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Local Sports

Sault coach Jim Capy led Blind River to its first winning season in the NOJHL

It was a struggling franchise in need of coaching direction. The early years of the Blind River Beavers in what is the modern day Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League yielded very few victories for the small market franchise. To be sure, the Beavers won just 31 of 178 games over four seasons that began with their debut campaign of 2000-2001. In fact, it was not until the 2004-2005 campaign when coach Jim Capy arrived in Blind River via the Soo Thunderbirds that the Beavers had a winning season. Through its first four seasons in the NOJHL — 2000-2001, 2001-2002, 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 — Blind River was not a preferred destination for players until Beavers general manager Don Lees Jr. brought Capy aboard as coach to begin the 2004-2005 term. Capy had led the aforementioned Soo Thunderbirds to the NOJHL finals in all four seasons at the helm of his hometown team while helping no less than 16 of his players get Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association scholarships. It was Capy’s ability to combine recruiting with coaching that made him attractive to the Beavers after he parted ways with the Thunderbirds. And the then 47-year-old bench boss did not disappoint in his first season in Blind River. “Jim has brought a lot of credibility to us in terms of his contacts and the success he has had,” aforementioned Beavers general manager Don Lees Jr. told Sault This Week at the time. “Jim is a winner. He eats and breathes and sleeps hockey and we’re just so fortunate to have someone like Jim Capy as our coach.” After having posted an abysmal overall record of 31-141-6 in four seasons prior to the arrival of Capy, Blind River became an NOJHL force to be reckoned with in 2004-2005. With a fired-up Capy and even-tempered assistant coach Kevin Cain behind the bench, Blind River finished the 48-game regular season with a record of 27-18-3 and established a fierce rivalry with the big boys from the Soo. Well covered by yours truly and Sault This Week, the Beavers were all of a sudden on the NOJHL map as Capy and Cain made it work in Blind River with a combination of local and area talent as well as American players from four different states. There were two hometown Blind River boys on the Beavers – goalie Brock Lees and forward Darren Rainville. From the Sault area were goalie Kevin King, defenceman Sean O’Dell and forwards Adam Combs, Ken Reid and (heart and soul captain) Billy Schill. And blueliners Lucas Goodall and Shaun Siemers were from the nearby towns of Thessalon and Echo Bay, respectively. From elsewhere came scoring star Thomas Laplante via Ste Foy, Que. as well as a host of American-born imports that included plum defencemen Mike Bernardy, Art Clark and Jeff Wills and high-end forwards Matt Buha, Jake Erway and Jason Wiley. The Beavers first-ever winning season would end in the playoffs with a hotly-contested series loss to coach Toots Kovacs and the Thunderbirds in which the rinks in both Blind River and the Sault were packed for each and every game. All these years later, Blind River is still a big part of the NOJHL and has been enjoying unprecedented franchise success over the past four seasons under current Beavers coach-general manager Kyle Brick. But it was back in 2004-2005 when NOJHL glory first hit the gritty little hockey town of Blind River with the now iconic Capy as the bench boss.

2 days ago Local Sports
Local Sports

Billy The Kid, Bad News Biedermann and former NHL star Reggie Leach made the old Manitoulin Islanders a junior hockey franchise of good repute

