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.

OHL teams to watch

Here are six Ontario Hockey League teams — three from each of the Western Conference and Eastern Conference — to keep an eye on as play resumes in the second half of the 2014-2015 season.


This could well be the best Greyhound team to take to the ice in about 20 years.

Skilled, solid and deep on the forward lines and the defensive side, the Hounds are also a character crew led by overage forward Jean Dupuy.

Dupuy won’t lead the Greyhounds in scoring and is not likely to hit the 20-goal mark but the strong-skating, self-made front-liner is a leader and highly-valued OHLer whose stock has risen dramatically since being acquired in a low-profile trade with the Kingston Frontenacs during the 2013-2014 season.

To be sure, the Hounds have offence aplenty led by Sergey Tolchinsky, Blake Speers, Gabe Guertler, Bryan Moore and Jared McCann to go with an airtight defence backed by Gustav Bouramman, Kyle Jenkins and Darnell Nurse.

As long as goalie Brandon Halverson makes the routine saves and manages the games that the Hounds should win, this is a team with a shot at the OHL crown.


Make no mistake about it, the Otters can turn on the red light with the best of the OHL and along with the Greyhounds, are the forward class of the Western Conference.

Connor McDavid, Dylan Strome, Nick Betz, Nick Baptiste and Alex DeBrincat are all high-end, impact forwards.

But does Erie have the goaltending to win it all? Does old-style general manager Sherry Bassin have a few tricks up his sleeve prior to the January 9 trade deadline?


Sorry anti-London fans, the Knights are again a Western Conference contender.

London has multiple difference makers on the forward lines and on defence.

Point-producers of note are Mitchell Marner, Max Domi, Christian Dvorak and mammoth Michael McCarron, a Montreal Canadiens first-rounder who can dominate physically.

The Knights also boast a pair of dandy defenders in Aiden Jamieson and Dakota Mermis, among others.


The Gennies have the best record in the Eastern Conference and the OHL’s best goalie in North Bay product Ken Appleby.

In front of Appleby are point-per-game defencemen Mitchell Vande Sompel and Chris Carlisle.

Up front, Oshawa has three impact skaters in Michael Dal Colle, Tobias Lindberg and Cole Cassels.

This is a team than score and deny.


It starts behind the Battalion bench where Stan Butler may be the best in the business.

Go-to-guys who lead the way offensively are Nick Paul and Sault Ste. Marie native Michael Amadio.

Brenden Miller is the high-end blueline leader in front of goalie Jake Smith.

Under Butler, North Bay plays a playoff-style game during the regular season with plenty of 2-1 and 3-1 decisions over Eastern Conference opponents.


Huh, you ask?

Kingston took a just-below-.500 record into the second half of play and has been without star forward and Calgary Flames first-rounder Sam Bennett all season because of a shoulder injury.

The Frontenacs also played multiple games before Christmas without top forwards Spencer Watson, Lawson Crouse and Juho Lammikko.

Put them back with Robert Polesello and Ryan Kujawinski in the New Year and Kingston will be a dangerous outfit.

The Frontenacs often out-shoot their Eastern Conference opponents and have a better-than-average goalie in Lucas Peressini to keep them in the games.

Just saying.

Best of the Birds

It is a team that has a lot going for it.

It has the veteran players who know their way around the junior hockey rinks.

There are forwards Nic Tassone, Anthony Miller, Joey Miller, Matt Pinder, Nathan Hebert, Jaren Bellini et al.

There are defencemen David Radke, Brandon Grandinetti, the injured Owen Headrick, among others.

But the Soo Thunderbirds have been getting major contributions from a number of rookie players as well.

For starters, the first-place Thunderbirds — who took a record of 18-2-2 into Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League play this week — feature 1998 birth-year forward Nic Sicoly, who is third on the team in scoring with 12 goals, 13 assists, 25 points.

Sicoly, who was a fourth-round pick of the Guelph Storm at the 2014 Ontario Hockey League draft, is one of the youngest two players on the Thunderbirds.

“He sure doesn’t play like a 16-year old rookie,” Thunderbirds general manager Kevin Cain has said of Sicoly, who is ticketed to play in the OHL for Guelph next season.

Then there are two 1997 birth-year players on the Thunderbirds who were bypassed at the OHL draft when first eligible for selection in 2013.

Pint-sized forward Matt Caruso has played in only 16 of the Thunderbirds 22 games heading into play this week. But Caruso has made good use of his ice time with 5 goals, 8 assists, 13 points in the 16 games.

“Love the kid,” Cain said of Caruso. “Don’t let his size fool you. Matty is a tough kid and he plays way bigger than he is.”

Over to an up-and-coming goalie, that would be Mario Culina of the Thunderbirds.

The rookie puckstopper is playing like a true no. 1 goalie for the Thunderbirds with a 10-2 record, 2.01 goals against average and .925 save percentage.

Culina’s 10 wins are tops among OHL goalies.

