Monthly Archives: May 2012

Beavers snag new bench boss

Will the power of positive thinking be a plus in Blind River come next season?

The new coach of the Blind River Beavers of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League plans to draw on the many positive experiences of his 21-year career as a professional player.

48-year old Doug McEwen takes the helm of a Blind River team that won only 8 of 50 regular-season games during the 2011-12 campaign while icing the youngest team in the NOJHL.

McEwen replaces coaching veteran Jim Capy, who stepped down as the Beavers bench boss after five years spanning two stints. Capy, a Sault Ste. Marie resident, led the Beavers to winning seasons in three of his five terms in Blind River.

“Good attitude and a positive approach can go a long way towards building a competitive hockey club,” said McEwen, who resides 90 miles from Blind River in Sudbury. “I like to think I am a good motivator who has a good understanding of how to treat people and what it takes to develop young hockey players.”

Fact is, McEwen isn’t that far removed from his own playing days as he was still skating at age 42 in a United Kingdom professional league.

In all, McEwen played 21 seasons of pro hockey in the United Kingdom, scoring an amazing 771 goals as a small-sized forward.

McEwen, who grew up in Elliot Lake, not far from Blind River, played Jr. A in his hometown before moving on to the Ontario Hockey League with the Kitchener Rangers and the Ontario Colleges Athletic Association with Humber College.

Then it was off to play in the United Kingdom, where he met his wife, Julie. Their son, Corey McEwen, who played in the NOJHL with Blind River as a rookie last season, was born in Cardiff, Wales.

The United Kingdom, which is a sovereign state, consists of four countries: England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

McEwen, who moved his family to Sudbury five years ago, is excited about coaching in the NOJHL.

“It’s a good league, I got to watch a lot of it the past couple of years,” he related. “I’m particularly excited about the challenge of making Blind River a competitive team again. Blind River is a good hockey town and the fans will support an honest effort.”

Growing up in Elliot Lake with a family that includes his younger brother Dennis “Q” McEwen — who went on to score 50 goals one season as a hardworking left winger with the OHL’s London Knights — McEwen is well aware of the impending rivalry renewal between his hometown and Blind River.

Coached by Ryan Leonard, the Elliot Lake Bobcats will debut in the NOJHL effective the 2012-13 season and are expected to form a rabid rivalry with Blind River, which is less than 45 minutes away.

“I’m hearing a lot of talk already about the Blind River-Elliot Lake rivalry,” said McEwen, who was just hired as coach of the Beavers a few days ago.

McEwen, who has helped coach midget hockey in Sudbury the past few winters, plans to call on a few of his old contacts for assistance in the player recruitment department.

One of them is Bruno Bragagnolo, the well-respected coach-general manager of the Soo Eagles of the North American Hockey League.

About 35 years ago, Bragagnolo, who is from Chicago, found his way to Elliot Lake, where he was a goalie with the erstwhile Jr. B Vikings. McEwen said he remembers Bragagnolo.

“In fact, Bruno used to date my sister,” McEwen recalled. “Hockey is a small world.”

As for who will assist McEwen with the 2012-13 edition of the Beavers, holdover assistant Rusty Joncas will return. Joncas is also considering taking on the general manager’s duties that have been vacant since Jim Yardanoff resigned at the end of the 2011-12 season.

McEwen and Joncas have already scheduled a Beavers tryout camp, which is slated for June 23-24 at Countryside Arena in Sudbury.

For more information, contact Beavers board member Kerry Joncas by e-mail: kerry_joncas12@hotmail.com.

Soo Thunderbird success benefits NOJHL

Soo Thunderbirds solid performance at this month’s Royal Bank Cup, national tournament, paid positive dividends for the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.

The Thunderbirds posted a 2-2 record during the five-team round-robin to advance to the semi-finals before losing 3-0 to the eventual Royal Bank Cup champion Penticton Vees.

It should be noted that the Thunderbirds actually defeated powerful Penticton during the round-robin portion of the tournament. The significance of the Thunderbird win was that not only did Penticton’s roster include no less than four National Hockey League draft picks but 16 players who have Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association scholarships for next season

NOJHL commissioner Robert Mazzuca said the Thunderbirds represented the NOJHL with “honour, integrity and the utmost in class. It’s a credit to (interim coach) Toots Kovacs and everyone from the Thunderbirds who made the trip out west (to Humboldt, Sask.) for the Royal Bank Cup.”

