Monthly Archives: July 2012

Midsummer musings

The first puck will drop on the 2012-13 Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League regular season on September 5.

In the meantime, as we wait for July to turn to August and August to September, here are a few NOJHL-related questions that should be answered at some point in the weeks and months ahead.

As the seven-team NOJHL adopts a 48-game, balanced schedule, travel costs will go up. But will interest and attendance increase with all teams playing one another eight times apiece instead of the previous unbalanced schedule? For example, Soo Thunderbirds played Blind River Beavers 13 times during the 2011-12 NOJHL season while facing off against the North Bay Trappers on only six occasions.

How will Elliot Lake Bobcats fare in the higher-level NOJHL after five successful seasons in the non-sanctioned, Greater Metro Jr. Hockey League? The Bobcats, to be sure, are not short on hockey knowledge and dedication led by 32-year old owner-general manager-coach Ryan Leonard and his player personnel department of Chad Vresk, Brad Boyer and Charly Murray.

Will the tragedy-stricken town of Elliot Lake rally around the Bobcats? Elliot Lake, to be sure, has a lengthy junior hockey history that began with the old Vikings of the erstwhile International Jr. B Hockey League. As Elliot Lake begins its recovery from the mall disaster, the Bobcats are prepping for their first NOJHL season and hoping for the backing of the close-knit town.

Will the latest Sudbury franchise make a go of it with a new owner in Mike Mooney Jr. and respectable NOJHL veterans Oscar Clouthier and Dave Clancy on board as general manager and coach, respectively? From the Northern Wolves to the Jr. Wolves to the Cubs, we now have the Nickel Barons in Sudbury.

Can the Thunderbirds repeat as NOJHL champions? That won’t be easy with North Bay Trappers loading up with savvy veteran Tim Clayden calling the shots as director of hockey operations. But the Thunderbirds have no slouch of their own in general manager Kevin Cain who has been the best at his job in each of his two previous seasons with the Soo team.

Can new Thunderbirds bench boss Warren Lavoy have success as a head coach after years as an NOJHL assistant with the Birds, Blind River and the erstwhile Soo Indians? Lavoy has been a part of two NOJHL championship teams as an assistant, one with the Indians and a second with the Thunderbirds, both in a span of five seasons.

With the kinder, gentler coach-management team of Doug McEwen, David McCaig and Rusty Joncas in place will Blind River Beavers be able to win back a legion of lost fans and once again become the talk of Milltown? Blind River is a good hockey town. Its fans and advertisers merely want the Beavers to be competitive and be able to associate with the coaches and general manager. Which is not a lot to ask, methinks.

With all of this Soo-Sudbury-North Bay talk, will the Abitibi Eskimos be this season’s sleeper team? Or will it be the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners led by new coach Marc Lafleur?

Chasing the Birds

A championship was won and a reputation was lost but that was then and this is now.

Soo Thunderbirds, winners of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League and Dudley Hewitt Cup, Central Canada championships for the 2011-12 season, are in the process of rebuilding from a campaign of extremes.

From the high of winning two titles was the low of being the subject of an NOJHL investigation that led to lengthy suspensions for two coaches and sanctions on the entire organization.

Out of the rise and fall of the 2011-12 season comes a new beginning as the Thunderbirds aim to move forward and prepare for the 2012-13 term which is a mere two months away.

While general manager Kevin Cain remains at the helm of the hockey department, there’s a new look to the coaching staff.

Longtime assistant Warren Lavoy has been elevated to head coach and Dennis Bolton has joined the Thunderbirds as an assistant after four seasons with the cross-river Soo Eagles, who have left the NOJHL for the North American Hockey League.

Bolton had a standing offer to remain with the Eagles as they make their move from the NOJHL to NAHL but the soon-to-be 62-year old opted to accept Cain’s offer to join the Thunderbirds.

Billy Thompson has also joined the Thunderbirds as goaltending coach and Cain said the coaching staff will likely increase by one more.

Is Lavoy the right man to lead the Thunderbirds as their new bench boss?

There are those that feel Lavoy, who has also been an NOJHL assistant with the Blind River Beavers and erstwhile Soo Indians, is not head-coach material.

But the same was said of Cain when he took over as head coach of the old Soo Indians midway through the 2006-07 season and all he did was lead the Michigan-based team to the NOJHL championship with Lavoy as one of his assistants.

Not that the hockey road ahead will be a smooth one for the Thunderbirds.

They have graduated the cornerstones of the 2011-12 championship team including goalie John Kleinhans and scoring leader Micky Sartoretto, among many others.

But Cain has shown an ability in each of his first two seasons as Thunderbirds GM to be a shrewd trader and master builder.

Besides, there is room for error during the regular-season in the seven-team, one-division NOJHL. That’s because all seven teams make the playoffs with the first-place finisher gaining a first-round bye.

I wouldn’t expect another first-place finish for the Thunderbirds, with the North Bay Trappers and their new hockey boss, Tim Clayden, loading up as they prepare to play host to the 2013 Dudley Hewitt Cup tournament.

But like the Thunderbirds, the Sudbury Nickel Barons are also rebuilding this season.

Abitibi Eskimos are competitive and contend most seasons, Kirkland Lake Gold Miners are just a second-year entry, Blind River Beavers will be trying to make it back to the .500 level after winning just 8 games last season, while the Elliot Lake Bobcats are the NOJHL’s newest team.

Cain, for one, feels the Thunderbirds will do just fine with a first-year headmaster in Lavoy.

“Warren has been a big part of our success over the past couple of seasons,” said Cain. “With his experience behind the bench, along with his leadership skills and solid rapport with players and staff, we look forward to continuing this success.”

The addition of Bolton from the Eagles is also a plus.

“He’s well respected throughout the league and a great addition to our staff,” Cain said of Bolton.