“He’s going places,” Cain said of the slender 6-foot-2, 170 pound Culina. “There are scouts calling me about Mario every day.”

Indeed, said Cain, he finds it hard to believe how advanced Culina is for a 17-year old goalie just a season out of midget hockey.

“First of all, he has nerves of steel,” praised Cain. “Nothing seems to rattle the kid. He’s a big-game goalie and he’s destined to play the game at a much-higher level, if you ask me.”

Minor midget to OHL

It is quite the leap from minor midget hockey to the major junior level — and Zack Dorval is in the midst of the big jump.

Dorval, a 1998 birth-year centre, has moved up from the Soo Thunder minor midgets to the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League in the space of a single season. And while the youngster is experiencing the growing pains associated with being a fresh-faced rookie, he definitely has the makings of being “a good one.”

John Goodwin, the former OHL rookie-of-the-year (1978-1979) and league scoring champion (1980-1981), knows a thing or two about being a high-performance centre. And the 53-year old Goodwin, now the lead assistant coach with Kingston, likes the way Dorval is developing with the Frontenacs.

“He’s getting better every day,” Goodwin said of Dorval. “He works hard in practice and plays with a lot of intensity. It was tough on him early, being away from home and making the adjustment from top scorer in minor midget to a fourth-line player in the OHL, but he’s going to be just fine. He is going to be a good one.”

Dorval has played in 25 of the Frontenacs 29 games thus far this 2014-2015 season and has his first OHL goal to his credit. On the small side at 5-foot-10, 160 pounds, Dorval nonetheless plays with a gritty edge.

“He doesn’t back down,” Goodwin said of Dorval. “He’s not that big but he’s young and he’s just going to get stronger. It will be a big off-season for him after his rookie year.”

Dorval put up big numbers with the Soo minor midgets in 2013-2014 after moving here from his northeastern Ontario hometown of Hearst to advance his game. In all, Dorval had 48 goals, 33 assists, 81 points in 75 games with the Thunder and racked up 122 penalty minutes.

Rated as the top player his age from northern Ontario, Dorval lived up to that billing when he was selected by Kingston in the second round (35th overall) at the 2014 OHL draft.

Goodwin said there is no doubt in his mind that Dorval has what it takes to be a future OHL star.

“He’s got the work ethic and he has the skill,” Goodwin said evenly.

“He just needs to get stronger and to not get down on himself because he’s not putting up big points as a rookie,” Goodwin added. “Zack’s time will come and (Frontenacs head coach Paul McFarland) and I are really looking forward to being a part of his ongoing development.”

Memories of Jean Beliveau

Heaven has welcomed a much-loved legend, a hockey hero who was adored as much for his kindness and grace off the ice as the leadership and skill on the ice that made the Montreal Canadiens the most-hallowed team of his era.

Gentleman Jean passed on last week and many of us fortunate enough to have watched him in his prime and/or be touched by having met him — even briefly — are feeling some sort of loss.

You didn’t have to be a Montreal Canadiens fan to be a Jean Beliveau fan and you didn’t have to be a hockey fan to recognize his name when you heard it.

From the time I watched my first National Hockey League game on the old black-and-white TV that adorned the family living room at 102 Maple St. in Sault Ste. Marie, I knew who big no. 4 for the Canadiens was.

Beliveau was my dad’s favourite player and thus became my favourite player, a father-and-son bond that carried on.

I remember the first time I ever met Beliveau.

I was just a kid and my dad took me to Detroit to watch the Red Wings play the Canadiens. The Canadiens just happened to be staying in the hotel next to where we had a room and my dad and I headed there on the day of the game hopeful of catching a glimpse of someone from our favourite team.

Somehow we found our way to the floor and the room where the Canadiens were having their pre-game meal. Mustering up my youthful courage, I knocked on the door and asked if it were possible to get Jean Beliveau’s autograph.

In an almost-surreal moment, Beliveau himself came to the door, smiled and said to give him a few minutes to finish his meal and he would be happy to oblige.

Just a few minutes later, Big Jean returned to the door area and welcomed us into the room. Not only did he sign an autograph and ask us our names and where we were from but he turned and instructed every member of the Canadiens to remain and sign their names on sheets of paper for my dad and me.

I still have the autograph.

And I still have the autograph from years later, circa 1975, when Beliveau was in Sault Ste. Marie for an old-timers hockey game and I had the fortune to interview him for CKCY Radio.

“To Randy, Best Regards, Jean Beliveau” reads the signed piece of paper that hangs on a cork board in my office under an old Canadiens crest that has stood the test of time.

More than a legendary hockey player, Beliveau was a proud Canadian and a proud husband and father, a gentleman who defined the word, a once-in-a-lifetime treasure who will be fondly remembered and have a place in the hearts and minds of many.

I am sure that my dad and Gentleman Jean have already shook hands in Heaven. And I have no doubt that my dad has another autograph.