CIHL moves into the Soo

Junior hockey is returning to Rankin Arena in Sault Ste. Marie after a 32-year hiatus.

Batchewana Attack has become the seventh team in the new Canadian International Hockey League, which will begin play effective the upcoming 2014-2015 season.

The Attack will be based out of Rankin Arena, which housed the Soo Thunderbirds of the erstwhile International Jr. B Hockey League from 1978 until 1982.

Sault Ste. Marie native David Maciuk is a major investor in the Batchewana team and will also serve as president and director of hockey operations for the Attack.

Maciuk, who played in the Ontario Hockey League for Soo Greyhounds during the 1973-1974 season before moving to Chicago where he was a high-scoring forward at the minor-pro level for a number of years, said the Attack will work closely with Batchewana First Nation, which operates Rankin Arena.

“We are grateful and appreciative for the opportunity to work with the Batchewana First Nation,” said Maciuk. “The support has been overwhelming on this endeavour and we look forward to starting our program for student-athletes throughout North America along with future programs to further attract and develop First Nation student-athlete hockey players.

“Our entire Attack organization is looking forward to a bright and long-term future working with the Batchewana First Nation and bringing the new CIHL to junior hockey fans in the Sault Ste. Marie area,” Maciuk added.

Meantime, Rankin Arena manager Dan Sayers Sr. is thrilled to have a junior hockey tenant.

“We are excited beyond belief to be working with the new CIHL and the Batchewana Attack,” said Sayers, who lauded CIHL president and founder Tim Clayden for instigating the deal to put a team into Rankin Arena.

“Tim has been instrumental in helping to bring junior hockey back to our First Nation facility,” said Sayers. “We look forward to working with the CIHL and hosting the Attack where players from throughout North America including Sault Ste. Marie and our First Nations will be equally welcomed.”

Clayden, from his end, said reaching a deal with Chief Dean Sayers and the Batchewana Band Council to play out of Rankin Arena was a “thorough process and beneficial to the parties involved.

“The CIHL is very proud to have an opportunity to work with the Batchewana First Nation. This is about non-native and native peoples working together in sport and is something that all involved can be very proud of.

“We wish to thank Batchewana First Nation Chief and Council for their approval and support of the CIHL and the Batchewana Attack hockey club. We would also like to thank Dan Sayers for his efforts in making junior at the Rankin Arena a reality. Chi-miigwetch,” said Clayden.

Clayden, who has spent a lifetime in junior hockey as a general manager and owner of teams, likes what the equally-seasoned Maciuk will bring to the CIHL as primary owner of the Batchewana franchise.

“The Attack ownership group is very strong led by David Maciuk, who I know will leave no ice pad unturned to find the best native and non native student-athlete hockey players throughout North America to provide a very competitive and exciting team for the entire area to take pride in. There is no doubt the Rankin Arena will be rocking this winter,” Clayden added.

During the 2013-2014 season, Rankin Arena was home to a regular-season game involving the Soo Thunderbirds of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League and drew in excess of 500 fans to the single outing.

“That was what got us looking at the Rankin in the first place,” said Maciuk, who now begins the process of hiring a coach-general manager for the Attack and recruiting area players for the 2014-2015 season.

Of note, the Attack will be forming a club community steering committee with the intent of establishing a direction that “best suits hockey fans from Batchewana First Nation and the Sault Ste. Marie area,” said Maciuk.

Those interested in being a part of the committee can contact the Attack front office via e-mail, info@soojuniorhockey.com.

With Batchewana on board, the CIHL now stands at seven teams as it prepares for its inaugural season.

Other teams are the Espanola Rivermen, St. Charles Spirit, Central Ontario HTI Stars, Colborne Cramahe Hawks, Milton Battle Arts Cobras and Collingwood Ice.

The CIHL — where Canadian and American players will share equal status as non-imports and teams can utilize as many 12 Europeans and unlimited 15-and-16-year olds — is part of the sanctioned United Hockey Union under the umbrella of the Amateur Athletic Union.

Along with the CIHL, the Midwest Jr. Hockey League, Northern States Hockey League and Western States Hockey League are members of the UHU.

Twin Soo rivalry nenewed

Soo Thunderbirds of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League and Soo Eagles of the North American Hockey League will resume the Rollie King Cup series after a two-year hiatus, officials from both teams have confirmed.

The cross-border Soo teams established the Rollie King Cup during the 2011-2012 season when both were members of the NOJHL.

But the series was halted by the Northern Ontario Hockey Association when the Eagles left the NOJHL for the NAHL effective the 2012-2013 campaign.

