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Local Sports

Summer hockey is the plan for NOJHL coaches

Dependent on factors related to COVID-19 and a return to more controllable numbers, summer tournament hockey may be more prevalent this year given the low total of games that were played at the junior and under 18 levels during the 2020-2021 season. Up in Kirkland Lake, the coach and general manager of the Gold Miners — members of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League — has served notice that he intends to put together a summer tournament team of players born in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005 that will compete in a number of planned showcase events. Kyle Smart, who is the coach and GM of the NOJHL Gold Miners, has already approached a number of players to be on a team that will be called the Northern Lights. Meanwhile, Brent Hughes, who joined the Espanola Express of the NOJHL as head coach this past season after three straight winning campaigns as an assistant coach with the Cape Breton Eagles of the Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League, has his own plans in the works for summer hockey action. Hughes told Sault This Week he intends to assemble two summer teams under the BH Hockey Development Program group that he owns and operates, as long as, of course, it can be done safely and by following any and all public health guidelines. Hughes has already enlisted Jason Rapcewicz, who is the president and general manager of the NOJHL’s Espanola franchise, to assist him with the BH Hockey summer teams. Hughes said the intent is for both teams to be made up from players born in the 2001 to 2005 age group, adding that the planned showcase tournaments for the Toronto and Niagara areas “represent a great way for kids from the north to get seen by higher level scouts, especially considering the few number of games that players got to play in this (past) season.” Hughes added he would like to have as many players from Northern Ontario as he can on the two teams, noting this is an opportunity for kids from the north to be scouted. “The tournaments that we plan on going to are established ones that are known for having a lot of scouts in attendance. This can serve as a complete evaluation process.” In his first season in Espanola, the much-shortened 2020-2021 campaign, Hughes coached the youthful Express to a record of 5-4-3 through 12 NOJHL games. Hughes said he has a commitment from “the majority” of the players who finished the 2020-2021 NOJHL season under his watch in Espanola to play for him this summer. The Express stands to return every one of its players from the ’20-21 campaign for the 2021-2022 season. Meanwhile, players from Northern Ontario — in addition to the ones who played for Hughes in Espanola this past season — who are interested in playing for a BH Hockey summer tournament team can e-mail him via brenthughes@bhhockey.net.

5 days ago Local Sports
NOJHL coaches plan a summer hockey season. Photo by Bob Davies
Local Sports

