Category Archives: Hockey

OHL Flint Firebirds hire GM, coach

Flint Firebirds — who will make their Ontario Hockey League debut in 2015-2016 from the erstwhile Plymouth Whalers franchise — have hired a general manager and a head coach.

At a press conference held in Flint earlier today, veteran minor pro coach Terry Christensen was named GM of the new Firebirds and John Gruden was introduced as head coach.

The 60-year old Christensen heads to Flint as GM of the Firebirds from the USA Selects Elite AAA junior hockey program. He was the associate head coach of the Under-18 AAA Little Caesars team this past season.

The 44-year old Gruden was most recently an assistant coach for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program.

Gruden was granted a release from his contract with USA Hockey earlier this week to take the Flint job, according to Firebirds president Costa Papista.

NOJHL final four is set

Seventh-place finishers in a nine-team Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League during the regular season, the expansion Powassan Voodoos have reached the final four of the playoff round.

The Voodoos stuck a pin in the reigning champion Kirkland Lake Gold Miners and will play the Cochrane Crunch in one NOJHL semi-final while the Soo Thunderbirds and Elliot Lake Wildcats will face off in the other best-of-seven series.

Did anyone outside the Powassan inner circle really think the seventh-seeded Voodoos had a chance against the second-ranked Gold Miners from Kirkland Lake?

But here it is, Monday mourning — er, morning — in Kirkland Lake where the Gold Miners are feeling the effects of being stuck by the Voodoos in a stunning, six-game series setback.

So, it’s off to the East Division finals for Powassan against a Cochrane team that finished fourth overall and defeated the Voodoos seven times in eight regular-season meetings.

Over to the West Division finals, it will be first-place Soo against third-seeded Elliot Lake in a showdown between two teams that split 10 regular-season games.

On paper, the Soo-Elliot Lake set figures to be a lot closer and more even than the Cochrane-Powassan series.

But as the Voodoos proved in upsetting the defending champs from Kirkland Lake, the games are ultimately decided on ice — and on ice only.

Soaring Soo Eagles seek second spot

Soo Eagles are on a mission.

With five games to play in the 2014-2015 North American Hockey League regular season, the Eagles are in sole possession of second place in the six-team North Division.

“We want to finish second, that is our immediate goal,” Eagles coach-general manager Bruno Bragagnolo said evenly.

With a record of 9-2-1 over their last dozen games, the Eagles are three points ahead of the third-place Keystone Ice Miners in the battle for home-ice advantage in the first round of the NAHL playoffs.

“We’re playing really well right now,” Bragagnolo said of the Eagles, who have 62 points from a record of 30-23-2. “The guys are doing all the little things well.”

Keystone, which also has five games to play, has 59 points from a record of 27-23-5. The Eagles took four of six points from the Ice Miners last weekend.

The Eagles head to Johnstown for three games against the Tomahawks this weekend. The Soo squad will then close out the regular season with a pair of home games against the Michigan Warriors on March 27-28.

“These are all like playoff games now,” noted Bragagnolo. “Actually, it’s been a playoff-like atmosphere for the last month or so.”

From goaltenders Chad Catt and Jack Berry to top defencemen Pat Gazzillo and Michael Caruso to consistent forwards Trevor Cope, Brad Pung, Chase Matson, Raymond Brice, Denver Pierce and Leo Lumm, the Eagles have played as well as any team in the 24-member NAHL over the past six weeks.

The veteran Pung said the Eagles seem to be peaking at a good time.

“It’s like we knew that it was a matter of time before we got hot. We are playing some of our best hockey at a good time,” said Pung, a last-year junior who has scored a career-high 17 goals thus far this season. “We are a team that works hard and is well-prepared to play.”

Brice, a fast-skating, shutdown-style forward who is an NAHL rookie, said the character and closeness of the Eagles as a team is evident.

“Even when we were struggling as a team we stayed positive and focused,” said Brice, who is one of the Eagles top rookies. “It’s starting to come together for us.”

MWJHL joins USPHL

The United States Premier Hockey League has confirmed expansion of its Midwest junior division for the 2015-2016 season.

The division will now include the membership of the entire Midwest Jr. Hockey League — Alpena Flyers, Decatur Blaze, Detroit Fighting Irish, Michigan Ice Dogs, Motor City Monarchs, Soo Firehawks and Traverse City Hounds.

The MWJHL teams will join the membership of the Minnesota Jr. Hockey League, which has also joined the USPHL.

“The consolidation of the Minnesota and Midwest junior leagues into one division will provide better geographic rationality for our membership,” said USPHL spokesperson Richard Gallant via press release.