Mazzuca added that several Major Junior, Canadian University, American University and — get this — NHL scouts and representatives were in Humboldt for the Royal Bank Cup and many were “astounded” at the skill level of the Thunderbirds.

“I told them that we (the NOJHL) are junior hockey’s best-kept secret,” Mazzuca relayed. “I think we are going to see a lot more scouts at our games next season. The way the Thunderbirds played and performed was a big boost for the entire NOJHL and a real credit to our league.”

Prior to their appearance at the Royal Bank Cup national tournament, a season fraught with drama, doubt, deception and due process delivered the Dudley Hewitt Cup, Central Canada Jr. A hockey championship to Sault Ste. Marie for the first time ever.

The Thunderbirds on-ice success of the 2011-12 season has made for a good story. In fact, it may be the top local sports story of the past year.

From the beginning of the 2011-12 campaign to the end of it, the Thunderbirds were the NOJHL’s best team.

And while there were unfortunate off-ice incidents that led to the NOJHL having to hire an independent, third-party investigator to look into alleged nonsense involving the Thunderbirds, the team did rebound to serve its city and league exceptionally well at the RBC.

So, what lies ahead for the Thunderbirds?

For starters, the coaching staff will be decidely different come the 2012-13 season.

Majority owner Albert Giommi will remain as a funder but will not be as active as he was in the president’s chair. More upper-level responsibility will be given to valued volunteers such as Carlo DiCandia and Enzo Coccimiglio.

Kovacs, the interim coach, once again proved to be priceless as a mentor and mediator to the franchise and can choose any future role that he may (or may not) want within the organization.

On the ice, several members of the 2011-12 title team have exhausted their junior eligibility, including goalie John Kleinhans, defencemen James Delayer and Kris Barclay and forwards Micky Sartoretto, Matt Amadio, Brett Campbell, Kevin Michelcavage and Cody Zorzi.

Several more could return in 2012-13, though some — defencemen Cory Jackson, Dylan Connolly, Brad Pascall, Josh Hicks and Jeremy Solomon and forwards Nick Romano and Jake Wright for instance — could opt for opportunities in southern Ontario or south of the border.

Regardless of all that happened during the 2011-12 season — on and off the ice — the Thunderbirds certainly seem to have done the NOJHL proud on the national stage.

NOJHL is in good hands with Mazzuca

The revolving door of the commissioner’s office has stopped spinning.

Robert Mazzuca has just completed his first season as commissioner of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League and with his contract having been extended for two more years, the position finally has some sense, structure and stability to it.

Not since the legendary Joe Drago was commissioner has the NOJHL been in the command of someone as firm, focused and progressive as Mazzuca, a Sudbury native who just turned 50-years old on May 13.

Since Drago — a retired high school principal and erstwhile owner-general manager of the Ontario Hockey League Sudbury Wolves — left the NOJHL for subsequent executive positions with, first, the Ontario Hockey Federation and now Hockey Canada, the commissioner’s office had lacked stability.

Since 2005, Art Yeo, Wayne Stickland, Mark Seidel and Hector Seguin all wore the NOJHL’s commissioner’s hat before Mazzuca was brought aboard last summer.

Mazzuca, to be sure, has had a major impact on the NOJHL in less than a year on the job.

Under his watch, the NOJHL has introduced a concussion safety program, anti-doping legislation and expanded its scholarship fund for the players.

Mazzuca has also ruled with an iron hand, adding supplemental discipline to players tagged with automatic suspensions for dangerous infractions such as checking from behind. He also acted on evidence gathered by an independent, third-party investigator to dish out indefinite suspensions to two Soo Thunderbird coaches on the eve of the recently completed, Royal Bank Cup national junior tournament.

Mazzuca’s savvy was evident in early January of this year when he worked feverishly to help save the NOJHL in Kirkland Lake after original ownership folded the franchise with little notice.

Having sensed trouble with the original owner in Kirkland Lake, Mazzuca was front and centre in quickly setting up new owners with very little disruption to the 2011-2012 regular-season schedule.

And just recently, Mazzuca played a major role in welcoming the well-run Elliot Lake Bobcats franchise to the NOJHL from the non-sanctioned, Greater Metro Jr. Hockey League.

