Author Archives: Randy Russon

Hounds eye 50 wins, 100 points

Soo Greyhounds super fan Chris Sierzputowski recently tweeted that I should be giving his favourite Ontario Hockey League team some love.

He’s right.

With 10 games to go in the 2014-2015 regular season and 92 points from a record of 45-11-2, the Greyhounds are closing in on a couple of milestones.

Four more victories will put the Greyhounds at 100 points for the season.

Five more wins will put the Greyhounds at 50 for the season.

The Hounds even have a shot at surpassing the franchise record for most points in a season, which was 109 back in 1984-1985 when coach Terry Crisp and his disciplined disciples posted a record of 54-11-1.

Ergo, this 2014-2015 edition of the Hounds has 10 games to try to put up 18 points which would establish a new franchise record.

Of course, it should be noted that the 1984-1985 Greyhounds played 66 regular-season games while all 20 OHL teams now play 68.

Still, this figures to at least be the second straight 95-point season for the Sheldon Keefe-coached Greyhounds, who posted a record of 44-17-5 in 2013-2014.

CIHL gets ice in Sudbury for 2015-16

Armed with a signed ice rental agreement and a signed dedicated space (dressing room) agreement, the fledgling Canadian International Hockey League will have a new franchise in Greater Sudbury for the 2015-2016 season.

The agreements are signed by Carol Landrye, representing the City of Greater Sudbury.

The new Sudbury franchise will be owned and operated separately from the Greater Sudbury Royals, who dropped out of the CIHL in January of this year when owner KB Beals folded the team.

CIHL founder and president Tim Clayden said he expects to formally announce the new Sudbury ownership in early summer.

“We have learned from past mistakes,” Clayden said evenly. “Our ownership committee is moving forward with a final screening of approval now that our new Sudbury area team has secured game ice, terrific practice time and a dedicated dressing room.”

Clayden said there are no shortage of hockey players in the Greater Sudbury area to choose from.

“Having a new team in Sudbury for next season is very exciting for the Sudbury area kids to be provided with choice and opportunity. We are looking for the second-and-third-level-entry players who may have been passed over for some reason and miss out on a place to play. There is no question Sudbury has the players and the talent to field a complete, competitive roster,” Clayden noted.

Meanwhile, effective its second season of operation in 2015-2016, the league will operate under a new name which will include the words ‘hockey academy.’

“We made some mistakes and we realize that the academy hockey format is recognized throughout the world and is not considered outlawed. Moving in the direction of academy hockey gives us an opportunity to work with all the major bodies in the hockey world and provide opportunities for the second-and-third-level-entry players,” Clayden added.

Clayden said he expects the CIHL will operate with “four or five teams from northern Ontario and northern Michigan” in 2015-2016 and play an interlocking schedule with the Midwest Jr. Hockey League. Currently, the MWJHL is a seven-member league with six teams based in Michigan and the other in Illinois.

MWJHL and CIHL in open dialogue

The commissioner of the third-year, seven-team Midwest Jr. Hockey League is of the notion that having an interlocking schedule with the fledgling Canadian International Hockey League in 2015-2016 will benefit the overall level of play.

Scott Gardiner, who is co-coach and co-owner of the defending MWJHL champion Traverse City Hounds as well as being the league’s commissioner, said he and CIHL president Tim Clayden talk regularly.

“Tim and I have maintained an open dialogue all year long,” said the 50-year old Gardiner, a former first-round pick of the Belleville Bulls who played with the Ontario Hockey League team from 1981 to 1984.

“I believe playing against our Canadian neighbours will help our overall level of play and create tremendous rivalries,” Gardiner noted. “There is no reason at all why we cannot play against one another in showcase events and overlapping schedules as long as all teams are properly insured.

“At the end of our season we will be looking at all of our options. The junior hockey landscape is constantly changing and we will move forward as we always have,” Gardiner added evenly.

Dan Vasquez, who is the coach-general manager of the Detroit Fighting Irish of the MWJHL, is also on record of being in favour of an alignment with the CIHL, providing all teams are properly insured.

Vasquez and the Fighting Irish recently hosted a five-team showcase tournament that included the Motor City Monarchs of the MWJHL, the Batchewana Attack and Espanola Rivermen of the CIHL and the independent Kalkaska Rhinos. Batchewana won the tournament championship by defeating Kalkaska and Espanola took the measure of Detroit to claim the consolation prize.

The Fighting Irish has also ventured north to play exhibition games with Batchewana and Espanola this season. Part of a balanced MWJHL, the Fighting Irish is in a spirited battle with Motor City for second place behind league-leading Traverse City.

