Storylines figure to be flush and flowing in both the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League and Superior International Jr. Hockey League when the 2021-2022 season recommences.
And, to be sure, there should be a restart at some point relatively soon according to multiple sources within the Northern Ontario medical community who have spoken to Hockey News North on the condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile and meantime, it is on to those NOJHL and SIJHL narratives and scenarios.
• Just two points stand between the Timmins Rock, Powassan Voodoos and Hearst Lumberjacks in what is a beast of an East Division. And let us not dismiss the fourth seed French River Rapids who are a looming threat lurking in the rear view mirror of Timmins, Powassan and Hearst. With an explosive attack of multiple weapons, French River is a team that none of Timmins, Powassan and Hearst will want to be facing at any point come the playoffs of this spring. East side tide could well be on side with any of Timmins, Powassan, Hearst and French River when the playoff Ides of March spring into play.
• They have never made the playoffs since entering the NOJHL in 2015. Their best full season was the 2018-2019 campaign when they won a mere 14 of 56 games. But led by general manager and coach Paul (Show Me Some Love) Frustaglio, French River is not only poised to make the playoffs this season but, as previously noted, can be mentioned in the same sentence with Timmins, Powassan and Hearst.
• Before that, there is a regular season to finish and fight for and not to dismiss any team from contention — but we will — there are eight teams that are certainly capable of eventually winning the NOJHL championship and making the trip up to northwestern Ontario and Red Lake for the 2022 Dudley-Hewitt Cup, Central Canada tournament in early May.
• That is, besides the aforementioned foursome of the East Division, a potential championship case can be made for each of the Soo Thunderbirds, Soo Eagles, Blind River Beavers and Sudbury Cubs of the West Division. At a glance, there is not that much to choose from among the Thunderbirds, Eagles, Beavers and Cubs, all of whom represent the parity that exists on the West side via the top four teams. And notably, all four teams boast high end goalie tandems.
• The race for fifth place — which is also the final playoff spot — in the West Division could conceivably go right down to the wire. As it stands now, the Espanola Express is just three points ahead of the Elliot Lake Red Wings. And while Espanola does have five games in hand on Elliot Lake, the Red Wings significantly improved their depth level in a recent trade with the Kam River Fighting Walleye of the SIJHL. In that deal, Elliot Lake obtained three 18-year old players from Kam River for 20-year old forward Dayton Clarke. And the three serviceable skaters that Elliot Lake acquired from SIJHL-leading Kam River — forwards Kjell Osborne and Owen Lancaster and defenseman Calum McGill — are all decent, capable hockey players. As for Espanola, Express general manager and coach Jason Rapcewicz previously tinkered with his team in adding quality players for the stretch run of the season. At any rate, the Espanola-Elliot Lake rivalry should only be enhanced by the need to be the fifth seed.
• It says here that of all the good goalies in the NOJHL — and the league is definitely a haven for high end net minders — the most under-rated one is rookie Patrick Boivin of Espanola. On an Express team that has a record of 8-15-2, Boivin has an 8-13-2 mark with a .908 save percentage and 3.51 goals against average. Boivin has been in the net for everyone of Espanola’s victories and has faced a barrage of shots — 817 of them in 1,284 minutes of work. As well, the Express is the most penalized team in the NOJHL, meaning that Boivin is often facing opposing teams on the power play.
• There are two distinct sides to the seven-team SIJHL. At the top and in a four-team hustle and bustle for positioning are the Kam River Fighting Walleye, Red Lake Miners, Thunder Bay North Stars and Dryden Ice Dogs. Kam River, as the newest member of the SIJHL, is already a success story as it carries a record of 22-3-1 into the 2022 segment of this season. Fighting Walleye general manager Kevin McCallum is as good at his job as any who carry the title at this level of junior hockey. And Kam River head coach Matt Valley is a young, smart guy who knows the game — and is an educator to boot. From this corner, Kam River, Red Lake and Dryden are all a slight might above Thunder Bay.
• Of the many facets that there are to like about first-place Kam River, one is the 1-2 net duo of Austin Madge and Eric Vanska, another is a blue line corps that features Zach Fortin, Kersey Reich and Johnny McCollum and another is the high scoring troika of Alex Enegren, Trenton Morriseau and Ethan Lang. Madge has the best numbers of any goalie in the SIJHL, Fortin is arguably the league’s best defenseman and Enegren, Morriseau and Lang are among the top 10 scorers in the SIJHL.
• Tied for third place in the standings with Thunder Bay, Dryden is the run and gun team of the SIJHL. The Ice Dogs feature the top two point getters in the league in Maxime Collette (24 goals, 16 assists, 40 points) and Tristan Takats (16 goals, 20 assists, 36 points.) And two other Dryden forwards are among the league’s top 10 scorers — Brady Frattinger (12 goals, 18 assists, 30 points) and Cameron Ware (13 goals, 15 assists, 28 points.)
• Kam River and Dryden have played 26 games apiece. The Fighting Walleye has scored 113 goals and allowed just 55 while the Ice Dogs have bagged a whopping 132 goals but have given up 73.
• Without question, Red Lake general manager and coach Geoff Walker wants to finish on top. But Walker can already afford to focus on May when the Miners have automatic entry into the aforementioned Dudley-Hewitt Cup event as host entry. And since the SIJHL is the host league, it will have two entries into the DHC. Red Lake will be one and it is almost certain that one of Kam River, Thunder Bay or Dryden will join the Miners and the champions of the NOJHL and Ontario Jr. Hockey League at the DHC. As for the bottom three SIJHL teams — if any of the Wisconsin Lumberjacks, Thief River Falls Norskies and Fort Frances Lakers end up winning the playoff championship and advancing to the DHC with Red Lake, it will be a clear sign that the Apocalypse is indeed upon us.
• Still, there are bragging rights and seeding scenes for Wisconsin, Thief River Falls and Fort Frances to play for. All seven teams in the SIJHL will make the playoffs and thus have a shot at the title. The SIJHL playoff format has the first-place team in the regular season standings earning a first round bye. The second place team will face the seventh place team, the third place team will meet the sixth place team and the fourth place and fifth place squads will meet in best-of-five opening round playoff series. After that, the two semi-final and the final series will all be best-of-seven affairs.
• The planned growth of the SIJHL will be worth following down the road. Sioux Lookout Bombers have already been approved as an expansion team for the 2022-2023 season. Sioux Lookout ownership and marketing staff have been in full work mode for several months now and the Bombers figure to be a most welcome addition to the SIJHL and its relatively new commissioner Darrin Nicholas. And the addition of Sioux Lookout will boost the SIJHL membership to eight, providing the seven current teams all return for next season.