The series between the Twin Soo teams honours the late Rollie King, a Michigan Soo native who crossed the International Bridge in the mid-1960s to play for the Soo Greyhounds when they were members of the NOHA. King then served the United States of America in the Vietnam War and later died of leukemia before his 30th birthday.

The resumption of the Rollie King Cup between the Thunderbirds and Eagles has officials from both teams pleased.

“We know how happy this will make the family of Rollie King,” said Eagles owner Ron Lavin. “The Soo Eagles would like to thank NOJHL commissioner Rob Mazzuca for stepping up and helping to revive the Rollie King Cup series.”

Eagles coach-general manager Bruno Bragagnolo added that the resumption of the Rollie King Cup series between his team and the Thunderbirds “is a long time coming. We enjoyed the rivalry we had with the Thunderbirds when we were in the same league. It will be great to be able to play them again for the Rollie King Cup.”

And Thunderbirds general manager Kevin Cain noted that, “We have missed playing the games against the Eagles. I know how much fans on both sides of the St. Mary’s River used to enjoy the great Thunderbirds-Eagles rivalry.”

The teams will play a two-game series on Friday, September 5 and Saturday, September 6, both at Pullar Stadium in the Michigan Soo.

Advance tickets can be reserved by calling the Soo Eagles office, 906-259-0522.

Soo Eagles eye area talent

As Soo Eagles prepare for their third season as members of the North American Hockey League, coach-general manager Bruno Bragagnolo continues to try to take advantage of the area talent pool.

Already on the Eagles roster as seasoned skaters are Sault Ste. Marie products Michael Caruso and Denver Pierce.

Caruso is a 1995 birth-year defenceman from the Canadian side of the St. Mary’s River while Pierce, a 1995 birth-year forward, hails from south of the International Bridge.

Anxious to add more locals to the lineup, Bragagnolo has tendered and drafted multiple area players as he plans ahead for the 2014-2015 NAHL season.

I recently chatted with Bragagnolo about the local additions to the Eagles.

Following is a transcript of the interview.

RUSSON: Let’s start with the local products that the Eagles tendered prior to the recent NAHL draft. Who are they, what are their positions and what is their backround?

BRAGAGNOLO: We tendered forwards William Gauthier and Chase Gamelin, who played for the Sault High Blue Devils last year. I have watched them closely the last two years and have been very impressed by their play. Will is a great-skating, highly-skilled forward with great vision and has a goal-scorer’s touch. He also has a verbal commitment to the Lake Superior State Lakers. Chase is a big, strong power-forward-type player who also has a nice skill set and has a very strong shot. Both have played well together, there seems to be a good chemistry there. I can see both of them turning into very good NAHL players. We also tendered another Upper Peninsula player from Houghton named Raymond Bryce. He is another big strong forward with a high skill level and scoring ability. All three of these boys are considered to be among some of the top players in the UP. I would like to add that there are several other local players who play for either the Indians major midgets or Sault High or across the river in Soo, Canada who have a chance to play in the NAHL in the next couple of years or sooner.

RUSSON: At the June 3 NAHL Draft the Eagles selected Garden River First Nation defenceman Owen Headrick from the Soo Thunderbirds of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League and forward Cole Lussier from the major midget Soo Indians.

BRAGAGNOLO: Yes, both players are also local boys and we think they also will be strong contributors at the NAHL level or beyond. Owen is a young D-man that we have watched all year playing for the T-Birds. He is a great skater and has outstanding defensive instincts. He is very calm and efficient on the ice for a young player and has some nice offensive ability to go along with a very effective shot that he is able to get to the net consistently from the point. He is an Erie Otters (Ontario Hockey League) draft pick and also has been offered a commitment from LSSU. We think he will be an instant impact player on our blueline. Cole is a local player who played at the forward position for the Soo Indians major midget team. We watched him play a lot this year both in practice and in games. He is also a young player with a bright future ahead of him. We brought him up and played him in a game at the end of the season and he did a good job for us. He is a lanky forward with a very good hockey IQ, very good skill set and also very-responsible defensively.

RUSSON: No question that there is talent aplenty in the Twin Soos but the fact is the Eagles, as members of the NAHL, are restricted in the number of import players you can have.

BRAGAGNOLO: Yes Randy, you are right there is a boat load of young players on both sides of the St. Mary’s River here. Unfortunately right now we are only allowed to have four imports by USA Hockey rules. I hear that there is talk about them changing or amending those rules. I am hoping those rules will change in the next year or two because I could see us fielding a team of 12-15 players from between the Twin Soos. That I think would be something special. The talent is definitely here so we will see what happens but that is one of the goals of our organization.

New NOJHL team for Elliot Lake

The Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League is back in Elliot Lake without having really left it.