Meanwhile, aside from Batchewana and Espanola, the CIHL has had a rough debut season, which Clayden as president has readily acknowledged.

But Clayden said he is confident that the CIHL will operate with five healthy franchises — based in northern Ontario and northern Michigan — in 2015-2016 and that the MWJHL will enhance the operation.

“Scotty (Gardiner) and I talk all the time and I have had a chance to meet and get to know Dan (Vasquez) and some of the other good people who are involved with the MWJHL,” Clayden noted. “I am thankful for their input and support to date.”

It’s not all fun and games

It is supposed to be all fun and games and for the kids but we all know it’s way more than that.

Junior A hockey isn’t the hundred million dollar business that the major junior game is but it’s still a business.

Take a look at the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.

The NOJHL has more teams than ever — nine to be exact — and even though the level and calibre of play is about the same, the cost of doing business just keeps on rising.

I wonder how long some of the well-intentioned owners are going to continue to write cheques to the NOJHL to cover league fees that pay the commissioner and his staff of fancy titles.

In particular, I wonder how long the NOJHL as it exists will continue to include the teams in this area, namely the Soo Thunderbirds and Blind River Beavers.

The Thunderbirds, to be sure, are a well-run business.

They have a good owner in Albert Giommi, a successful businessman who has a good heart and who genuinely likes helping and supporting teenaged hockey players.

But as generous as Giommi is, I would think that he has his limits. As much as the Thunderbirds are owned, operated and marketed as a good business they lose money every year.

Yes, while the Thunderbirds may contend for the NOJHL championship every year, the buck always stops with Giommi at season’s end and his signature is needed to cover the deficit.

Junior A hockey can be a lot of fun.

Fun and expensive if you are Giommi who owns a team in a town that is dominated by the big boys from the Ontario Hockey League who seem to get more and more popular every year.

Just about every junior hockey fan who I know in Sault Ste. Marie knows who the Soo Thunderbirds are. They just don’t go to their games.

And what about Blind River?

Once a model for a small-market NOJHL franchise, the Beavers have fallen on hard times.

They haven’t won a game this season and their attendance and financial supporters have fallen off. A non-for-profit organization, the Beavers are as deep in debt as they are in last place.

To be sure, the NOJHL can continue to expand and carry on and become even more expensive to operate within. But how long can the merry ways of the commissioner and his merry men continue? How long before the NOJHL out-prices its owners and operators?

What gets me is that the NOJHL has become pay-to-play. But it seems to me that the more the players pay, the owners pay. Where is the good business sense in that?

I like junior A hockey. Really like it, in fact.

But what I don’t like is the thought of two of my favourite teams possibly not being a part of it, as we look ahead.

Birds on top, Beavers on bottom

It’s a long way from worst to first in the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.

Living the high life at the top with the best winning percentage in the nine-team NOJHL are the Soo Thunderbirds with a record of 28-4-6, good for 62 points.

At the extreme end, at the very bottom of the NOJHL, are the Blind River Beavers with one point from a record of 0-38-1.

That’s right, one point.

What has happened to the Beavers of Blind River? It used to be better, so much better.

In fact, in a seven-year span from 2004-2011 the Beavers produced six winning seasons and were a model of a small-market franchise.

But it has been all downhill since the 2010-2011 season.

Since then, the Beavers have produced records of 8-40-2 in 2011-2012, 13-27-8 in 2012-2013, 10-42-4 in 2013-2014 and 0-38-1 thus far this 2014-2015 season.

Add up the awful numbers since 2011-2012 and they compute to 31 wins, 147 losses and 15 overtime setbacks.

At any rate, as the Beavers have bottomed out, it is winning as usual for the Thunderbirds, who enter play this week with their 62 points and in a virtual tie for the lead with the defending champion Kirkland Lake Gold Miners.

(Kirkland Lake also has 62 points but the Soo has one game in hand.)

The Thunderbirds and Gold Miners faced off last weekend in the Soo and all was even as the two teams skated to a 3-3, double-overtime tie.

While all is well on ice with the Thunderbirds, there is behind-the-scenes concern about the lowly Beavers.

As Blind River has struggled to compete with its awful record of 0-38-1 — the Beavers have scored only 73 goals while allowing 262 — the fan base in the Milltown area has taken a major hit with average crowds well below the 200 mark. Worse, corporate sponsorship and support is also down and the Beavers bills are piling up.

Thunderbirds general manager Kevin Cain, who is one of the best at his position in the Junior A hockey game, can feel for what is going on with the Beavers.

Cain spent a couple of years with the Beavers as an assistant coach and has a warm spot in his heart for the fans of Blind River.

