Monthly Archives: June 2012

Changes within the Big Three

For starters, a pair of respected, former champions are making a return to the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.

In fact, the NOJHL’s “Big Three” franchises from the larger centres of North Bay, Sudbury and the Soo will all have a decidedly-different look when the first puck drops on the 2012-13 season in September.

SUDBURY

They used to be known as the Sudbury Northern Wolves, then the Sudbury Jr. Wolves, then the Sudbury Cubs.

Now, with new owner Mike Mooney Jr. in place, they are the Sudbury Nickel Barons.

But while the owner and name are new, the Nickel Barons have dipped into Sudbury’s NOJHL past by bringing good guy Dave Clancy on board as head coach.

Clancy has a championship to his credit from when Sudbury was the Jr. Wolves and owned by the Ontario Hockey League Sudbury Wolves.

Known as a player’s coach who can be tough when he has to, Clancy is a good, safe, dependable hire for the Nickel Barons, who under new owner Mooney and general manager Oscar Clouthier will try to establish a solid NOJHL franchise in a hockey town that is dominated by the OHL Wolves.

Can that be done out at McClelland Arena in the sleepy Greater Sudbury town of Copper Cliff?

Properly marketed and properly run, there’s no reason why the Nickel Barons can’t make a go of it in an area where the OHL is the no. 1 draw.

Afterall, Soo Thunderbirds have managed to increase their following over the past couple of years in a city where the Greyhounds and the OHL are the no. 1 draw.

The Nickel Barons, to be sure, have experienced hockey people on board in the GM’s office and in the coach’s corner.

GM Clouthier has spent time in both the OHL and NOJHL in scouting, managerial positions and Coach Clancy also has past ties to both leagues.

NORTH BAY

As the NOJHL in Sudbury and the Soo plays second line behind the OHL, the Trappers of North Bay compete with the Nipissing University Lakers for fan support and media coverage in the Gateway City.

With a reputable coach already in place in Tom McCarthy, who will begin his second season in North Bay in the fall, the Trappers have brought in one of the most-respected executives in Canadian Jr. A hockey to run the show.

Tim Clayden, who was a behind-the-scenes force when North Bay was known as the Skyhawks and Guy Blanchard was taking the bows for three straight championships beginning with the 2002-03 season, is back in town as the Trappers new sheriff.

Clayden, who followed his NOJHL success with the old Skyhawks by annually building contending teams in the ultra-competitive Ontario Jr. Hockey League, takes charge of the Trappers as director of hockey operations, while retaining a deep, dedicated staff that includes Coach McCarthy, president and general manager Chris Dawson, vice president Dean Pauli and assistant GM Randy Blake.

Known as a true hockey guy and a wheeler-dealer with coast-to-coast contacts, Clayden enhances the credibility of the Trappers and strengthens the hockey and business departments as the team prepares to play host to the 2013 Dudley Hewitt Cup, Central Canada Jr. Championships.

A no-nonsense individual with a reputation of being tough but fair, there isn’t much doubt in the minds of junior hockey insiders that the Trappers are positioned for the long run with Clayden at the helm.

SOO

With erstwhile head coach Preston Mizzi beginning a two-year suspension from the NOJHL and primary assistant Jamie Henderson cooling his heels for a year in the wake of a league investigation into alleged alcohol use on the team bus involving staff and players, the reigning champion Thunderbirds are in a state of rebuild.

It has been learned that secondary assistant Warren LaVoy has applied for the vacant head coaching position and it is known that general manager Kevin Cain has reached out to cerebral, level-headed Dennis Bolton about a position within the Thunderbird organization.

Bolton, a retired corrections officer, has spent the past four seasons as an assistant coach with the Soo Eagles, who have departed the NOJHL for the North American Hockey League effective the upcoming season.

“I can only confirm that I have been approached by the GM of the T-Birds to consider assuming a role within their organization. I would say that at this point I have no aspirations to become a head coach,” Bolton told me via e-mail. “I’d imagine that the T-Birds will be making an announcement about their coaching staff in the near future.”

It should be noted that Bolton has a standing offer from Eagles coach-general manager Bruno Bragagnolo to remain with the Michigan-based franchise as it prepares for its move to the NAHL.

The popular choice to lead the Thunderbirds as head coach is Toots Kovacs, who bailed out Cain and the entire Thunderbird organization when he stepped in as interim coach when Mizzi and Henderson were initially suspended indefinitely just prior to the team taking part in the Royal Bank Cup national junior tournament in May.

But Kovacs has career job commitments that make it difficult for him to assume a full role with the Thunderbirds, though he did tell me he would be available to assist on an “as needed” basis if he was asked.

To be sure, the Thunderbird organization is in a state of uncertainty.

Despite winning the NOJHL and Dudley Hewitt Cup championships during the 2011-12 season, the reputation of the franchise took a hit with all of the self-imposed negatvity that resulted from the alleged, repeated incidents of alcohol abuse on the team bus.

