Its level ranks below the Ontario Hockey League and comes up just short of the North American Hockey League.
Still, the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League lives up to what it sells.
It’s a high-end Jr. A league that develops players for the OHL and the American and Canadian university ranks. Not only that, the NOJHL is the big game in town in four of its seven centres and provides low-cost “hockey nights in Northern Ontario” to its few thousand fans and supporters.
Soo Thunderbirds, Sudbury Nickel Barons and North Bay Trappers are the NOJHL’s bigger market teams but play second fiddle to OHL and university programs in their respective towns.
On the flip side, Blind River Beavers, Elliot Lake Bobcats, Abitibi Eskimos and Kirkland Lake Gold Miners are the big game in their towns but are small-market teams with limited audiences.
While all seven NOJHL franchises are somewhat solid, it’s a seasonal challenge to remain operational.
Still, the NOJHL is a league of survivors, a grassroots group of good people who really are involved for the love of the game. This is not a league of fancy suits, big money and showy owners who use their team as an expensive toy or plaything.
This is not the OHL, where the average franchise is worth $7 million. This is not the NAHL, where the estimated worth of an average franchise is about $500,000. This is the NOJHL, where the average franchise is worth $50,000.
But these are real, down-to-earth people who make up the NOJHL. These are not the phonies with the fake smiles and two faces who populate the OHL.
The 2012-13 NOJHL season is approaching the halfway mark and there are issues.
Like, what happens to North Bay after this season when the OHL makes its return to the Gateway City after being gone for 10 years? Will there be room for the Trappers in North Bay in 2013-14 or will they be forced to find a new home in another northern town?
Of more immediate concern, will the Trappers get the necessary financial backing from corporate sponsors as they prepare to play host to next spring’s Dudley Hewitt Cup, Central Canada playdowns? Afterall, potential sponsors for the DHC may now instead direct their money towards the imminent arrival of the OHL.
Meanwhile, in Elliot Lake, the first-year Bobcats are dealing with a bit of a financial shortfall. Money that the Bobcats were expecting from certain corporate sponsors became unavailable in the wake of the Algo Centre Mall collapse, tragedy and destruction of this past summer.
Still, the NOJHL usually finds a way to recover and move forward.
On the ice, the Thunderbirds and Trappers are waging war in a battle for first place and the surprising Gold Miners of Kirkland Lake are trying to hold off the Nickel Barons of Sudbury for third. And folks tell me that some of the most-competitive and exciting games this season have been when Blind River, Elliot Lake and Abitibi play one another.
To be sure, the NOJHL is low-key in some regards. It doesn’t toot its own horn and it marches to its own drummer.
But the NOJHL is good, high-end hockey. Not as high-end as the OHL or NAHL but every bit as entertaining and exciting.
NOJHL TO D1 NMU
Three former NOJHLers are part of this season’s freshman class at Northern Michigan University.
Full-ride scholarship goalie Michael Doan heads the list of former NOJHLers who are on the Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association roster of the NMU Wildcats.
Doan, who was born and raised in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., played two seasons in the NOJHL, beginning with the Soo Eagles and finishing with the Soo Thunderbirds. The 6-foot-5, 225 lb. puckstopper played the 2011-12 season in the Ontario Jr. Hockey League, suiting up for both the Wellington Dukes and Huntsville Otters.
Doan, a former Sault Ste. Marie high school athlete-of-the-year, has played in parts of two games at NMU during the early going of this 2012-13 season as the primary backup to junior goalie Jared Comeau. Doan has played in 22 minutes for the Wildcats and stopped 21 of 22 shots for a .955 save percentage.
Other former NOJHLers who are at NMU (as freshmen walk-ons) are third-string goalie Aaron Beutenmiller and depth forward Aaron Leach.
Both played in the NOJHL with the Michigan-based Eagles. The Eagles are now members of the North American Hockey League.