Where does Mazzuca find the time to oversee the day-to-day operations of the NOJHL while working full-time as an investment adviser in Sudbury, where he also owns a number of properties?

“I guess you can say I am well-organized and that I manage my time well,” said Mazzuca, who works out of an office that he affectionately calls the “bunker” in the Sudbury home that he shares with his wife and their four children.

He’s also well-connected in the hockey world. He has a special relationship with Drago — who owned and managed the OHL Wolves when Mazzuca was the team’s star defenceman after being a first-round pick in 1979 — and has upper-level contacts in both Canada and the United States.

Mazzuca, who closed out his junior hockey career in 1983 after being a late-season, over-age acquisition of the Soo Greyhounds, went on to play at St. Francis Xavier University, where he graduated before moving back to Sudbury, his hometown.

Confident and personable, Mazzuca is also accessible and hands-on in his role as NOJHL commissioner.

“I like to know what’s going on with all the teams in the league,” he told me. “The more I know and am aware of, the better prepared I can be and the fewer surprises there will be.”

Mazzuca knows it’s not easy trying to please all members of the seven-team NOJHL and realizes that the tough decisions are not going to be popular ones.

But he has the respect of the majority of the NOJHL governors, including highly regarded Abitibi Eskimos president Scott Marshall, who is the dean of the league’s power brokers.

“He’s a very smart guy,” Marshall told me the last time we talked, a few weeks back. “Rob has been very, very good for our league. He’s given us a vision and a plan. He works hard at the job and takes it very seriously.”

Overall, the NOJHL, it would surely seem, is in pretty good shape as it stands.

Like any Jr. A hockey league — be it in Canada or the United States — there will always be problem areas, concerns and franchises teetering on existence.

Grassroots is where the NOJHL is at and the majority of the seven franchises are stable, from Abitibi, North Bay and Kirkland Lake in the east to the Soo and the new kids in Elliot Lake on the west side.

Sudbury and Blind River could change ownership before the start of next season and you can bet the commissioner’s office will be keeping tabs on what happens there.

In other words, there’s no rest for Mazzuca from this so-called part-time job of his.

May days in the NOJHL

Soo Thunderbirds are the only Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League team still playing but there is plenty of activity with the other six teams.

The Dudley Hewitt Cup champion Thunderbirds are representing the NOJHL and a region of Ontario at the Royal Bank Cup national tournament that is being held out in Humboldt, Sask.

HERE ‘N THERE

…In North Bay, the Trappers have already held a free agent tryout camp as the organization gets a head start on the 2012-13 season. North Bay will be the site of the 2013 Dudley Hewitt Cup, Central Canada playdowns and as host entry, the Trappers have automatic entry into the tournament.

…As we first reported here, Abitibi Eskimos have shrugged off a group that was interested in buying the team and moving it from Iroquois Falls to Timmins. That was one sigh of relief from among many. Another is that veteran coach Paul Gagne will return to the Eskimos for yet-another season. Gagne is among the top Jr. A hockey coaches in all of Canada and along with team president Scott Marshall, are the respected faces of the Abitibi franchise.

…Owner Bill Scott has put the Sudbury Cubs up for sale. Sudbury was the worst draw in the NOJHL during the 2011-12 season, averaging a woeful 137 fans per game.

…Kirkland Lake Gold Miners have hired Marc Lafleur as their new head coach. Lafleur has been an assistant with the major junior Rouyn-Noranda Huskies the past two seasons.

…Blind River Beavers are looking for a new coach and general manager after being blown off by Bryan Verreault. Verreault, formerly of the Sudbury Jr. Wolves and Sudbury Cubs, had lined himself up to buy the Beavers and take over as coach and GM. First, he backed out of buying the team. Then, after saying he would still like to be the coach and GM, Verreault backed away from that as well. Hasta la vista, Bryan.

…The new Elliot Lake Bobcats are prepping for a tryout camp to be held at Countryside Arena in Sudbury May 25-27. Bobcats coach-GM Ryan Leonard has aligned himself with long-time associates Chad Vresk, Brad Boyer and Charly Murray in the hockey department as the team strives to build on the five-year success it enjoyed in the non-sanctioned Greater Metro Jr. Hockey League. To get a hold of Leonard for tryout camp or any other information linked to the Bobcats, he can be reached at 705-257-0132.