In a 5-1 vote on Monday, Elliot Lake City Council approved the creation of a non-profit NOJHL franchise effective the upcoming 2014-2015 season.

The vote was based on a proposal where the City of Elliot Lake will spend $100,000 on an NOJHL team and pay upfront operating costs.

According to the proposal, the money will be paid back to the City of Elliot Lake over a seven-to-eight year period through sponsorships and partnerships.

The team will be run by volunteers, who will hire a coach and general manager.

Elliot Lake Bobcats were part of the NOJHL for the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 seasons before owner Ryan Leonard received league approval to relocate to Cochrane for the 2014-2015 campaign.

The NOJHL will hold its Annual General Meeting in Sault Ste. Marie on the June 20 weekend.

with files from Rocco Frangione of 94.1 Moose-FM Radio

New to the Blind River Beavers

Chris Zajac, a 5-foot-11, 180 pound, 1996 birth-year forward from Naperville Central high school in the Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook, has committed to the Blind River Beavers of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League for the 2014-2015 campaign.

Beavers coach-director of hockey operations Don Gagnon has confirmed Zajac as the latest newcomer to the Blind River roster.

Zajac had 55 goals, 56 assists, 111 points in 60 games with Naperville Central in 2013-2014 en route to being named to the Illinois all-state high school hockey team.

Zajac is the fourth skater — and third American — to commit to the Beavers this off-season.

Earlier, the Beavers snagged American-born forwards Jeremy Joyce and Chris Corgan as well as defenceman Ronson Odjig, who is a Manitoulin Island native.

To be sure, it has been a busy off-season for the Beavers as they strive to reverse their fortunes after winning only 10 of 56 regular-season games in finishing in last place in the NOJHL in 2013-2014.

Besides the new players, Blind River has added National Hockey League goal-scoring legend Reggie Leach and Sault Ste. Marie native Michael Porco — who now resides in Grand Rapids, Michigan — to a scouting staff that includes holdover Steve Summers.

Golf day, hockey, in one

Huron Pines Golf Club will be the site for the annual tournament in support of the Blind River Beavers Jr. A hockey team.

Called the ‘Beavers Open Scramble Golf Tournament’ the event is slated for Saturday, July 5 with a 10 a.m. shotgun start.

The four-person scramble comes at a cost of $125 per player.

Entry fee includes 18 holes of golf with cart, dinner and prizes.

Registration is via the Beavers website: www.blindriverbeavers.com.

For further information, contact Beavers general manager Warren LaVoy via gm@blindriverbeavers.com.

Don Gagnon a busy Beaver

The old coach is hard at work, even though it’s late May and summer weather is here.

Don Gagnon has started the process of rebuilding the Jr. A hockey program in Blind River.

The 60-year old Gagnon is preparing for the 2014-2015 campaign — which will be his first full term as coach and director of hockey operations for the Beavers of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.

To be sure, Gagnon took over a struggling Blind River outfit midway through the 2013-2014 season and made it respectable.

While Blind River finished in last place in the eight-team NOJHL with a record of 10-42-4, the Beavers showed marked improvement down the stretch under Gagnon and his sidekick associate coach, Dennis Bolton.

Over the final 14 games of the 2013-2014 regular season, the Beavers posted a record of 5-8-1.

In other words, Blind River had as many wins in its last 14 games of the regular season as it did in its first 42 contests.

The Beavers continued their surge into the first round of the playoffs against the first-place Soo Thunderbirds, stealing the opener of the series only to bow out in five games in the best-of-seven set.

Despite finishing a whopping 75 points back of the Thunderbirds during the regular season, Blind River gave the Soo everything it could handle in the playoff round. In all, three of the five games were decided by one goal.

At any rate, having conducted a recent spring tryout camp, Gagnon and the Beavers have committed to pair of 19-year old forwards from Michigan for the 2014-2015 season.

New Beavers are Jeremy Joyce and Chris Corgan.

Joyce, a smooth-skating, 6-foot, 160 pounder, had 21 goals and 57 points while playing for Reeths-Puffer high school in Muskegon in 2013-2014.

Corgan, on the other hand, is a 6-foot-1, 185 pounder who played for Aquinas College in Grand Rapids in 2013-2014.

“Jeremy has a great passion for the game and will help our offence. Chris is a hard-worker who plays the 200-foot game and is extremely good in all zones. He will add speed up front. The Beavers are happy to have added these two players as they fit the parameters of what we are striving for going forward, which is passion and hard work,” Gagnon told me.

State of the league

Its upcoming annual general meeting should tell the tale of how many teams will comprise the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League in 2014-2015.