Blind River Beavers get set in net as Sault boy Gavin Disano answers call

He came through when called upon and earned the No. 1 job. And along the way, Gavin Disano withstood baptism by fire as a young rookie goalie with the Blind River Beavers of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League. The 5-foot-9, 185-pound Disano, who hails from Sault Ste. Marie, faced a barrage of shots in becoming a workhorse between the pipes for Blind River over the course of the abbreviated, recently completed, 2020-2021 NOJHL season. Signed by the Beavers prior to the start of the 2020-2021 NOJHL season after a year with the Soo Jr. Greyhounds of the Great North Under 18 Hockey League, the 17-year old Disano was originally brought into Blind River this season to be the backup to 19-year-old veteran Wyatt Courchaine. But Disano eventually supplanted Courchaine as the No. 1 goalie in Blind River and saw the bulk of the action throughout the 2021 portion of the COVID-19 affected season as the Beavers faced off against the Soo Thunderbirds in cohort competition. Disano ended up with a 6-4-1 record while Courchaine had a 3-7-0 mark for Blind River, which finished the season with a 9-11-1 showing in 21 games — 17 of which were played against the Soo and the other four versus the Rayside Balfour Canadians. Blind River had a 7-9-1 record in its 17 games against the Soo and posted a 2-2-0 mark in the four matches with Rayside Balfour. As for Disano, his impressive 6-4-1 record, .891 save percentage and goals against average of 4.53 do not tell the whole story of what the young goalie faced in the Beavers net. That is, in 689 minutes of action, Disano faced a whopping 478 shots. Which tallies up to a per game average of almost 42 shots per 60 minutes. Plus, Blind River played the last seven games of the season with just two regular defenceman due to injuries and suspensions. Kyle Brick, who just completed his fifth season as the coach and hockey boss of the Beavers, came away very impressed with the play of Disano through the on and off and on again NOJHL campaign. “There are a lot of qualities that Gavin has that really stand out,” Brick told Sault This Week. “His preparation, approach and focus are off the charts … and he positions himself extremely well. “What also stands out about Gavin is that when he lets in a goal that he would like to have back, he doesn’t dwell on it or lose his concentration. “We initially brought Gavin in to be the goalie of the future for the Blind River Beavers but let’s just say that right now, he is way, way ahead of schedule,” Brick offered. “He took over as our starter and he surpassed all expectations with the way he played and handled himself very well in all of those games against a skilled, veteran Soo Thunderbirds team.” Disano, meanwhile, emerged from his first NOJHL season with a really good feeling. “It was a great experience getting to play with a great group of players,” the personable youngster told Sault This Week. “Blind River is an unbelievable place to play with great fans who really support us. I loved every minute of living in Blind River and playing for the Beavers.” Asked if he planned on returning to Blind River for the 2021-2022 season, Disano did not hesitate in responding. “Absolutely, I plan on going back. The whole experience of playing there was definitely amazing,” he noted. After starting out as the backup goalie this season and expecting to remain in that role behind the older, more experienced Courchaine, Disano said he welcomed the challenge of competing for the starting job and ending the season as the No. 1 guy in the Blind River net. “The more I got to play, I wasn’t as nervous as when I started out,” Disano relayed. “I helped us win some games and got on a roll. And playing against my hometown team (the Thunderbirds) was great. We had a lot of good battles with the Thunderbirds and we did OK against them.” Disano said being down to two regular defencemen over the latter stages of the season “was definitely tough. We had to play without guys like Mason (Chitaroni) and that was not easy. But some of our forwards dropped back and played ‘D’ for us and they helped a lot.” On another note, Disano’s dad, Jamie Disano, is well known as a goalie instructor who operates his own business and tutors a number of local and area netminders. The elder Disano also happens to be goalie coach/assistant coach for Blind River. “Before the season began, my dad told me that he wasn’t going to treat me any different than any other player … and that worked out well. The way we saw it, when it comes to games and practices, he is not my dad and I am not his son. I am one of the players and he is my goalie coach,” young Disano summed up.

5 days ago Local Sports
Blind River Beavers goalie Gavin Disano looks up ice after thwarting a scoring opportunity by the Soo Thunderbirds in recent Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League action at John Rhodes Community Center in Sault Ste. Marie. BOB DAVIES/SAULT THIS WEEK
Column

