Regular season play is getting underway in both the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League and the Superior International Jr. Hockey League.
And as my heart has been sweetly stolen with the birth of my first grand child, Malala, we nonetheless have story lines to peruse relative to junior A hockey in northeastern and northwestern Ontario.
• Good, old school style rivalries have long been a junior hockey staple throughout northern Ontario.
Now, in the present day, while teams and names may have changed, hockey hostility is still very evident, even if some branches and leagues have taken some of the fun out of the game with too many rules and too much modern day politics.
Still, there is nothing quite like a noisy junior A rink on a Friday or a Saturday night with passionate fans rooting for the home team and booing the visitors.
• In the NOJHL, take your pick of Timmins v. Hearst, Cochrane v. Kirkland Lake and any combination of those four teams from up in the north east nook that takes in those time-tested towns.
In particular, the Rock of Timmins and the Lumberjacks of Hearst stand out as the two teams who just could be leaders of the pack in the NOJHL East — and as arch-rivals. Notably, Timmins and Hearst have consistently been NOJHL leaders in attendance in recent years.
On the ice in Timmins, look for leadership and high performance from a pair of local lads who are in their final season of junior hockey — forward Riley Brousseau and defenseman Cam Dutkiewicz. After taking separate paths, Brousseau and Dutkiewicz are together again, having being teammates a few years back with the Timmins Majors of the Great North Under Hockey League.
Meanwhile, on the west side of the 12 member NOJHL, a troika of small town teams that are located within an hour of each other just scream intense rivalry. Be it Blind River v. Elliot Lake or Blind River v. Espanola or Espanola v. Elliot Lake, the price of admission will be well worth the rabid rowdiness that players and fans can ignite.
And then there is the David v. Goliath scenario where you just know that the Blind River Beavers, Elliot Lake Red Wings and Espanola Express will take absolute delight in trying to take down the bigger market Soo Thunderbirds and Sudbury Cubs.
• Speaking of Sudbury, look for the Cubs to bear down and perhaps be the best of the NOJHL West.
Laden with seasoning and skill, Sudbury has the resolve and resources to be an NOJHL championship team sooner than later.
Don’t expect anything less than a first or second place finish in the West Division for the Cubs this season led by the likes of goalie Joel Rainville, defenseman Cole Quevillon and forwards Gavin Brown and Owen Perala.
• Envisioning a strong season from the new look Soo Thunderbirds who are being led by general manager Jamie Henderson and head coach Cole Jarrett is somewhat of a given.
While Henderson and Jarrett inherited a good group of players from the previous hockey staff, they have gone out and brought in some additional local talent that includes goalie Noah Zeppa and a trio of young defensemen in Michael Beltrano, Kolby Fellinger and Creo Solomon.
The Thunderbirds have a winning tradition in the modern day NOJHL that dates back to 1999 — and look for that to continue this season.
• With only four returning players, Espanola is in an Express lane rebuild with general manager and coach Jason Rapcewicz at the controls.
Rapcewicz has managed to restock the Express and with some good, young, rookie northern Ontario talent such as goalie Patrick Boivin, defenseman Adam Shillinglaw and forwards Brayden Lafrance and Ryan Rubic
And through an off season trade with the Kam River Fighting Walleye of the SIJHL, Espanola was able to add value to the Express route with a pair of serviceable veterans in defenseman Caleb Resch and forward Ben Couvier, who just could become top NOJHL players.
Expect Resch, Couvier and returning forwards Josh Boucher and James Eng to all lead by example as last year players who have varying levels of above average ability.
Bottom line is that Rapcewicz and the Express represent the epitome of reputable, small market operation that goes to great lengths to put a competitive product on the ice.
• In the seven member SIJHL, there is a crusty cross-town rivalry brewing between the established Thunder Bay North Stars and the neophyte Kam River Fighting Walleye.
Both teams have been in the recruiting process for the same local and area players and the orthodox North Stars will no doubt be up to any challenge that the fledgling Fighting Walleye will have to offer.
Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that the cross-town rivals made a couple of trades with each other before the season even began.
Perhaps with an edge, Kam River boasts a number of local Thunder Bay products and among those who can be labeled impact players are defenseman Zachary Fortin and forwards Trenton Morriseau, Mackenzie Sedgwick and Christian Veneruzzo. Notably, Fortin played parts of two seasons in the Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League.
The SIJHL also has the attribute of two American teams from different states — the Wisconsin Lumberjacks and the Minnesota based Thief River Falls Norskies. Neither team saw any game action at all last season due to COVID-19.
Both the Lumberjacks and Norskies are located in the northern part of their respective states and neither team will be short on steam when it comes to determining bragging rights from the eight regular season games that are on the head to head slate.
Love the nickname Norskies, by the way.
The Norskies name was originally chosen following a contest in local Thief River Falls elementary schools and confirmed by the ownership group as it reflects the Norwegian heritage of northwestern Minnesota.
The Norskies were founded in 2016.
As for this edition of the Norskies, it is a fresh start in Thief River Falls with young Elliot Bates at the helm as coach and general manager. Bates has prior junior coaching experience in the North American 3 Hockey League.