Soo Thunderbirds and Soo Eagles are one-two in the standings of the West Division with the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League on a holiday hiatus. But the Blind River Beavers and Sudbury Cubs are in close pursuit of the best of the West and the Espanola Express and Elliot Lake Red Wings cannot be taken lightly.
With 43 points from an impressive record of 19-4-5, the Thunderbirds are perched atop the West Division leader board. But the Michigan-based Eagles have a 17-6-1 record for 35 points and have four games in hand on their cross-river rivals.
In close proximity to the Twin Soo teams are Blind River with 30 points via 14-9-2 record and Sudbury with a 13-10-1 mark for 27 points.
Next up among the West Division six pack are the Espanola Express with 18 points and an 8-15-2 record and Elliot Lake with 15 points and a 7-22-1 showing.
No stranger to the NOJHL and in his third separate go-round of success with the Thunderbirds — this time as general manager and assistant coach — Jamie Henderson said he loves the compete level of the teams of the Wild West.
Appearing on a recent edition of the Hockey North Show on radio station Eagle 95.1, Henderson noted that “weak opponents don’t do anyone any good. It’s not good good for the league and players don’t develop and get better by playing bad teams.
“Which is why I love what we have in our league. And in our division, it is a credit to guys like (general manager) Bruno (Bragagnolo) and (head coach) Doug (Laprade) over there with the Eagles. And look at Blind River, and the job that Bricker (Beavers coach and general manager Kyle Brick) has been doing for a lot of years now. It is crucial that small market teams like Blind River are competitive for the overall balance and credibility of the league.
“Sudbury, you know Sudbury is always going to have a good team with great ownership and the staff over there,” Henderson continued. “And over in Espanola, Rapper (Express coach and general manager Jason Rapcewicz) runs a good program in another one of our league’s small markets.”
The long-winded Henderson also pointed out how tough the last place Red Wings of Elliot Lake have been.
“We have had some tough games against Elliot Lake and it wasn’t that long ago that they beat us … and they were very deserving of that win against us. And look at the number of close games that there have been between Elliot Lake and Blind River and Elliot Lake and Espanola, for example” Henderson noted.
Meanwhile, as much as the Thunderbirds have a history of being an annual contender in the NOJHL, player development remains the main motivator of the franchise, which underwent new ownership during the recent off-season.
“I know it is what (co-owner and head coach) Cole (Jarrett) and (co-owner) Trevor (Daley) want and it is why I will always stress and promote player development as long as I am involved with the Thunderbirds,” said Henderson, who is also the head coach of the under 18 Soo Jr. Greyhounds of the Great North Hockey League and a regional scout for the Ottawa 67’s of the Ontario Hockey League.
Looking ahead to the 2022 segment of the season, Henderson said he expects nothing short of an ongoing battle among the six teams of the West Division, while adding that he is anticipating games against the six members of the East Division.
“It would be great to see how we match up against Timmins, Powassan, Hearst and French River who are the top teams on the East side,” summed up Henderson.
Soo Thunderbirds and Soo Eagles, in recent NOJHL action at Pullar Stadium in the Michigan Soo. (photo by Rob Horn)