NEWS, VIEWS AND DUES FROM 2020-2021 NOJHL SEASON

As a writer who writes up more than one team in the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League, here are a number of notations as we move on from the 2020-2021 abbreviation of a season to what we can have faith in, at what could lie ahead at some point. • Graduating goalie David Bowen, who proved to be good enough to play in both the Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League, has committed to tend twine for the Laurentian Voyageurs of Ontario University Athletics effective the 2021-2022 season. Bowen is coming off multiple seasons of eye-popping play with the NOJHL’s Rayside Balfour Canadians. And by committing to play for Laurentian next season, Bowen will remain in his de facto hometown of Sudbury to stop pucks. To be sure, Bowen more than paid his dues in the NOJHL with Rayside Balfour. And, we will opine, Bowen never really got enough of an extended look from Sudbury general manager Rob Papineau to stick in the OHL with the Wolves. After all, Bowen posted a rousing winning record of 4-1-0 with a save percentage in the .940 range over his short stints with the Wolves. At any rate, Sudbury, by the way, is where Bowen’s dad, Joe Bowen, got his play-by-play start as the voice of the OHL Wolves on radio station CKSO. The elder Bowen, as most know, went to on gain legendary status as the play-by-play man for the National Hockey League’s Toronto Maple Leafs. • Just by watching it play so many times on Hockey TV, the Timmins Rock stood out as the epitome of a complete all around team over 22 games of the on and off NOJHL season. While the Rock boasted graduating stars in forward Derek Seguin and goalie Tyler Masternak there was also the play of point per game, rookie forward Harry Clark, who caught many eyes of those tuning in. Clark, a local product who was well prepared for the NOJHL by playing for highly committed coach Brandon Perry of the Timmins Majors of the Great North Under Hockey League the season prior, is a 2003-birth-year youngster who stands to have many more words written about him in seasons ahead. • The 2020-2021 edition of the Soo Thunderbirds posted a second best (behind Timmins, which had an 18-4-0 record)) winning percentage mark of 13-6-2 through an abbreviated NOJHL season which saw the Soo play the Blind River Beavers in 17 of its 21 games and the Espanola Express in the other four. Coached by Denny Lambert with assistance from Jeremy Stevenson, Gary Roach, Mickey Sartoretto and Aidan Wright and managed by Trev Zachary, the Thunderbirds also honoured another franchise tradition under current owner Darren Smyl by going with a lineup laden with local talent. Indeed, 14 of the 23 players who finished the season on the Thunderbirds roster are either from Sault Ste. Marie or played their minor hockey in the Sault. Including much of the local talent led by scoring leader Cooper Smyl, the Thunderbirds can return 16 of the 23 players from the 2020-2021 roster in 2021-2022. Besides Smyl, other locals who saw regular duty for the Thunderbirds this season included graduating forwards Caleb Wood, Avery Rebek, Parker Morgan and Noah Boman and eligible returnees Kurtis Rogers, Brock Santa Maria, Michael Chaffay, Ty Zachary, Tyson Doucette, Ethan Novello, Jacob Doucette, Kaden Dundas and Connor Toms. Of note, Smyl, as a 2002-birth-year forward, is already drawing interest from Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association schools despite having two full seasons of junior eligibility remaining. The schools in question are of Ivy League status where excellent academic grades are mandatory. As for Toms, a 2004-birth-year defenceman, he has a looming future with the Soo Greyhounds as a 2020, third round, OHL priority selections draft pick. • The reputable resolve shown by coach-general manager Kyle Brick of the small market Blind River Beavers was very evident over the course of the COVID-19 affected season. The Beavers ended up with a 9-11-1 record that included a 7-9-1 mark over 17 games with the Soo and a 2-2-0 showing over four other outings against the Rayside Balfour Canadians. Blind River persevered through a number of injuries and suspensions to more than hold its own against a deeper Soo squad and Brick continued to establish himself as a top shelf coach and first rate individual in the manner in which he and his players represented the Beavers and the NOJHL. Among the many Beavers who had memorable moments on the ice — and who can return next season — are goalie Gavin Disano, defencemen Mason Chitaroni, Samuel Davies and Ethan Pegg, and forwards Nick Jameus, Justin Mauro, Blake McNally and Devin Mauro. Of note, Disano, Chitaroni, Jameus and the Mauro brothers are all Sault Ste. Marie products while McNally is a local Blind River lad. And Chitaroni and the Mauro boys are both OHL draft picks who have Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association eligibility. • Coached by hard driven, hard driving, first-year bench boss Brent Hughes, the fresh Espanola Express not only put together an above .500 record of 5-4-3 from eight games against the French River Rapids and four versus the Soo, but the Express did so as the youngest team — by far — in the NOJHL with not a single 2000-birth-year skater on its roster. What is also notable is that Espanola had a number of young, high-end OHL draft picks on its roster who really stood out this season. And the majority of them, led by forwards Cameron Walker (Kingston Frontenacs), Bradley Brunet (Niagara Ice Dogs), Devon Savignac (North Bay Battalion) and Luke Bibby (Owen Sound Attack) have thus far retained their Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association eligibility — and could very well return to Espanola next season. • A duo of Sault Ste. Marie boys with 2001 birth dates, who have been playing together since their minor hockey house league days, became teammates again in Espanola. Not only that, hard working forward Cole Delarosbil and dogged defenseman Jordan Ritchie became valued members of the Express. Both can return to Espanola next season. These are two kids who fall under the description of true team players. • The summer ahead holds out hockey hope for a number of NOJHL players who could find themselves playing for showcase tournament teams coached by Kirkland Lake bench boss Kyle Smart and aforementioned Espanola head master Brent Hughes. What remains to be seen is if an area summer tournament team representing say, players from Sault Ste. Marie and Blind River, will be put together. Given the shortened season and how it affected so many, a summer of on ice games makes so much sense in so many ways as long as it is safe and healthy for all concerned.