With the departure of the attendance-leading Espanola Rivermen to the new Canadian International Hockey League, the NOJHL is currently made up of seven teams from east to west: Cochrane Crunch (formerly Elliot Lake Bobcats), Kirkland Lake Gold Miners, Abitibi Eskimos, Mattawa Blackhawks (formerly North Bay Trappers), Sudbury Nickel Barons, Blind River Beavers and Soo Thunderbirds.

But NOJHL commissioner Rob Mazzuca is working with factions in the Elliot Lake area to try to put a new team into that town — and the league is also said to be looking at other potential markets.

To be sure, the NOJHL appears to have a firm footprint on the east side.

Cochrane has the excitement of junior hockey coming to town, Kirkland Lake won the 2013-2014 playoff championship over the Soo in front of home crowds that topped the 1,000 mark and Abitibi is in the midst of a season-ticket drive aimed at keeping the Eskimos in Iroquois Falls for the 2014-2015 season and beyond.

Mattawa, we are not so sure about.

Blackhawks owner David Beauchamp is due in court on June 2 to answer a challenge as to who holds the junior hockey rights in Mattawa.

Undaunted, Beauchamp has started a marketing campaign for the 2014-2015 season and from his end, remains confident of operating an NOJHL team in Mattawa.

Heading west, Sudbury, Blind River and the Soo will state their intentions for the 2014-2015 season at next month’s AGM.

What shape will the NOJHL be in for 2014-2015?

If Mazzuca is successful in putting a new team into Elliot Lake, if Mattawa is a go as its owner says it is and the other teams maintain status quo, the NOJHL will at least continue as an eight-team operation.

As for Mazzuca’s status as commissioner, he has solid support from the east side of the league, enough it would appear, to keep him in power.

What’s going on in Elliot Lake?

The matter of whether there may be junior hockey in Elliot Lake in 2014-2015 has been on City Council agenda three times in the past six weeks.

All three times — last night included — City Council deferred the matter to its next scheduled meeting.

Elliot Lake has been home to the Bobcats for seven seasons — five in the Greater Metro Jr. Hockey League and the past two in the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.

But owner and founder Ryan Leonard — who is also general manager and coach — has moved the franchise to Cochrane where the Crunch will begin play effective the 2014-2015 NOJHL season.

In the meantime, NOJHL commissioner Robert Mazzuca has been trying to orchestrate an expansion franchise for Elliot Lake. Mazzuca was supposed to appear before Elliot Lake City Council for the second time last night but did not.

Then there is the new Canadian International Hockey League, which has applied for sanction within the Amateur Athletic Union as part of the United Hockey Union for the 2014-2015 campaign.

CIHL founder Tim Clayden has sent an e-mail to City of Elliot Lake personnel inviting them to consider the new league as a possible option.

Clayden, who also owns the Espanola Rivermen — who defected from the NOJHL to the new CIHL — is awaiting formal approval from the AAU-UHU to be under its umbrella.

So what is next for Elliot Lake?

That depends on City Council and whether local investors step up with a plan to have a junior hockey franchise in either the NOJHL or the CIHL for the 2014-2015 campaign.

North Bay has served the NOJHL well

As of now, North Bay no longer has a team within the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.

The NOJHL recently approved relocation of the Trappers from North Bay to nearby Mattawa and the team will be called the Blackhawks.

I suspect that not many in North Bay will miss the Trappers, with the Ontario Hockey League having taken control of the town with the North Bay Battalion.

And that’s fine.

But let’s not forget that North Bay has served the NOJHL well since 2003 with first the Skyhawks, then the Trappers.

North Bay teams have won four NOJHL championships since 2003 and many good men have been associated with the Skyhawks and Trappers as owners, general managers, coaches and marketers including the likes of Guy Blanchard, Tim Clayden, Kevin Kerr, Darren Turcotte, Ian Swalucynski, Tom McCarthy, Chris Dawson, Dean Pauli, Randy Blake and Brent Ogletree.

And the list of players who have suited up for the Skyhawks and Trappers over the years is an impressive one.

Off the top of my head, players who come to mind are skaters Jordan Carroll, Tyler Eady, Dennis French, Dustin Fummerton, Brad Gehl, Brad Hummel, Brandon Janke, Ryan Loach, Dustin McCrank, Brad Norkum, Beau Orser, Matthew Salituro, AJ Shiverdecker, Alex Valenti, Quinn Waller and goalies Greg Dodds, Mike Lalande, Andre Laperriere and Martin Perreault.

But that is just the tip of a lengthy list of alumni from a North Bay franchise that will have a good chapter in the NOJHL book of esteemed historian David Harrison.