Thunderbird owner Albert Giommi has since put the team up for sale, saying he needs to concentrate on the businesses that he owns. But Giommi has been known to change his mind and to be impetuous and impulsive when it comes to running his hockey team.

Still, Giommi has done a lot to try to enhance the Thunderbirds profile in Sault Ste. Marie and deserves credit for his work on the business side of the franchise.

NOJHL makes Thunderbirds pay the price

Soo Thunderbirds will pay a heavy price for a series of off-ice transgressions that led to a full-fledged investigation by the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.

The misbehaviour included alleged incidents of coaches and players drinking alcohol to excess on the team bus following at least two road trips.

The initial investigation resulted in indefinite suspensions issued to head coach Preston Mizzi and his primary assistant Jamie Henderson on April 26, just after the Thunderbirds had returned from winning the Dudley Hewitt Cup, Central Canada Jr. A championship in Thunder Bay and prior to the team departing for the Royal Bank Cup national playdowns that were held in Humboldt, Sask.

I have confirmed that the NOJHL has concluded its investigation into the alleged incidents and imposed several sanctions on the Thunderbirds including:

* Mizzi is suspended for two years effective June 6, 2012 up to and including June 6, 2014.

* Mizzi is to complete an in-person Hockey Canada Speak Out Clinic to be held in Sault Ste. Marie, to be completed before re-instatement.

* Mizzi must complete the Hockey Canada Coaching Program Development 2 Clinic before re-instatement.

* Henderson is suspended for one year effective June 6, 2012 up to and including June 6, 2013.

* Henderson is to complete an in-person Hockey Canada Speak Out Clinic to be held in Sault Ste. Marie before re-instatement.

* Henderson must complete the Hockey Canada Coaching Program Development 2 Clinic before re-instatement.

* All members of the Thunderbirds hockey operations department, including general manager Kevin Cain, will have to complete an in-person Hockey Canada Speak Out Clinic to be held in Sault Ste. Marie before the first scheduled game of the 2012-13 NOJHL season.

* The Thunderbird organization will be placed on probation for one year as of June 6, 2012.

* The NOJHL fines the Thunderbirds $3,000, which includes the cost of the league-ordered investigation.

Early June in the NOJHL

It will be a meeting of the minds when the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League holds its 2012-13 scheduling session in Sault Ste. Marie on June 15-16.

Representatives from the seven NOJHL teams and commissioner Robert Mazzuca will try to decide whether to go with a single division of seven teams or two divisions, one with four teams and the other with three.

A single division set-up made up of all seven teams could still provide for an unbalanced schedule, which keeps travel costs down.

Afterall, in a league where all teams make the playoffs, does it really matter if a single-division schedule is unbalanced?

The single division format could, for example, result in the top team getting a first-round bye and the remaining six teams playing off in three separate, best-of-five or best-of-seven series. The three winners would then join the first-place team in a pair of semi-final sets with the two winners meeting in the finals.

Last season, the two-division format led to two best-of-seven, first-round playoff series in the four-team East. The three-team West used a round-robin playoff format in which the teams played one another home-and-home with the top two teams advancing to the second round. The problem with the round-robin was not only did it result in fewer games but there was actually one game that meant absolutely nothing.

BEAVER FAN BASE

Blind River Beavers are banking — literally and figuratively — that a fresh look led by personable new coach Doug McEwen will help boost the team’s sagging attendance numbers come the 2012-13 season.

Attendance has steadily plummeted from an average of 358 fans per game during the 2008-09 campaign when Todd Stencill was coach and Don Lees Jr. was general manager in the three ensuing seasons with Jim Capy as coach and Jim Yardanoff as GM.

From the 2008-09 average of 358, attendance at Beaver home games has dipped to 348 in 2009-10, 294 in 2010-11 and 263 in 2011-12.

Add it up and at an average price of $8 per ticket, the decline in attendance over the past three seasons has cost the Beavers organization more than $30,000 in revenue.

In a small market like Blind River where every dollar counts, $30,000 in lost ticket revenue over a three-year period is huge money.

To be fair, it would not be right to put the blame for the decline in attendance squarely on the heads of the dour duo of Capy and Yardanoff.

But there is something to be said about being “fan friendly” and to be honest, Capy and Yardanoff are known for their aloof, indifferent ways.

Which brings us to the new coach, McEwen and his hand-picked assistant, David McCaig.

McEwen has a reputation as a friendly, down-to-earth individual and a good hockey man.

McCaig is just 20-years old and fresh from a four-year, NOJHL playing career in which he served three separate tours of duty in Blind River. Not only does the keen, effervescent McCaig have a self-professed love for the town of Blind River and the Beavers hockey club, he gives new meaning to the words outgoing and talkative.

Blind River fans don’t have unrealistic expectations for championships. In fact, the Beavers have won just one playoff series since coming into NOJHL existence in 2001 and that was with Stencill as coach and Lees as GM..

To be sure, Beaver fans just want to cheer on their team and have a coach and a GM who they can relate to and who will give them a few friendly words in return.