It took them until the second last game of the regular season to clinch a playoff position in their first go around as members of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League. Showing gradual improvement as the 2021-2022 regular season progressed, the Elliot Lake Red Wings managed to secure the fifth and final playoff spot in the West Division of the NOJHL, just ahead of the Espanola Express.
Elliot Lake finished the 48-game regular season schedule with 36 points from a record of 17-29-2. And the fact that the Red Wings had an impressive record of 6-3-1 over their last 10 games is what lifted them into the playoffs. Of those six clutch wins by Elliot Lake down the stretch, two of them came in head to head matches against Espanola with both teams in a frantic race for the last playoff spot.
This season has marked a nice return to Elliot Lake for the NOJHL after a one-year hiatus. There was no NOJHL team in the gritty town of about 10,500 residents last season. And the season before, the 2019-2020 campaign, the erstwhile Elliot Lake Wildcats were an absolute disaster with a league-worst record of 7-46-3 in 56 games.
But out of the mothballs last fall came the rebranded Elliot Lake Red Wings, led by front man and managing director Paul Noad. And after a rocky start to the 2021-2022 season, with coaching and managerial changes along the way, the Red Wings eventually got it going and overcame the odds to earn a playoff spot in the West Division.
Mark Savery, who has a lengthy background in the game at the junior level, much of it in the Uxbridge area, was originally hired by Noad to be the Red Wings vice president of hockey operations. But an early player personnel change in direction by Noad led to Savery taking on the added role of general manager of the Red Wings.
Speaking to Hockey News North, the 57-year old Savery relayed some of the process of putting together a team from scratch in Elliot Lake.
“First of all, our entire organization is pleased with the opportunity to compete in the 2021-2022 NOJHL playoffs,” Savery began. “From the day I started with the team that was the goal that Paul Noad and I discussed. Paul handed me the keys and said make it happen.
“We started with a look at our entire team make-up and began the retooling process,” Savery continued. “Having to start from scratch with no returning players, we took our time to see exactly what was needed. We made some moves with staff and players that were hard to make on a variety of levels but we made those hard decisions keeping the year one goal in the forefront.
“We replaced a head coach and a GM,” Savery added. “We were able to lure a young energetic coach away from the Central Canada Hockey League in (26-year old) Tanner Bowditch. We traded away our captain and assistant captain, 20 year olds and proven veteran players. We traded away size and we brought in guys with very high compete levels and longer runways as far as years in Elliot Lake are concerned.”
To be sure, Savery made some key moves. One was acquiring 18-year old goalie Cameron Smith from the Stouffville Spirit of the Ontario Jr. Hockey League. And another was trading 20-year old forward and captain Dayton Clarke to the first place Kam River Fighting walleye of the Superior International Jr. Hockey League for three serviceable 18-year olds in defenseman Calum McGill and forwards Kjell Osborne and Owen Lancaster.
“After Cam Smith come to us from Stouffville our team began to show the confidence we knew was there and with the additions of McGill, Osborne and Lancaster from Kam River, a winning attitude spread throughout our team,” Savery noted. “We lost some good people and players along the road but the changes have been positive to our team and that is the most important thing.”
The 6-foot-4 Smith, an 18-year old Ontario Hockey League draft pick of the London Knights, was a definite difference maker for Elliot Lake with a 9-9-2 record, 3.25 goals against average and .916 save percentage. Without Smith in net, Elliot Lake had a record of 8-20-0.
As for the upcoming playoffs and a best-of-three preliminary round series, Savery is taking it in context.
“We feel we have made some significant strides this year and our retention rate for next year is promising. We hope to continue in the right direction and provide Elliot Lake with a team that they can be proud of for years to come,” he relayed.
It can be rightfully noted that it was a team effort that got Elliot Lake into the playoffs, just ahead of Espanola. Notably, not a single member of the Red Wings scored 20 goals.
In fact, it was local product Alex Antoine, an 18-year old rookie forward, who led Elliot Lake in goals with 16. Antoine is one of two local Elliot Lake products on the Red Wings, with hard rock 18-year old defenseman Teegan Dumont being the other.
All in all, the Red Wings get a passing grade as a first year NOJHL squad that finished ninth out of 12 teams in the overall standings en route to making the playoffs.