What a race it is in the wild West Division of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League. It starts among the top three teams and then picks up steam in a frantic dash for the fourth playoff spot.
Going into play this week, the Sudbury Cubs are riding a nine game winning streak and in first place with 52 points from a record of 25-4-2. Then come the Blind River Beavers with 44 points from a record of 20-7-4. The Beavers are just ahead of the third place Soo Thunderbirds, who have 41 points from a record of 19-9-3.
Then it gets really tight.
Soo Eagles and Espanola Paper Kings are tied for the fourth playoff spot with 32 points apiece. The Eagles have a record of 15-12-2 while the Paper Kings have a 14-11-4 mark. And still in the thick of the playoff hunt are the Elliot Lake Red Wings with 26 points from a record of 12-15-2.
Meanwhile, here and there around the NOJHL West:
• Soo Eagles have hired a former Ontario Hockey League and National Hockey League left winger of considerable note. Ken Belanger has joined the Eagles as an assistant coach on the staff of head coach Doug Laprade. The now 48-year old Belanger played three full seasons in the OHL as a third and fourth line player with the Ottawa 67’s and Guelph Storm, never scoring more than 16 goals in a season. But he made his 6-foot-4, 220 pound presence known as a fearsome fighter who backed away from absolutely no one. Belanger’s fighting fame, along with resolve, determination and an ability to contribute at the highest of levels of the game led to the soft-spoken kid from Sault Ste. Marie’s west end playing in no less than 260 NHL games. Big Ken netted 12 goals, 12 assists, 24 points and racked up 711 minutes in penalties in those 260 NHL games while toughing it out for the Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Islanders, Boston Bruins and Los Angeles Kings.
• Noah Zeppa made a recent triumphant return from retirement for the Soo Thunderbirds. The 20-year goalie made 27 saves as the Thunderbirds scored a 3-1 road victory over their cross-border rival Soo Eagles. Zeppa was a key performer for the 2021-2022 NOJHL champion Thunderbirds. He had a regular season record of 15-1-1 with a 2.07 goals against average and .912 save percentage for the Thunderbirds during the ’21-22 regular season. He followed that up with a playoff performance that included a 4-1-0 record, 2.40 goals against average and .894 save percentage. Zeppa opted to retire from hockey prior to the start of this season to concentrate on his full time university studies only to recently decide to return to the game and sign with the Thunderbirds after being asked to by team management.
• Blind River Beavers have done well by bringing in high performance graduates from the Soo Jr. Greyhounds of the Great North Under 18 Hockey League. The list of Soo alum from the Great North who are playing varying roles in Blind River include high end goalies Gavin Disano and Charlie Burns, solid defenseman Matthew Kallo and effective forwards Jacob Kovacs and Noah Aboflan. Burns, Kallo and Aboflan are all rookies while Disano and Kovacs are seasoned veterans of the NOJHL. They all rank as good signings by Blind River general manager and head coach Kyle Brick.
• When Teegan Dumont recently signed with Espanola after being released by his hometown Elliot Lake Red Wings, it reunited the hard-nosed forward with Paper Kings no. 1 goalie Jake Marois. The two 19-year olds are former teammates with the Sudbury Nickel Capitals of the Great North Under 18 Hockey League.
• Well travelled goalie Sean Guerin has proven to be a bargain basement free agent pickup by Elliot Lake. Brought in for a look-see, the 20-year old Guerin has since evolved with a 7-4-0 record, 3.13 goals against average and .915 save percentage for a Red Wings team that has a 12-15-2 mark. Guerin had brief stops in the Superior International Jr. Hockey League with the Fort Frances Lakers, Red Lake Miners and the defunct Thief River Falls Norskies before latching on in Elliot Lake.
• Goalie Noah Metivier is more than making his mark since being acquired by the Sudbury Cubs from the Lindsay Muskies of the Ontario Jr. Hockey League. The 18-year old Metivier has a perfect record of 4-0-0 for the Cubs, has two shutouts and has allowed just two goals in the four games. Metivier had joined Lindsay in a summer trade with his hometown Soo Thunderbirds. He had a regular season record 20-3-4 record with a 1.88 goals against average, .922 save percentage and six shutouts for the Thunderbirds in 2021-2022. Metivier followed that up with a 8-1-1 record, 2.08 goals against average and .924 save percentage in the Soo’s championship playoff run.