“Hopefully they can turn it around at some point,” Cain said of the Beavers on a recent edition of the Hockey North Show on ESPN 1400 Radio. “Blind River is a good little hockey town.”

T-Bird midgets a triumphant tale

Major midget hockey has made a positive return to Sault Ste. Marie following a one-year absence that many feel should never have happened in the first place.

At any rate, gone are the Soo North Stars and their multiple Great North Midget Hockey League championships and in their place are the Soo Thunderbirds.

There’s new management — thankfully — a new coaching staff and a new commitment to major midget hockey in the Soo.

Through 31 games this GNMHL season, the Thunderbirds are in first place with 45 points from a record of 22-8-1. And while the Thunderbirds are on top, the New Liskeard Cubs, Sudbury Nickel Capital Wolves and Nickel City Sons are all within range in the seven-team league.

As the GNMHL has re-defined itself with fewer teams that have made for a better-balanced league, gone are the days of the too-frequent 17-1, 15-2 and 12-3 scores.

The erstwhile North Stars, as good as they were, had a reputation for being a team that ran up the score on the weak teams while padding the individual stats of their top players. It’s been said and repeated that player development was secondary to winning championships on the agenda of those who called the shots for the North Stars on the ice and in the board room.

Whatever the case, what’s done is done.

The North Stars are in the past; the Thunderbirds are the present and hopefully the future.

With more games against better competition at out-of-town and out-of-country tournaments, the Thunderbird midgets have aspired to place more emphasis on development.

So says Kevin Cain, who oversees both the Thunderbird midgets and Soo Thunderbirds of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League as general manager.

Speaking of the Thunderbird midgets, Cain said that he is happy with the development of the players that is being shown under the watch of veteran coach Jim Capy.

“We all like to win,” Cain said evenly. “Managers like to win, coaches like to win, players like to win. What I am also seeing with our midgets is how much the players are improving and developing since the start of the season.”

Enter Capy as the takeover coach of the re-started major midget program.

Capy has a reputation in Sault Ste. Marie and area hockey circles that perhaps can be described as checkered.

He can be abrasive and aloof, he can be demanding and irritating, he can be over-bearing and obnoxious.

But he is also a student of the game, an old-style coach who has embraced new ways.

“It’s never going to be smooth sailing with Jim,” said Cain, who has worked alongside Capy for a number of years at the minor hockey and Junior A levels. “At the end of the day, though, Jim cares. He cares about his players and he pushes them hard to develop.”

As the Thunderbirds maintain first place in the GNMHL, they have a mix of 1997 and 1998 birth-year players who are looking to advance beyond the major midget level.

Their top players are goalie Joey Roberts, defencemen Matt Murray and Jared Fanti and forwards Brendan Gillis, Brad Thrower, Zach Senecal, Ryan Mulligan and Matt Mackay.

Then there is a younger player in 1999 birth-year forward Isaac Lennox, who was recently promoted from the AA midget ranks. Lennox fits the Thunderbird mission statement of player advancement and development.

There is not a pre-junior hockey program out there that does not have its issues.

As a matter-of-fact, there is probably not a hockey program or league at any level that is without fault and could better at what it proposes to do.

But major midget hockey is back in Sault Ste. Marie — and from most accounts, it is following the design of player development and exposure.

T-Birds add player; BR coach quits

The winter winds of change are affecting the landscape of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.

The top team in the NOJHL has added a veteran skater.

Meanwhile, the bottom team in the NOJHL has lost its veteran head coach.

Soo Thunderbirds, who are in first place in the West Division and have the best winning percentage in the nine-team NOJHL, buoyed their already-strong offence recently with the acquisition of 1995 birth-year forward Devin Shell from the Cambridge Winter Hawks of the Greater Ontario Jr. Hockey League.

Shell, who played his minor hockey in Sault Ste. Marie, including time with the erstwhile Soo North Stars of the Great North Midget Hockey League, was in his second season in Cambridge. He was acquired by the Thunderbirds in a cash exchange.

Shell joins a formidable line of Thunderbird forwards that includes seasoned skaters Nic Tassone, Jaren Bellini, Anthony Miller, Joey Miller and Matt Pinder.

Over in Blind River meanwhile, head coach Don Gagnon confirmed that he has resigned his position with the lowly Beavers, who have just 1 point this season from a dismal record of 0-33-1.

The reputable Gagnon is an experienced coach of several decades with multiple minor hockey teams in the Sault Ste. Marie area. He also has a long association with Blind River and the NOJHL.

Angelo Gallo will replace Gagnon on an interim basis.