Randy Russon 5 days ago Column
Randy Russon column pic
Local Sports

NOJHL gets 'E' for effort; abbreviated season fashioned multiple high notes

It stick handled around the COVID-19 opponent with a careful game plan and by following all the rules. And while not all teams were able to finish what they started, the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League stared down adversity and came away with an ‘E’ for effort in an abbreviated 2020-2021 season. Of the 71 games scheduled for play, only five were called off. And those five were postponed only as precautionary measures. Still, COVID-19 took its toll on a season that finally got underway on Nov. 13, 2020. Nine of the NOJHL’s 12 teams were able to see league action this season, some way more than others. Elliot Lake Wildcats never even hit the ice as they confirmed a leave of absence for this season way back on May 8, 2020. Powassan intended to begin play in November but arena and municipality issues relative to COVID-19 resulted in the Voodoos never getting in a single game. Soo Eagles, based in Michigan, were unable to cross into Ontario because of the ongoing closure of the Canada/United States international border. The Eagles did, however, manage to play 17 exhibition games against American development, junior and college teams. Then, into 2021, the Espanola Express, French River Rapids, Rayside Balfour Canadians, Hearst Lumberjacks and Kirkland Lake Gold Miners all ceased play for the season relative to public health units in their areas as per COVID-19. And when March rolled around, only four teams were left with their skates on — Blind River Beavers and Soo Thunderbirds in one cohort and Cochrane Crunch and Timmins Rock in another. Led by commissioner Rob Mazzuca, the NOJHL showed steely resolve and northern gumption in keeping the season going despite COVID-19 restrictions and public health decisions. All in all, there were high notes aplenty that can be put into the written word. • Timmins Rock franchise forward Derek Seguin will end his splendid NOJHL career in style by hitting the 20-goal plateau and averaging one marker per outing this season. • Seguin’s long-time teammate, Rock star goalie Tyler Masternak, will also depart the NOJHL on a high note with, for the second straight season, a goals against average in the eye-popping area of 1.65. • Despite graduating a price of admission forward in Jacob Kelly, Blind River can look ahead to next season and the anticipated return of building blocks such as goalie Gavin Disano and defenceman Ethan Pegg, who both made huge progress as rookies under Beavers coach and general manager Kyle Brick and his staff. Disano took over as the Beavers No. 1 goalie as a 2003-birth-year rookie and Pegg blossomed in his first NOJHL season as a workhorse warrior with a 2002 birth date. • Thunderbirds of the Sault were a well-coached treat to watch over a season of 20 plus games and high end talent led by goalie Alex Bugeja, defenceman Cameron Dutkiewicz and forward Cooper Smyl. All can return to the T-Birds next season. And 2004-birth-year rookie Connor Toms — an Ontario Hockey League draft pick of the Soo Greyhounds — has plum prospect written all over him. As for Smyl, to be sure, he looms as a potential Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association recruit. • Brothers Jacob Doucette and Tyson Doucette got to play together as Thunderbirds. Jacob, a defenceman, is three years older than Tyson, a forward. The siblings, because of their age difference, had never played on the same team before. • Espanola and French River faced off as cohorts eight times, with each team winning four games. Three of the games went to shootout, with French River winning all three to cap improbable comebacks by coach Paul Frustaglio’s Rapids. • Coached by first-year bench boss Brent Hughes, Espanola not only put together an above .500 record of 5-4-3 from eight games against French River and four versus the Soo, but the Express did so as the youngest team — by far — in the NOJHL with not a single 2000-birth skater on its roster. Espanola had a number of young Ontario Hockey League draft picks on its roster who stood out this season. And the majority of them, led by forwards Cameron Walker (Kingston Frontenacs), Bradley Brunet (Niagara Ice Dogs), Devon Savignac (North Bay Battalion) and Luke Bibby (Owen Sound Attack) have thus far retained their Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association eligibility — and could well return to Espanola next season. • Two Sault Ste. Marie boys with 2001 birth dates, who have been playing together since their minor hockey house league days, became teammates again in Espanola. Not only that, determined forward Cole Delarosbil and sandpaper defenceman Jordan Ritchie became valued members of the Express. Both can return to Espanola next season. These are players who fall under the ‘heart and soul’ category. Meanwhile, the summer ahead holds out hockey hope for a number of NOJHL players who could find themselves playing for showcase tournament teams coached by Kirkland Lake bench boss Kyle Smart and aforementioned Espanola head master Brent Hughes. Hopefully, COVID-19 will be overtaken and leagues like the NOJHL can return to some semblance of normal in the times ahead.

