By Randy Russon – Sault This Week
It keeps moving on.
To be sure, the 12-team Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League has a lot going for it as it plays into the second quarter of the 2015-2016 season.
There is parity among the top six teams in the league, rivalries are well fueled and player development remains a priority with a plethora of 1998- and 1999-birth-year skaters standing out.
Having added three new teams — Soo Eagles, Espanola Express and French River Rapids — via expansion over the off-season, the NOJHL has managed to retain balance among the upper tier with the Soo Thunderbirds, Cochrane Crunch, Powassan Voodoos, Elliot Lake Wildcats, Kirkland Lake Gold Miners and Timmins Rock all legitimate title contenders at this point on the schedule.
The return of the Eagles to the NOJHL after a three-year hiatus as members of the North American Hockey League has revived a cross-border rivalry with the reigning champion Thunderbirds.
Geographic rivalries are a definite NOJHL trademark with teams in nearby towns that not only enhance fan interest but cut down on travel costs.
Iroquois Falls, Cochrane, Kirkland Lake and Timmins represent a northeastern nook of closely located towns.
And the Twin Soo teams are less than 100 miles from Blind River, which in turn is just as close if not closer to Elliot Lake, Espanola and Rayside-Balfour, which in turn is not far from French River and Powassan.
On the ice, while two of the newer teams — Espanola and French River — have predictably struggled as first-year franchises, being competitive in the NOJHL is not necessarily a process that takes considerable time.
For example, as first-year entries last season, Powassan and Elliot Lake both won a round of the playoffs.
Player development is high on the priority list of the NOJHL mission statement and teams throughout the league have been making good use of and getting a good return on younger players.
A number of picks of from the 2015 OHL draft are putting up good numbers on their respective NOJHL teams including forwards Bradley Chenier and Cayse Ton of the Rayside-Balfour Canadians and Max Khull of the Blind River Beavers.
Chenier (fourth round, North Bay Battalion), Khull (sixth round, Niagara IceDogs) and Ton (11th round, Owen Sound Attack) have been scoring with regularity as rookie NOJHLers as have fellow 1999-birth-year forwards Mark Tassone of the Thunderbirds and MacKenzie Aiken of Espanola.
The man behind the upward NOJHL movement of the past few years is commissioner Robert Mazzuca and while he has been accused by some of being a micro manager and a dictator, he is a progressive thinker who has the solid support and backing of team owners and operators.
Will the NOJHL continue to expand beyond the 12 teams that it now has?
Sources have revealed that the Muskoka town of Bracebridge is on the list of potential future sites for an NOJHL entry as is a possible return to Manitoulin Island.
With provincial borders on player recruitment having been significantly relaxed over the past few years, NOJHL teams have become free to bring in more talent from across Canada, thus increasing both the talent pool and the level of play.
But in order for the average team to be successful, Mazzuca as commissioner says it all begins with the owners and operators.
“The way I see it, good owners and operators are the key to stability and success in our league,” Mazzuca said evenly and without hesitation when asked about the possibility of future expansion.
“Twelve teams, fourteen teams…as long there are good owners and operators with a good business plan there could be room to move forward. But that is something that our current owners would have the final say on,” added the commissioner.