Wolves need to get right coach

It says here that long-time employee Blaine Smith has done a pretty-good job overall in the four-plus seasons since adding the general manager’s duties to his role as president of the Ontario Hockey League’s Sudbury Wolves.

Smith has drafted and traded well as Wolves GM but his track record in hiring head coaches has been ho-hum at best.

Trent Cull was Smith’s first hire and after three seasons, he took a step back to his former position as an assistant coach with the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League.

Replacing Cull at the start of the 2013-2014 campaign was Paul Fixter and the former Kitchener Rangers assistant looked lost as an OHL head coach — and was fired midway through this 2014-2015 season despite being owed big bucks on the remainder of his multi-year contract. Not only did Fixter apparently lose the Wolves dressing room with his arrogant, know-it-all ways, he became a reminder that being a good assistant coach does not always lead to becoming a good head coach.

Smith’s latest hire as Wolves head coach — albeit on an interim basis — is David Matsos, who was promoted from assistant following the recent firing of Fixter.

Matsos may or may not be the right man for the job on a full-time basis — and it is up to Smith to determine that.

If Smith decides to start fresh, he should have no shortage of qualified candidates with head-coaching success.

One veteran who I hope Smith considers adding to the Wolves staff — either as head coach or assistant to Matsos — is former Saginaw Spirit and Windsor Spitfires bench boss Moe Mantha.

Mantha, who grew up in northern Ontario, was a star defenceman in the OHL who went on to play in close to 700 NHL games.

Yes, his stint in Windsor ended following the unfortunate Steve Downie-Akim Aliu incident of 2005.

But Mantha has since been a minor-pro assistant and is now the coach-general manager of the Michigan Warriors of the North American Hockey League. In four previous seasons with the Warriors, Mantha has coached them to two North Division playoff titles and two appearances at the NAHL’s national championship tournament.

It says here that the 53-year old Mantha is someone who could bring a lot to the Wolves coaching staff — as the head or assistant.

Balance of OHL power

At the midway point of the 2014-2015 Ontario Hockey League season, the haves and the have-nots have more or less been identified.

And while there is no clear-cut favourite to emerge as the best of the OHL this time around, the Oshawa Generals, by way of recent multiple trades for older players, have clearly stated their championship intentions.

The Generals are runaway leaders in the Eastern Conference, good ways ahead of the Barrie Colts, North Bay Battalion, Belleville Bulls et al.

Besides the veteran talent that it boasts on the forward lines and on defence, the Generals just may have the OHL’s best goalie in North Bay product Ken Appleby, a 19-year old who has twice been bypassed at National Hockey League drafts.

In the Western Conference, the Erie Otters and Soo Greyhounds are posturing for top position while the London Knights are playing possum and staying close.

To be sure, there is more strength and depth among the 10 members of the Western world then there is within the 10 residents of the Eastern block.

Worth noting is that Oshawa has placed itself as a prime target for all Eastern foes. As the Generals motor, the competition revs up the engine for a chase to the finish.

As the saying goes, it is not easy to get to the top and it is even harder to stay there.

Mighty mite of the MWJHL

It doesn’t matter what junior league it is, to be averaging more than three points per game at this stage of a hockey season is quite the high performance.

To be sure, Adam Jonak of the MC Monarchs of the Midwest Jr. Hockey League is having a season for the ages.

Jonak, a 1994 birth-year centre from the Czech Republic, is the runaway scoring leader in the MWJHL with the league on Christmas break.

In 30 games thus far this season, Jonak has already racked up 39 goals, 53 assists, 92 points for the Monarchs, who despite being a first-year entry, are in third place in the MWJHL with a record of 21-9.

Of note, Jonak’s 92 points to date are 33 more than his closest competitor in the MWJHL scoring race.

At 5-foot-9, 150 pounds, Jonak is a mighty mite — but his lack of size has prevented him from playing in a higher junior league than the Tier 3 MWJHL.

Monarchs owner-general manager Mark Gilman can’t say enough about Jonak.

“Not only is he a great player and one of our captains but Adam is a great young man,” Gilman praised. “It’s a shame that his lack of size has prevented him from playing at a higher level, like say the (Tier 2) North American Hockey League. Selfishly, of course, we are thrilled to have him with us.”

Heading into the 2015 portion of the season, the 42 points that MC has as a team puts the Monarchs three points out of second place and five points out of top spot.

Traverse City Hounds lead the MWJHL with 47 points from an amazing record of 23-1-1 and Detroit Fighting Irish is next with 45 points from a mark of 21-6-3.

After MC in fourth place is the Decatur Blaze and Michigan Ice Dogs with 23 points apiece, the Soo Firehawks with 14 and the Alpena Flyers with 13.