March 30, 2021 Local Sports
Tyson Doucette (right) of the Soo Thunderbirds chases the loose puck as a teammate and a Blind River Beavers opponent collide during recent Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League action at John Rhodes Community Centre. The Thunderbirds and Beavers faced off 17 times as cohort opponents this season. BOB DAVIES/SAULT THIS WEEK
Local Sports

Soo Eagles made most of a trying season as exhibitions filled void

A closed international border prevented Soo Eagles from competing within the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League this season. But the Michigan-based Eagles — the only American team in the 12-member NOJHL — still found a way to play a number of games over the past several months. And Doug Laprade, who is the third-year coach of the Eagles, credits veteran general manager Bruno Bragagnolo for the number of games the team was able to get in. Laprade, a former national championship player and assistant coach with the Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association Lake Superior State Lakers, told Sault This Week the “tireless efforts” of Bragagnolo resulted in the Eagles playing 17 games this season against a variety of opponents, including development, junior and college teams from a number of states, including Michigan. “Bruno was absolutely great,” Laprade said of Bragagnolo, who has been with the Eagles since 2010 and, besides being the GM, is also the team’s president, part owner and chief cook and bottle washer — and one of the best junior A hockey operators in North America. “It would have been easy to pack it in as a team because of COVID-19 and the border closure but with Bruno leading the way, we made it work,” Laprade pointed out. Besides playing in the 17 games, the Eagles were able to practice at their home facility, Pullar Stadium, two hours a day, four times a week, for a good portion of the season. “We made the best we could out of a trying situation … We made good use of our practice time and getting 17 games in helped turn a negative into a positive,” Laprade noted. With the COVID-19 affected season now out of the way, Laprade looks forward to the 2021-2022 campaign when it is hoped the world will be more normal and the international border at Sault Ste. Marie will be open to travel. “We managed to get through this season and our hope now is for a full and safe return to the NOJHL for next season,” said Laprade. “This was a challenging season and I certainly want to acknowledge all of our players who stuck it out. They handled it really well.” The Eagles finished the season with 20 players and Laprade noted that the majority could return for the 2021-2022 campaign. “We only had four 20-year-olds and after conducting our exit interviews, just about every other player besides the graduates gave us a commitment to return for next season,” Laprade confirmed. “Hopefully the border situation will allow us to return to regular season play in the NOJHL for 2021-2022. We will have a good group of kids ready to compete.”

March 30, 2021 Local Sports
Captain Bobby Price and the Soo Eagles in recent exhibition hockey action against the United States National Team Development Program under-17 squad. SPECIAL TO SAULT THIS WEEK

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