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.

KL Gold Miners come up empty

The champions of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League have come up empty up at the Dudley-Hewitt Cup, Central Canada playdowns that are going on in Wellington, Ont.

Kirkland Lake Gold Miners were doubled up 6-3 by the Superior International Jr. Hockey League champion Fort Frances Lakers today and were thus eliminated from further play.

Kirkland Lake went winless at the four-team DHC, losing all three of its round-robin games.

Previously, Kirkland Lake lost 4-1 to the host Wellington Dukes and 4-1 to the Ontario Jr. Hockey League champion Toronto Lakeshore Patriots.

First-rate franchise

Regardless of what the future holds for Soo Thunderbirds, the local Jr. A franchise is one of good repute.

Perennial contenders in the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League, the 2013-2014 season ended for the Thunderbirds last week when they were upended by the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners in the championship series.

The Thunderbirds have been a part of the NOJHL since 1999 and for the most part, they are overshadowed by the Soo Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League.

While the Greyhounds average 4,500 fans per game, the Thunderbirds would be happy to draw 450 per home outing.

To be sure, the Thunderbirds are not a money-making proposition.

In fact, a good year for the Thunderbirds would be to break even.

Owner Albert Giommi is a generous man and has put a lot of his own money into the Thunderbirds over the years.

But Giommi is also a very-busy man who owns National Supply in Sault Ste. Marie while also doing business elsewhere in Ontario.

Giommi also has two kids in university and one has to wonder how much time and energy he can continue to put into the Thunderbirds.

Can the Thunderbirds continue to survive in an OHL-dominated city and in an NOJHL that is becoming more-expensive to play in?

Hard to say.

Perhaps they could — with a new, less-busy owner who has more time to devote to junior hockey than Giommi does. And let’s not forget that Giommi and his general manager Kevin Cain are also the overseers of the newly-formed Soo Thunderbirds (formerly Soo North Stars) of the Great North Midget Hockey League.

The Thunderbird juniors have a good history in Sault Ste. Marie.

But times are changing and a change of the guard may be what is needed.