The focus for the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League is now on the 2015-2016 season.
The NOJHL held its annual general meeting in Sault Ste. Marie recently and among other orders of business, finalized its 2015-2016 schedule.
The NOJHL will operate with two six-team divisions and an unbalanced schedule in 2015-2016. All 12 teams will play 54 regular-season games.
Soo Eagles, Soo Thunderbirds, Blind River Beavers, Elliot Lake Wildcats, Espanola Express and Rayside-Balfour Canadians will make up the West Division.
The East Division will be comprised of the French River Rapids, Powassan Voodoos, Timmins Rock, Iroquois Falls Eskis, Cochrane Crunch and Kirkland Lake Gold Miners.
Five teams in each division will qualify for the playoffs with a new twist.
The fourth-and-fifth-place regular-season finishers in each division will meet in a best-of-three series to decide the no. 4 playoff seed in both the West and East.
Meanwhile, with the Michigan-based Eagles back in the NOJHL after three seasons in the North American Hockey League, the cross-border rivalry with the Ontario-based Thunderbirds will be renewed.
The two teams will face off against one another 12 times and Eagles general manager Bruno Bragagnolo said he is “really looking forward” to renewing old acquaintances with the Thunderbirds.
“One thing we missed when we were in the NAHL was our rivalry with the Thunderbirds,” Bragagnolo told HockeyNewsNorth.com. “Our biggest home crowds in the five years that I have been involved with the Eagles were when we were a part of the NOJHL and playing the Thunderbirds.”
The Eagles play out of venerable Pullar Stadium in the Michigan Soo and late-season games against the Thunderbirds used to draw an average of 1,200 fans to the old Portage Ave. barn.
Thunderbirds president-general manager Jamie Henderson is also anticipating the rivalry with the Eagles.
“The Eagles are a tremendous addition to our league,” Henderson told HockeyNewsNorth.com. “Certainly playing them 12 times will re-ignite that rivalry we enjoyed back in 2010 and 2011 when we had some exciting games on both sides of the border.
“Maybe most importantly, for our players, is the opportunity to play even more high pressure games which will ultimately help them prepare to move up to the next level,” Henderson added.
The Thunderbirds are slated to move from John Rhodes Community Centre to the more-spacious Rankin Arena for 2015-2016.