Recommence and rehash

February 6, 2022

Return to play from a six week hiatus that spanned the holiday season and subsequent pause via Ontario government shutdown has managed to produce some good cheer throughout the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.

Following is a dash of rehash from the first week of recommence.

• First it was school issues that needed to be attended to. Then came the holiday break and the Omicron pause. Add them up and when he returned to the Soo Thunderbirds for a February 4 game against the Sudbury Cubs, it was the first action since October 24 of last year for 19-year old goalie Noah Zeppa. And Zeppa was up to the task, stopping 16 shots to improve his record to 6-1-1 on the season as the West Division leading Thunderbirds cuffed the Cubs by a 6-2 score. As a team, the Thunderbirds take a record of 20-5-5 into play this week. (Above: Zeppa makes a save on Sudbury forward Josh Boucher. Photo by Bob Davies)

• 16-year old rookie standouts Cooper Foster and Andrew Gibson of the Thunderbirds are just two more recent examples of how the NOJHL is a development haven for Ontario Hockey League teams. Foster, a forward, and Gibson, a defenseman, were high OHL priority selection draft picks in 2021. Foster was a second round pick of the Ottawa 67’s and Gibson was a fourth rounder by the Soo Greyhounds. Both have been NOJHL standouts with the Thunderbirds this season between spending some time with their respective OHL teams. Foster has nine goals, 25 assists, 34 points in 22 games with the Thunderbirds. And Gibson has been a scoring machine from his blue line post with the T-Birds, having amassed 14 goals, 17 assists, 31 points in 22 games. Amazing how OHL teams recognize the NOJHL with such high regard while the nearby Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association Lake Superior State University Lakers — who are based in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan — seemingly have no clue of the NOJHL talent in their area when it comes to recruiting players. I would like to say that someone should give long-time Lake Superior State head coach Damon Whitten a wake up call regarding the NOJHL. Then again, I doubt that he would listen.

• Soo Eagles maintained second spot on the West side with back to back victories to begin the 2022 segment. The Eagles got shutout goal from Gabe Rosek in a 4-0 home ice win over the Powassan Voodoos before getting three assists from Seth Ferguson and stealing a 5-4 road decision from the Blind River Beavers to improve their record to 19-6-1. Dating back to before Christmas and the pause in play, coach Doug Laprade and his Michigan-based Eagles now have a record of 8-2-0 over their last 10 games.

• Espanola Express dropped its first two games following the recommence to fall into last place in the West Division, just behind the Elliot Lake Red Wings. Not only is Espanola the youngest team in the NOJHL, largely made up of 16, 17, and 18-year old players, but the Express began the 2022 segment with a depleted roster. Espanola does hold multiple games in hand on fifth place Elliot Lake and the Express has a deserved reputation as a hard working team under head coach Jason Rapcewicz. With such a young team, Rapcewicz will probably need his new goalie tandem of well-traveled 20-year old Dylan Kosik and 18-year old Vaughn LeDrew to steal some games in order to remain in playoff contention. Kosik has struggled in his first two starts for the Express, giving up 10 goals on just 27 shots and being pulled in favour of LeDrew both times. And as LeDrew has shone in relief with 45 saves on 46 shots, Kosik does have a good past from time spent with three teams — Fort Frances Lakers, Thunder Bay North Stars and Dryden Ice Dogs — in the Superior International Jr. Hockey League. All told, Kosik posted an impressive, overall record of 15-9-1 from his three team tour of the SIJHL. He just needs to find his groove to try get himself and the Express back on track in Espanola.

• Defenseman Calum McGill scored a goal in his first game in an Elliot Lake uniform as the Red Wings began the 2022 segment of the season with a 6-1 win over the French River Rapids. Originally from Ayr, Scotland, McGill was part of a multi-player transaction between Elliot Lake and the Kam River Fighting Walleye of the Superior International Jr. Hockey League at the Canadian Jr. Hockey League’s January 10 trade deadline.

• Goalie Alex Bugeja made a triumphant return to the Soo on the weekend. The 20-year old puck stopper made 31 saves as the Powassan Voodoos blanked the Thunderbirds 4-0. Bugeja was acquired by Powassan from the Soo last summer in a cash transaction.

• If there was such a thing as a three headed coin and you could flip it, it probably still wouldn’t point to which one of the Timmins Rock, Powassan Voodoos or Hearst Lumberjacks will finish atop the East Division standings. Just mere percentage points continue to separate the fearsome threesome who not only represent the top three teams in the East but the top three in the entire league. All three teams are very well coached by the likes of Brandon Perry (Timmins), Marc Lafleur (Powassan) and Marc-Alain Begin (Hearst.) Notably, even though he is just 46-years old, Lafleur is the elder of the three. Perry will turn 33 later this month while Begin is only 30. As Lafleur is already won championships with two NOJHL teams — Kirkland Lake Gold Miners and Hearst — before taking over in Powassan this season, Perry and Begin are rising stars as up and coming bench bosses.

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