falls leaves the family owned, managed and coached Wisconsin Lumberjacks as the SIJHL’s lone American entry. Thus, the SIJHL will remain a seven team league with Sioux Lookout, Wisconsin, the reigning regular season champion Kam River Fighting Walleye, the perennial contending Dryden Ice Dogs, the holdover playoff-winning Red Lake Miners, as well as the Thunder Bay North Stars and Fort Frances Lakers.
• As the goalie position can be the most coveted and complicated at the junior level, both Kam River and Wisconsin have confirmed the return of proven puck stoppers for the coming season. Eric Vanska, a local Thunder Bay product, fashioned a regular season record of 12-4-1 with a 2.51 goals against average, .927 save percentage and two shutouts in helping Kam River to a first-place finish in ’21-22. He then had a 2-1-0 record with a 3.66 goals against average and .914 save percentage in the playoffs as Kam River made it to the finals. Meanwhile, Kyler Lowden returns to Wisconsin as its no. 1 goalie in ’22-23. After a sluggish start for both the team and the goalie, the Lumberjacks and Lowden got untracked as the ’21-22 season progressed. Wisconsin rode a five game winning streak late in the season to finish fifth in the seven team SIJHL with a record of 16-25-2. And Lowden was a clear difference maker for the Lumberjacks. The lanky Lowden finished the regular season with a record of 12-14-1 to go with an .897 save percentage and 4.42 goals against average while facing a barrage of shots. In comparison, when Lowden was not in the net, Wisconsin struggled with a record of 4-11-1, a save percentage of .858 and a goals against average of 6.02.