This marks the third season in succession that the Covid nemesis has affected junior A hockey, in this case two leagues that are based in the rugged regions of northeastern and northwestern Ontario. But both the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League and Superior International Jr. Hockey League have faced off against the opponent and managed to stick handle through traffic.
The 2019-2020 season ended for both leagues at the onset of the playoffs.
The 2020-2021 season was even worse. Ten of 12 NOJHL teams suited up and saw abbreviated league action and the Soo Thunderbirds, Blind River Beavers, Timmins Rock and Cochrane Crunch were the only ones to play more than 20 games. Meanwhile, the SIJHL had to shut down shortly after its season began as only a handful of games were played in what was even more of a hockey nightmare than what the NOJHL endured.
But here we are, in the latter stages of the 2021-2022 season and while the war may not be over, both leagues have battled to keep playing and are poised to move above and beyond Covid.
Not that the current ’21-22 season has gone smoothly for either league.
The Christmas holiday break that started in mid December extended into an Ontario government shutdown in January that, all together, halted play for close to seven weeks. And when play resumed in early February, the NOJHL decided to reduce its 56 game regular season schedule to 48 outings per 12 teams. Meanwhile, the SIJHL was forced into a regular season schedule that has some teams playing more games than others. Meanwhile, citing a lack of players, the Minnesota-based Thief River Norskies decided to pause for the rest of this season, leaving the SIJHL with six active teams.
Still, the two leagues have soldiered on. And there are outright, unmistakeable stories of fervour and promptitude for a writer to scribble and scrawl about.
• When the Ontario government shutdown of January meant no hockey during that month, two American-based teams, the Michigan Soo Eagles of the NOJHL and the Wisconsin Lumberjacks of the SIJHL, got permission from their two leagues to play a pair of exhibition games. Thus, the Eagles played host to the Lumberjacks on a January weekend and the home team prevailed in narrow, back to back 4-3 victories. The two inter-league matches sparked hope that the NOJHL and SIJHL might consider more cross-over games between their teams in the future. And why not?
• Who are these Soo Thunderbirds? A team with way more younger players than older ones, 39-year old rookie head coach (and long-time European pro defenseman) Cole Jarrett nonetheless has the Thunderbirds in first place overall with a record of 33-5-5 and an .838 winning percentage. Not only that, the Thunderbirds have won 13 straight games heading into play this week.
• Three of the youngest coaches in the NOJHL are at the helm of contending teams. They are 36-year old Kyle Brick of the Blind River Beavers, 33-year old Brandon Perry of the Timmins Rock and 30-year old Marc-Alain Begin of the Hearst Lumberjacks. Along with the aforementioned Cole Jarrett of the Soo, Brick, Perry and Begin are all outstanding coaches and leaders.
• While there are those who are NOT in the know who think the NOJHL is a league that is geared mainly towards 19 and 20-year old players, think again. Some of the best players in the entire NOJHL are 16-year old youngsters who were born in 2005. That lusty list includes forward Cooper Foster and defenseman Andrew Gibson of the Soo Thunderbirds, forward Ty McHutchion of the Espanola Express, forward Spencer Hughes of the French River Rapids, forward Mathieu Comeau of the Hearst Lumberjacks, forward Chase MacQueen-Spence of the Powassan Voodoos and forward Billy Bierdermann of the Sudbury Cubs. Notably, Foster (Ottawa 67’s), Gibson (Soo Greyhounds) and MacQueen-Spence (North Bay Battalion) are all Ontario Hockey League priority selection draft picks from 2021 who already made their debut in the ‘O’ earlier this season.
• As the youngest team in the NOJHL, the Espanola Express is chasing the Elliot Lake Red Wings for the fifth and final playoff spot in the West Division as the regular season heads into the final few weeks. Looking ahead, if Espanola president and coach Jason Rapcewicz can get the core of his young players to return next season it would assuredly boost the future fortunes of the Express program. Many of Espanola’s best players were born in either 2005, 2004 or 2003 and it is a promising group with prime potential that includes forwards Ty McHutchion, Eric Barnard, Jack Thor, Atley Gringhorten, Kobe Braham, Benjamin Lacroix and Yan Bessette, defensemen Owen Harris, Adam Shillinglaw and Josh Rumolo and goalie Matthew Loney. Notably, the work ethic and commitment of Rapcewicz as the owner and coach in Espanola is to be commended, given that he also holds down a job with Canada Post.
• The Red Wings are Elliot Lake’s current junior team having followed previous monikers such as the Vikings, Ice, Bobcats and Wildcats. Current operator Paul Noad is a good story in himself, having taking over the dormant Wildcats and rebranding the Elliot Lake franchise as the Red Wings while paying off debt from the previous regime. Noad has also assisted grizzled general manager Mark Savery and young head coach Tanner Bowditch to put together a respectable team on ice as a first-year entry in the NOJHL.
• Over to the SIJHL, the league’s newest team has become an overnight success story. With visionary ownership and a well thought out marketing plan, the Kam River Fighting Walleye has quickly become highly visible in the Thunder Bay area hockey market with fans flocking to cozy NorWest Arena and taking in an electric, upbeat game night atmosphere. In fact, for a recent two game home set against the Dryden Ice Dogs, the Fighting Walleye drew a total of more than 1,400 fans for what were a pair of one-goal victories for Kam River. On the ice, general manager Kevin McCallum has put together a good, deep, all around team for rookie head coach Matt Valley that has Kam River in first place in the SIJHL with a 32-5-2 record and in a testy race with the second place Red Lake Miners and third ranked Dryden. Whether or not Kam River emerges as SIJHL champions in its first full season in the league, the Fighting Walleye has, rather amazingly, already become a model Jr. A franchise.
• And a few good words about Dryden, which has been a part of the SIJHL since the league’s inception 20 years ago. The Ice Dogs are the epitome of continued small town success both in the standings and in fan and community support. President Mike Sveinson and his executive keep the franchise going while the inimitable, unusual and impossible-to-copy general manager and coach Kurt Walsten — a two-time league champion — once again has the Ice Dogs in contention as a high scoring team that can also grind it out in gritty fashion. Dryden just needs to settle on a no. 1 goalie as the season marches on towards the looming playoffs.