Junior hockey outlook

September 2, 2021

It was a season like no other relative to junior hockey in the province and coalitions such as the Ontario Hockey League, Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League and Superior International Jr. Hockey League.

And hopefully there will never be another season like the 2020-2021 campaign that was so adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While “back to normal” is a phrase that is still not appropriate to hockey — and in this case, Ontario leagues such as the aforementioned OHL, NOJHL and SIJHL — limits that were put on the respective groups for 2020-2021 have at least been partially lifted for the looming 2021-2022 season.

Looking back, for the OHL, the entire 2020-2021 season was wiped out as not one single game was played among the 20 member teams. The SIJHL managed to get in a smattering of games with five of its seven teams seeing some sort of action. As for the NOJHL, it had the best fortune of any of the three leagues being discussed with nine of its 12 teams combining to play 66 regular season games over the course of the 2020-2021 term.

Now, there is a lot more hope and reality for the looming 2021-2022 season.

Following an exhibition schedule, the NOJHL is slated to begin regular season play on September 16. After a preseason tournament that will include three of its teams and a guest invitee, the seven strong SIJHL is scheduled to begin regular season action on September 17. And the 20-team OHL has announced October 7 as its planned start date.

Plans are for a full 56-game regular season for NOJHL teams like the Soo Thunderbirds and Espanola Express

There will be alterations to what had been previously normal in both the NOJHL and OHL.

The NOJHL plans to again have a 56-game regular season. But for the first half of the season at least, teams will only play within their respective six-member divisions in order to reduce travel and overnight stays.

As for the OHL, it will return to normal in the sense that all teams are again scheduled for 68 regular season games. But there will be fewer crossover games between Eastern Conference and Western Conference opponents out of respect for travel. Having said that, Soo Greyhounds of the Western Conference will play the Sudbury Wolves and North Bay Battalion of the Eastern Conference more than usual given that all three teams are based in northern Ontario.

Meantime, the seven member SIJHL has opted for a balanced schedule and all teams are slated to play one another eight times for a total of 48 games apiece.

The Canada-United States border situation currently looms as a factor.

Of the 12 teams in the NOJHL, only one does not operate out of northeastern Ontario and they are the Michigan-based Soo Eagles. Possible scenarios include the Eagles either starting the season on the road or relocating to Rankin Arena in Soo, Ontario for home games to begin the schedule.

The SIJHL features two American teams out of its seven members. And to begin the regular season, the SIJHL’s two American teams, the northern Minnesota based Thief River Falls Norskies and the Wisconsin Lumberjacks will face off four times in two game, home and home series.

Over to the OHL, its three American teams, namely the Michigan based Flint Firebirds and Saginaw Spirit and the Pennsylvania based Erie Otters will only play one another through the month of October.

Looking ahead to the 2021-2022 season, there is cautious optimism and anticipated outlook pertaining to the major junior OHL and the junior A level NOJHL and SIJHL.

OHL: There are a number of new coaches from an off season carousel of moves including former Soo Greyhounds and Toronto St. Michael’s Majors bench boss Dave Cameron returning to the OHL as head coach of the Ottawa 67’s. The well respected Cameron has years of coaching in the National Hockey League on his resume and is seen as a good hire by the 67’s.

Elsewhere on the coaching front, the Flint Firebirds have put together a new staff led by Ted Dent. Flint also has a new president of hockey operations and general manager in Terry Christensen while Sault Ste. Marie product and former Greyhound Mike Oliverio has been promoted to head scout.

Other teams that have made off season coach and managerial changes are the Barrie Colts, Hamilton Bulldogs, Oshawa Generals, Kingston Frontenacs, Sudbury Wolves, Windsor Spitfires, Sarnia Sting and Owen Sound Attack.

Notably, new Sudbury head coach Craig Duncanson is not only a local product but a former Wolves star from the early 1980s.

NOJHL: Soo Thunderbirds have a new day to day operator in former OHL, European pro and North American pro defenseman Cole Jarrett.

