Simmering story lines


By
July 19, 2022

Once the 2022 calendar flips to September it will only be eight days into the month before the first puck is played and the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League regular season is underway. And a glance ahead has a choice number of readable story lines looming.

HIGH FLYING BIRDS

We begin with the reigning champion Soo Thunderbirds who, remarkably, have never had a losing record since entering the NOJHL in 1999. Since then, the closest the Thunderbirds have had to a losing season was the 2006-2007 campaign when they finished at the .500 mark with a record of 22-22-4.

Soo Thunderbirds are the reigning NOJHL champs.

All together, the Thunderbirds have been to the league finals 14 times and won the championship in five of those years. Can the Thunderbirds continue their winning ways in 2022-2023 under Cole Jarrett — who won a championship in 2021-2022 in his first year at the helm as part owner and head coach — and his first rate staff that includes fellow retired long-time European pro stalwart defenseman Jeremy Rebek?

Why not? Aforementioned NOJHL history tells us that since their debut season of 1999, the Thunderbirds have made it to the league championship series no less than 14 times. Which is even more notable when considering that the NOJHL did not crown a champion in either 2020 or 2021 due to the Covid pandemic.

BEAVER TALES

Ninety miles down Highway 17 from the Soo to Blind River are the Beavers, who have been a summary of small market success since general manager and coach Kyle Brick arrived in the Milltown in 2016 — with nothing but unabridged seasons of winning records in the meantime.

Moving forward, the Beavers added to what was already fervent friction with the Thunderbirds by making a significant splash on the open player market during this off season. In stunning succession, Brick signed three blossoming players — a defenseman, a forward and a goalie — from the regular season and playoff champion Soo Jr. Greyhounds of the Great North Under 18 Hockey League.  To be sure, the signings of defenseman Matthew Kallo, forward Noah Aboflan, and goalie Charlie Burns directly from the Thunderbirds back yard represent a major attainment for the Beavers, who are coming off of a 25-17-6 regular season record in 2021-2022 that was followed by two rounds of the playoffs.

Charlie Burns

Kallo, who has a 2005 birth date, skated in 21 regular season games with the Great North champion Jr. Greyhounds in 2021-2022 and also suited up with Blind River for five NOJHL matches as an affiliate player. The 6 foot, 180 pound Kallo is a dependable defender who protects his own end of the ice.

The 6 foot, 170 pound Aboflan, who also has a 2005 birth date, tallied 15 goals, six assists, 21 points in 18 regular season games for the Jr. Greyhounds in ’21-22 before finding the range for two goals, three assists, five points in five playoff outings. 

Burns, a 6-foot-1, 160 pound, 2006 birth year goalie, was the top goalie in the Great North in 2021-2022 for the Jr. Greyhounds and was subsequently taken by the Niagara Ice Dogs in the ninth round of the 2022 Ontario Hockey League priority selections draft. 

Gavin Disano

And if that isn’t enough, the Beavers are slated to return three veteran performers in 2022-2023 who are from Soo territory — 2002 birth year defenseman Nate Headrick, 2003 birth year forward Jake Kovacs and 2003 birth year goalie Gavin Disano. Kovacs actually began his NOJHL career with the Thunderbirds a few years ago and then consented to join the Beavers midway through the 2021-2022 season via trade from the Ontario Jr. Hockey League.

Recognizably, the Disano/Burns goalie tandem is a quirky and conspicuous one. Not only are they good friends but they are also step brothers. And if their support for one another carries through the upcoming season, the Beavers are poised to have a happy family scenario at the crucial goalie position.

At any rate, rev up the rivalry between the small town Beavers and the bigger display Thunderbirds for the 2022-2023 season.

UP IN COCHRANE

To be sure, there is no where to go but up for the Cochrane Crunch in 2022-2023. Cochrane finished last overall in the 12-team NOJHL in 2021-2022 with a disastrous record of 2-43-3.

Now, as he prepares for his second full season as owner and head coach of the Crunch, Tom Nickolau is well aware of the challenges ahead in Cochrane. And the 56-year old Nickolau, who as a player, was a member of the 1986 Memorial Cup champion Guelph Platers, has not been one to sit back and feel sorry for himself for what was a misadventure of a 2021-2022 season.

Instead, Nickolau has remained positive and upbeat, noting the support of the fans and community in Cochrane and vowing to turn around the on-ice fortunes of the Crunch.

Recruitment wise, Nickolau and 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. And Nickolau stayed close to home to sign hustling forward Desmond Brazeau. Brazeau hails from Timmins, which is about an hour’s drive from Cochrane.

Meanwhile, Nickolau went local to add to his staff with the hiring of Richard Solomon. Solomon, who has a life-long association with the game as a player, minor hockey coach and official in Cochrane, has joined the Crunch as an assistant coach under Nickolau.

Summer tends to bring out optimism ahead of a given season. And it is worth repeating that at this time of the year, all 12 teams in the NOJHL are unbeaten and tied for first place.

It is too early to try to project how it will play out for Nickolau and the Crunch this coming season. But let it be noted that there are many with an association of various sorts to the NOJHL who are in Nickolau’s corner as the Crunch aims to punch its way into the playoffs this season.


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