Forget about their low place in the standings. This is not about wins and losses. Rather, this is a story of courage, strength and commitment in the face of adversity.
To be sure, the 2023-2024 season has been a back and forth story of good news and bad news for the Elliot Lake Vikings of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.
The positive news began back in the summer when well liked local resident Jef Jarmovitch purchased the NOJHL’s Elliot Lake franchise from its previous out of town operator. One of the first orders of business for Jarmovitch was to change the team name from Red Wings to Vikings. Notably, junior hockey made its debut in Elliot Lake in 1965 and from then until 1997, the team was known as the Vikings.
Fans and sponsors in Elliot Lake were quick to embrace the takeover by Jarmovitch through the purchase of season tickets and advertising. The good news continued through to the team’s ’23-24 regular season home opener on Sept. 9 when, in front to close to 500 fans at Centennial Arena, the Vikings stunned the reigning NOJHL champion Timmins Rock by a 6-5 score.
But the hoopla was short lived. Shortly after the Vikings home opener, Centennial Arena in Elliot Lake was suddenly and unexpectedly closed due to structural concerns. The 55 year old building remains closed though Jarmovitch, as the owner of the Vikings, has offered hope for next season.
“There is no real update on (Centennial Arena) except the (City of Elliot Lake) has shored it up for winter and they need to do more tests. The engineer said that after the initial inspection in September, Centennial Arena is in better shape than originally thought,” Jarmovitch relayed to Hockey News North.
Still, from early September until the end of November — as of December 1 Jarmovitch was able to secure the nearby Massey and District Community Centre as its ‘home’ rink for both practices and games through to the end of the current season — the Vikings were nomads. They played their ‘home’ games in either Blind River or Espanola, which both house rival NOJHL teams.
At any rate, with a seating capacity of about 235, the clean and cozy Massey and District Community Centre was nicely upgraded just over eight years ago. But it had to be further enhanced to meet the standards of housing an NOJHL team.
And Jarmovitch is beyond thankful to the Township of Massey — which is located about 45 minutes from Elliot Lake — for doing all that It has to accommodate the Vikings for at least the balance of this season.
“Absolutely, big thanks to the Township of Massey,” an appreciative Jarmovitch relayed to Hockey News North. “They put about $100,000 in upgrades (to the Massey and District Community Centre) just for us.”
Then there are the merchants from Elliot Lake who have further stepped up to support the Vikings as the team has forged ahead without the use of its own home rink.
“We would not have been able to survive this season without the help of so many businesses and supporters from Elliot Lake,” confirmed Jarmovitch, who also noted the generosity of the Soo Eagles, who are an NOJHL West Division rival of the Vikings.
“Special thanks to (Eagles president and general manager) Bruno (Bragagnolo) and the Soo Eagles,” said Jarmovitch. “Twice we played there (in November) and both times Bruno not only gave us some proceeds from the gate but he fixed us up with food for us to take back home on the bus. That is something that I as the owner of the Elliot Lake Vikings will never forget.”
The Vikings currently have the worst record among the 12 teams of the NOJHL with just 12 points from a mark of 5-21-5. But considering the circumstances, it is astounding that the Vikings have been able to remain active this season and keep the majority of their players around.
Meanwhile, looking ahead to next season, Jarmovitch said he will, when this one is over, fully evaluate the performance of Vikings head coach and general manager Chris Keleher, whose two year contract that he signed with the previous ownership will expire at the end of the current campaign.
Regardless of who is the coach and GM next season, the Vikings stand to return a host of players for 2024-2025, including no less than nine youngsters from various towns in northern Ontario, including Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, Espanola, Mindemoya and Elliot Lake itself.
The list of northern boys currently on the Vikings roster who can return to the team next season includes forwards Noah Aboflan, Connor Desbois, Liam Bridgeman and Anthony Bertrand, defensemen Matthew Kallo, Sam Verbonac, Tyler Thompson and Carter Carriere and goalie Sam Keene.
Ahead of next season, however, is plenty of hockey still to be played in this one. The Vikings won’t make the playoffs. They still need to show even more relentless resolve over the next three months of the regular season schedule. But my oh my, here is to all of those who have kept the Vikings going against all odds.