Ever-changing junior hockey landscape

The landscape shifts from season to season.

The footprints vary from league to league.

Such is life in the junior hockey world where change is inevitable and uncertainty is a certainty.

CIHL: Let’s begin with the new Canadian International Hockey League which recently completed its inaugural season with the Batchewana Attack upending the Espanola Rivermen to win the championship series in four straight games.

Well-coached-and-mentored by former National Hockey League player and erstwhile Ontario Hockey League player and coach Denny Lambert, who brought credibility, integrity and respect to the league, Batchewana was the jewel in an other-wise tacky first season for the CIHL.

And as Lambert says he believes in the future and concept of the independent CIHL, founder and president Tim Clayden has already started working towards the 2015-2016 season.

The unyielding, relentless Clayden has a plan in progress that he believes will result in the CIHL being a four-or-five team operation in 2015-2016 while playing interlocking games with members of other junior outfits, beginning with clubs that are current members of the Michigan-based, Midwest Jr. Hockey League.

For starters, Batchewana and Espanola, along with a new team from Greater Sudbury and another from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, figure to be part of the revamped CIHL moving forward.

GMHL: Founded in 2006 and having survived this long against all odds and as many naysayers, the Greater Metro Hockey League has grown into a 22-team outfit with plans to further expand for 2015-2016.

The brainchild of former Sudbury Wolves, OHL scoring star Bobby Russell and his business partner Ken Girard, the independently-operated GMHL has not only stood the test of time, it has passed with distinction.

With teams all over the various regions of Ontario and into Quebec, the GMHL has more good franchises than not and has attracted former OHL standouts and National Hockey League draft picks as reputable coaches, including 51-year old Jim Aldred and 41-year old Sylvain Cloutier.

NOJHL: A year ago, the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League overcame the departure of Espanola to the new CIHL by adding a presence in Cochrane and Powassan and growing from eight teams to nine.

The NOJHL landscape will be altered in 2015-2016 with the Abitibi Eskimos departing Iroquois Falls after 16 years in the small northeastern Ontario town.

The Eskimos will relocate to nearby Timmins — a much-bigger and more-populated town — for the 2015-2016 campaign and while the franchise will be re-named, it will continue to be coached by iconic bench boss Paul Gagne, an ex-OHLer/ex-NHLer of considerable note.

Soo Thunderbirds on top again

Another season, another first-place finish.

In the regular season, at least.

For the second successive season, the Soo Thunderbirds will finish atop the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League standings.

This time, it would be nice if they could finish what they started. Last season, the Thunderbirds placed first in the NOJHL regular-season standings as the top-ranked team in the Canadian Jr. Hockey League only to lose in the NOJHL playoff championship series to the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners.

Can the Thunderbirds win it all this time?

If they do, they first must get of the West Division where the expansion Elliot Lake Wildcats have been wildly successful with several wins over the Soo.

Should the Thunderbirds conquer the West, they would then face the winner of the East Division, where defending champion Kirkland Lake is again strong.

Whatever transpires, the Thunderbird organization should once again be commended for putting a prolific product onto the ice.

The chief architect in the Thunderbird hockey department is Kevin Cain, widely regarded as the best general manager in the nine-team NOJHL. Cain has his detractors, both outside and within the NOJHL, but the man is very successful at what he does.

Now in his second season as head coach, Jordan Smith has aspirations to move to a higher level of junior hockey. A young guy with an old-school personality, the 29-year old Smith is apprenticing for a future role with the Soo Greyhounds, who just happen to be the Ontario Hockey League team that he starred for as a no-nonsense, high-end defenceman.

On the playing roster, the Thunderbirds are solid between the pipes with the tandem of rookie Mario Culina and holdover Brian Kment, who are both local products.

Getting local products to either stay home or return here once they have left is a strength of the Thunderbirds organization.

Besides Culina and Kment, other local products of note on the Thunderbirds include the seasoned likes of defencemen Owen Headrick and Brandon Grandinetti and forwards Nic Tassone, Jaren Bellini, Anthony Miller, Joey Miller, Matt Pinder, Matthew Mitchell and Devin Shell.

Headrick, who hails from the down the highway at Garden River First Nation, is a player going places. The 1997 birth-year defender has a signed commitment to play for the cross-river, Lake Superior State University Lakers of the Division 1, Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

The NOJHL has a reputation as a solid junior league. It is two steps below the OHL and a rung beneath the North American Hockey League, where the Soo Eagles play.

But as the NOJHL has a decent reputation, it owes a lot of that to the Thunderbirds, who are considered a model franchise that conducts itself in a reputable manner on the ice and away from it.

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.