By Randy Russon – Hockey News North
With an unprecedented number of teams, the NOJHL will operate in 2015-2016 with two divisions of six entries apiece.
The regular-season schedule will be unbalanced, based on divisions and geography and keeping ever-increasing operating costs in line.
With the beginning of the regular season about a week away, a number of teams are already seen as early contenders, based on quality player signings.
In the East Division, the pressure is on the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners to ice a formidable team for a third successive season. Kirkland Lake will be the site of next spring’s Dudley-Hewitt Cup, Central Canada championship series and the last thing the Gold Miners and the NOJHL wants is to have a so-so team as the host.
Among the other five teams in the East Division, the Cochrane Crunch and Powassan Voodoos are seen as legitimate contenders.
Among others, Cochrane will return 60-goal-scorer Dustin Cordeiro and prime-time puck-stopper Brett Young to a Crunch lineup that has been craftily constructed by hard-working coach-general manager Ryan Leonard.
As for Powassan, the second-year NOJHL entry stands to benefit from an off-season of detail that general manager Chris Dawson has overseen with the acquisition of veteran forwards Eric Champagne and Tyler Peters, the signing of newcomer goalies Mario Cavaliere and Garrett Forrest and the committed return of league scoring sensation Steven Harland.
Iroquois Falls Eskis may not be in the overall talent class of Kirkland Lake, Cochrane and Powassan at this stage of a season that has yet to begin. But Iroquois Falls will be out to retain its status as league attendance leaders from the 2014-2015 season.
Over to the West Division, the reigning champion Soo Thunderbirds will no doubt be a title contender once again with featured returnees that include forwards Jaren Bellini, Joey Miller, Matt Pinder and Matt Caruso.
Second-year entry, Elliot Lake Wildcats are poised to follow up a standout first season as a threat to overtake the holdover champs from the Soo.
High-scoring defenceman Nathan Campbell will return to Elliot Lake as will six of the Wildcats top nine forwards from the 2014-2015 campaign — Cole Hepler, Adam Baxter, Spencer MacLean, Alec MacKenzie, Jason Wilson and Liam Blais.
Michigan-based Soo Eagles are piecing together a solid squad in their return to the NOJHL following three seasons in the North American Hockey League.
Of note, Eagles co-coaches Bruno Bragagnolo and Jim Capy have a combined 60-plus years of successful, high-level coaching experience. Players to watch for on the Eagles include local forwards Jake Palmerio and Landon Hubbard and bruising winger Jake Hernandez from the Detroit area.
Rayside-Balfour Canadians loom as an early dark horse candidate with youngsters who could evolve into impact NOJHLers — 1998-birth-year defencemen Ryan Mooney and Brett Whitehead and 1999-birth-year forward Cayse Ton.
French River Rapids, Powassan Voodoos, Iroquois Falls Eskis, Cochrane Crunch, Kirkland Lake Gold Miners and Timmins Rock will make up the East Division. West Division teams are Soo Thunderbirds, Soo Eagles, Blind River Beavers, Elliot Lake Wildcats, Espanola Express and Rayside-Balfour Canadians.