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Surging Eagles flap their wings

By Randy Russon – Hockey News North

They have won four of their last six games and have the best record of any of the three expansion teams in the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.

With a record of 6-9-1 thus far this 2015-2016 season, the surging Soo Eagles have shrugged off a sluggish start with a 4-2 showing in their past six outings.

And while he is happy with the recent reverse in fortunes, Eagles coach-general manager Bruno Bragagnolo says his Michigan Soo squad remains a work in progress.

“Am I happy with the way we have been playing lately? Yes I am,” stated Bragagnolo, while appearing on a recent edition of the Hockey North Show on ESPN 1400 Radio. “Having said that, we need to continue to work hard and keep improving to get to where we want to be as a team.”

Over the past few weeks, the Eagles have added several players as free agents and via trade including forwards Roman Gaudet, Reed Gregory, Gordie Helmuth and Sasha Miniouchine. With the newcomers, the addition of defenceman Cade Nolan from the inactive list and the return of forward Bradley Hofelich from injury, the Eagles have improved their overall skill and depth levels.

Gaudet, a powerfully-built, 6-foot-2, 220-pound, 1995 birth-year forward, has been particularly impressive with 5 goals, 7 assists, 12 points in 8 games. And once Helmuth gets into game shape, the former Ontario Hockey League draft pick of the Soo Greyhounds has the ability to be a top forward, according to Bragagnolo.

As for Nolan, the Garden River First Nation product has played in six games since being cleared by Hockey Canada as part of an ongoing dispute with regards to the citizenship of the native defenceman.

Hockey politics aside, Bragagnolo is pleased with Nolan’s play.

“Cade’s doing a good job or us,” Bragagnolo said evenly. “He’s definitely been a help.”

The 6-foot-1, 175-pound Nolan, who has a 1996 birth date, is one of several players from the Twin Soo area playing for the first-year Eagles, who joined the NOJHL during the off-season along with the Espanola Express and French River Rapids.

Like Nolan, 1997 birth-year forward Jake Palmerio is also from the Canadian side of the St. Mary’s River and International Bridge.

A hustling, energetic skater, Palmerio has 3 goals, 2 assists, 5 points in 13 games and has started skating again after missing the last three matches due to a concussion he suffered when hit by an opposing player during a road game versus the Rayside-Balfour Canadians back on October 18.

“We like him a lot,” Bragagnolo said of the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Palmerio. “He works hard, has a good attitude and does a lot of good things for us with the puck and away from it. We’re looking forward to having Jake back in the lineup.”

Another area product and one of the younger players on the Eagles is Landon Hubbard, a 1998 birth-year forward who at 5-foot-9, 165 pounds, is still growing.

“He’s got speed and he works hard and he is really improving,” Bragagnolo said of Hubbard, who hails from the Michigan side of the Canada-United States border at Sault Ste. Marie.

With the Eagles back in the NOJHL after three years in the North American Hockey League, Bragagnolo said he has noticed a big difference.

“The caliber of play has definitely improved…the speed of the game is one thing that has really stood out to me,” noted Bragagnolo, who is in his sixth season at the helm of the Eagles.

Bragagnolo coached the Eagles to the NOJHL championship in 2010-2011 and into the second round of the playoffs in 2011-2012 before they joined the NAHL for the 2012-2013, 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 seasons.

“I have said this before and I will say it again, it feels really good to be back in the NOJHL and to be part of what is now a 12-team league,” said Bragagnolo. “This is a really good league that has gotten so much better during the time that we were away.”

Off this weekend, the Eagles return to action with a pair of home games on November 6 and 7 when the Blind River Beavers and Elliot Lake Wildcats visit Pullar Stadium.