The 38-year old Jarrett has been the captain of teams he has played on in the OHL and over in Europe and represents a new direction as part owner, operator and head coach of the Thunderbirds.

Jarrett will have, as his right hand man, Jamie Henderson, who is no stranger to the NOJHL and the Thunderbirds, having been with them on two previous occasions. Henderson is in place as the Thunderbirds general manager and assistant coach and carries with him a reputation as a hard worker and front row student of the game.

Over to Elliot Lake, the former Wildcats have been rebranded as the Red Wings and with a change in operation led by managing director Paul Noad and vice president of hockey operations Mark Savery.

To be sure, the Red Wings have nowhere to go but up as they strive to make a successful new beginning for junior hockey in Elliot Lake, a town of more than 10,000 residents that is located off of Highway 17 between Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury.

Elliot Lake’s last season in the NOJHL — the 2019-2020 campaign — was a disaster under the Wildcats moniker. The Wildcats finished in last place in the 12-team NOJHL with a record of 7-46-3.

Over to Espanola, owner and president Jason Rapcewicz will also serve as head coach of the Express this season.

Look for Espanola and Elliot Lake, along with the Blind River Beavers to be fierce foes as three small market teams that are geographically close.

Up in Timmins, the Rock stayed local in hiring Brandon Perry as its new coach and general manager.

The 32-year old Perry played minor hockey in his hometown of Timmins before suiting up for the Kingston Voyageurs of the Ontario Jr. Hockey League for four seasons and then four more years with the Queen’s Golden Gaels of Ontario University Athletics. He graduated from prestigious Queen’s with a degree in Economics.

Known for being passionately proud of his home town as a quiet, albeit tenacious individual, Perry gained a reputation for getting the most out of his players while coaching the Timmins under 18 team.

And in Powassan, the Voodoos have a new coach in Marc Lafleur. Lafleur has already won championships with two NOJHL teams — Kirkland Lake Gold Miners and Hearst Lumberjacks.

This is one helluva coach, Lafleur. And in joining a proven winner in Powassan, this could be a Voodoo recipe for further success.

SIJHL: This is the 20th anniversary season for the SIJHL, which has five teams based in northwestern Ontario along with two American entries.

Dryden Ice Dogs, Fort Frances Lakers, Red Lake Miners, Thunder Bay North Stars and Kam River Fighting Walleye are the five NWO teams while the Thief River Falls Norskies, out of northern Minnesota, and the Wisconsin Lumberjacks are the two American entries.

Of note, crosstown rivals, Thunder Bay and Kam River will face off and try to outdo one another in what could become an old fashioned tug of war for local junior hockey supremacy. Kam River joined the SIJHL as an expansion team a year ago but with COVID-19 being such a negative factor, the rivalry with Thunder Bay did not come close to being full fledged in what was a severely shortened season.

Meanwhile, Thief River Falls will enter the 2021-2022 season with a new head coach in Elliot Bates, formerly of the North American 3 Hockey League. Notably, former National Hockey League forward Tim Bergland is one of the owners in Thief River Falls.

On a separate note and as a very important milestone of sorts, the SIJHL now has Trevor Iserhoff on board as its first ever director of diversity and inclusion.

According to the SIJHL, its diversity and inclusion initiative is part of a greater strategy throughout the Canadian Jr. Hockey League to place itself at the forefront of diversity issues and positive initiatives to eradicate any form of racism and create a reach to support minority participation in hockey.

As for the 40-year old Iserhoff, he is a member of Moose Cree First Nation and lives in Kenora, Ontario.  He also serves as a scout with the Kam River Fighting Walleye, focusing on the evaluation and recruitment of Indigenous players for the SIJHL team.

Glancing ahead, Iserhoff said he is looking forward to applying his knowledge and experience for the betterment of the SIJHL — and to represent the league on the CJHL’s national diversity and inclusion committee.

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