A normal regular season in the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League is 56 games for each of its teams.
Well, in what was an abnormal, offbeat 2020-2021 season relative to COVID-19, it nonetheless — for example — led to the Blind River Beavers being able to play 21 games against two cohort opponents.
When the abbreviated 2020-2021 season wound down at the end of March, Blind River was one of just four teams still playing.
And of the nine NOJHL teams that saw action over the course of a regular season that did not begin until November 13, only the Timmins Rock played more games than Blind River — and it was just one more at that.
Despite the limited schedule and the fact that Blind River had to play 17 of its 21 games against the Soo Thunderbirds — the other four were versus the Rayside Balfour Canadians — Beavers coach and general manager Kyle Brick came away with a mostly positive outlook from the 2020-2021 season.
“To be honest, as a team, we were just happy to be playing when so many other teams and leagues weren’t,” the soon to be 35-year old Brick relayed to Hockey News North. “And while it was unfortunate that we had to play the Thunderbirds so many times, it added even more fuel to the rivalry.”
Blind River came away with a record of 7-9-1 from its 17 games with the Soo and had a 2-2-0 mark in four outings against Rayside Balfour.
Brick and his coaching staff held exit meetings with their players following the end of the 2020-2021 campaign and of the dozen who are eligible to return next season, Brick said he expects to have “between eight and 10 of them” back for the 2021-2022 term.
Among those who gave Brick a firm commitment to return to Blind River for next season are two Sault Ste. Marie products — 2002 birth year center Nick Jameus and 2003 birth year goalie Gavin Disano.
The 5-foot-8, 160 pound Jameus was a reliable performer for the Beavers through the 18 games that he played in 2020-2021. Used mainly as a shutdown forward, Jameus came through with one goal, eight assists, nine points.
“I expect Nick can come in and be our no. 1 center next season,” Brick said of Jameus. “He is a good kid and there is no question of his skill level and ability.”
Meanwhile, the 5-foot-9, 185 pound Disano faced a slew of shots in becoming a workhorse between the pipes for Blind River and becoming its no. 1 goalie as a rookie.
Signed by the Beavers prior to the start of the 2020-2021 NOJHL season after a year with the Soo Jr. Greyhounds of the Great North Under 18 Hockey League, the 17-year old Disano was originally brought into Blind River to be the backup to 19-year old veteran Wyatt Courchaine.
But Disano eventually supplanted Courchaine as the starter and ended up with a 6-4-1 record while Courchaine had a 3-7-0 mark.
Disano’s 6-4-1 record, .891 save percentage and goals against average of 4.53 do not tell the whole tale of what the young goalie faced in the Beavers net.
That is, in 689 minutes of action, Disano faced a whopping 478 shots, which, tallies up to a per game average of almost 42 shots per 60 minutes. Plus, Blind River played the last seven games of the season with just two regular defenseman due to injuries and suspensions.
And Brick, as the coach and GM, welcomes the return of Disano as the Beavers projected starter for next season.
“He is a quiet kid, a really good kid who doesn’t say much. There are a lot of qualities that Gavin has that really stand out,” Brick told Hockey News North. “His preparation, approach and focus during practices and games are off the charts.”
As for what lies ahead, Brick said he has already started recruiting players to play in Blind River next season. (And for the second year in a row, he will put together a summer team that will play in tournaments in southern Ontario.)
“I have been making some phone calls and watching some video regarding players who could help us next season. It is kind of tricky right now because we don’t know what lies ahead … will there be body contact when we return to play next season and will the (Canada-United States) border be open are questions that, right now, we don’t know the answers to,” Brick pointed out.
Still, Brick heads up a program that has made Blind River a destination of good choice for Canadian and American players alike since he took over as the Beavers hockey boss in 2016 — with thanks to assistance from the likes of his top recruiter Craig MacDonald and assistant coaches such as Dylan King and Jamie Disano.
“We have been able to create a good hockey atmosphere in a great little town like Blind River,” Brick relayed. “At the end of the day, your best recruiters are the ones who have played here before.”
As for eligible returnees who may not want to return to Blind River next season, the affable Brick noted that, “come the summer, we will make any deal that makes sense to trade any player who would like to play somewhere else, whether it is in the NOJHL or another junior A league.”
In closing the book on the unprecedented, abbreviated, 2020-2021 season and the Beavers record of 9-11-1, Brick noted that “I wasn’t happy with our record … but it will be better next year.”
Prior to the 2020-2021 campaign, the Beavers had nothing but winning seasons since Brick arrived in Blind River in 2016, posting successive records of 32-20-4, 33-19-4, 25-24-7 and a franchise-best 37-15-4 in 2019-2020.
By comparison, in the four seasons before Brick came on board in Blind River, the Beavers won only 33 of 212 games.