It’s been a long road back.
For the first time since 1999, the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League has a presence in the Algoma District town of Elliot Lake.
Having spent the previous five seasons in the non-sanctioned, Greater Metro Jr. Hockey League, the Elliot Lake Bobcats will debut in the NOJHL this 2012-13 campaign under the direction of owner-general manager-coach Ryan Leonard.
The Bobcats make their official return to the NOJHL with their regular-season home opener on Friday, Sept. 7 against the North Bay Trappers.
The 32-year old Leonard, a former Sault Ste. Marie resident, successfully operated the Elliot Lake franchise for five seasons in the so-called Outlaw League, winning one championship and compiling an eye-popping, overall record of 158-38-15 along the way.
Leonard, who also works as an educational assistant within the Algoma District School Board, has displayed good business sense in operating a junior hockey franchise.
“Before we granted Ryan an expansion franchise for Elliot Lake, we did a thorough check on him,” said NOJHL commissioner Robert Mazzuca. “Not only did he run a successful program on the ice, he operated it in a tidy fashion on the business side.”
In moving to the NOJHL as an owner, GM and coach, Leonard returns to the junior league of which he has a prior association.
As a player, Leonard was a high-scoring forward with the Soo Thunderbirds and Abitibi Eskimos. And before setting up shop as an owner in Elliot Lake, Leonard was an assistant coach with the Blind River Beavers for three years.
His father, Paul Leonard Jr. and his grandfather, Paul Leonard Sr., also have a junior hockey history.
Paul Jr. was a goalie with the Jr. B team in Blind River when it was a part of the erstwhile International Jr. Hockey League. And Paul Sr. is a founder of the original Blind River Jr. B franchise and legendary former sportscaster with radio stations CJNR (Blind River) and CKCY (Sault Ste. Marie.)
Young Leonard, to be sure, is excited about being back in the NOJHL.
“We have established a good program and a good fan base over five years in Elliot Lake,” said Leonard. “Nothing against the league we were in but not being sanctioned by Hockey Canada, the OHF and the NOHA had its drawbacks. Talking to our fans, they are excited to be a part of the NOJHL.
The energetic, effervescent Leonard has put together a hockey staff that includes former NOJHL head coach Todd Stencill and Sault Ste. Marie residents Chad Vresk, Brad Boyer and Charly Murray.
Stencill, who lives in Elliot Lake, previously coached with success in the NOJHL for four seasons — three with Blind River and one with erstwhile Manitoulin Islanders. In fact, while Stencill was head coach in Blind River, Leonard was his top assistant.
Meanwhile, Vresk serves as the Bobcats vice president of hockey operations while Boyer and Murray will assist in the scouting department.
The Bobcats have 25 players signed and moved into billet homes as they prepare for the fast-approaching NOJHL regular season. The players are a cross-section of talent from northern Ontario, southern Ontario and the United States.
Elliot Lake, a town of just over 11,000 residents, is situated about 20 miles off Highway 17 along Highway 108. It is about 35 miles from Blind River and roughly 120 miles from Sault Ste. Marie.