They didn’t win many games. But for the most part, they tried hard, worked hard, were entertaining to watch and fun to write about. In short, they were a collection of delightful rogues who played together and stuck together as the Manitoulin Islanders of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League. As mentioned, the Islanders did not have much on-ice success over a six-year run as a small market NOJHL franchise between the 2005-2006 and 2010-2011 seasons. In fact, over the six years, the Islanders won only 36 of 296 regular season games. Yet somehow, the Islanders were a captivating team and I covered them with regularity throughout their six seasons in the NOJHL, writing them up as a freelancer for the Manitoulin Expositor newspaper and what was a Postmedia site known as Osprey Blogs, not to mention doing a number of play by play broadcasts with Ken Hilderley Jr. over the airwaves of the erstwhile likes of Sports Juice and Sports Zeus. At any rate, the Islanders initial season of 2005-2006 was led by coach-general manager Todd Stencill and his trusted assistant, Manitoulin native Lawrence Enosse. On the ice, the Islanders of 2005-2006 featured a multitude of memorable players such as goalie Billy (The Kid) Stone, forwards Jody (Bad News) Biedermann, Curtis (Moose) Johnson, Johnny John-George, Carlo Metatawabin, Corey Metatawabin, Dennis French, Brent Henley, Ken May, Jeff Mussen, Mike Moote, Dan Nadeau, Owen Peltier, Joel Villeneuve and defencemen Tyler Corston-Moore, Mark Baker, Dale Herodier, Anthony Fey and Jeff Maronese. Of note, it was me who pinned the nicknames ‘Billy The Kid’ on the baby-faced Stone and ‘Bad News’ on the fearless, pugilistic Biedermann. And notably, Manitoulin became a junior hockey haven for a number of kids from remote First Nation communities — players such as Biedermann, Johnson, John-George, the Metatawabin lads, Peltier, Corston-Moore, Herodier et al. Anyway, the Islanders of that season managed just 20 points from a record of 8-36-4. But they endured a 25-game win-less streak (in which they lost a dozen games by two goals or less) before extending coach Toots Kovacs and his powerhouse Soo Thunderbirds to five games in what was a hard fought, opening-round playoff series. During the off season, though, the Islanders executive would make a crucial mistake and fire Stencill as the coach and GM. Undaunted, Stencill would pack up, take his assistant coach Enosse with him, and head to Blind River to lead the Beavers to three straight winning seasons. Barry Parsons would take over as coach and general manager of the Islanders and he lasted close to two seasons before giving way to legendary National Hockey League super star Reggie Leach of Philadelphia Flyers and Team Canada scoring fame. The tireless Leach would coach, manage and own the Islanders for parts of three seasons while carrying on the Manitoulin franchise tradition of being a hockey home for First Nation players from near and far. A few words about Leach, a man, who away from hockey, has become a celebrated spokesperson and champion for First Nation peoples across the nation to the extent that he would go on to receive the Order Of Canada. That is, I have never met a more down to earth and friendly pro hockey player than Leach, who has a way of talking to someone who he has just met like he has known them all of their lives. Leach, along with aforementioned Islander coaches Todd Stencill and Lawrence Enosse remain, to this day, three of the absolute best guys I have ever met in 46 years of covering junior hockey. At any rate, with financial support dwindling, Leach sold the Manitoulin franchise after the 2010-2011 season and it was moved to Kirkland Lake, where it still exists as the Gold Miners. Still, I have many good memories of the six years that I wrote about the Islanders on a regular basis. Besides Stencill, Enosse and Leach, I have remained in contact with a number of former Islander players through Facebook and Twitter. The wins were not there but the Islanders forged a memorable run with teams of good repute that worked hard and played hard. And the fact that so many First Nation players were given the opportunity to play for Manitoulin will always speak volumes about the erstwhile NOJHL franchise.

2 days ago Local Sports
Local Sports

NOJHL and life in the lock down

And so, they wait, with any resumption of a season solely in the hands of public health units and the Ontario government. As with the rest of the province as it relates to the amateur level of the game, the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League is in a shutdown state as per the government lock-down. Players on the nine NOJHL teams that were set to resume play this month before the lock-down order was issued have remained together in their respective communities, hopeful and prayerful of a return to play at some point this season. From his end, NOJHL commissioner Robert Mazzuca is also playing the waiting game with various plans in place relative to any potential return to play. One of the possibilities, should the NOJHL be allowed to resume play, would be extending the regular season and playoff schedule into May, pending the co-operation of the various community arenas. At any rate, following are a few “first half” notes relative to the five West Division teams that have seen action. Team records are in brackets. BLIND RIVER (5-3-0, 10 points.) In his fifth season as the successful hockey boss in small market Blind River, Beavers coach and general manager Kyle Brick has once again put together a winning team. And rookie goalie Gavin Disano has been just one of several standouts for the Beavers thus far into the 2020-2021 campaign. A Sault Ste. Marie product with a 2003 birth date, Disano has a 3-0-0 record to go with a .908 save percentage and 3.56 goals against average for Blind River. Then there is the one-two points pair of forwards Noah Minns and Jacob Kelly, a retread who has prior experience in the Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League. Minns is atop the scoring chart with five goals, 14 assists, 19 points and Kelly is right behind with 8-9-17 totals. Also on the impressive list in Blind River is 2004-birth-year rookie forward Devin Mauro. Hailing from Sault Ste. Marie and a 2020 Ontario Hockey League priority selection draft pick of the Sudbury Wolves, Mauro has three goals, eight assists, 11 points in eight games for Blind River. ESPANOLA (4-4-2, 10 points.) The youngest team in the NOJHL, the Express does not have a single 2000-birth-year player on its roster. And Espanola’s top three point producers are all 2003-birth-year forwards from the Sudbury area — and all are OHL priority selection draft picks from 2019. The talented troika is made up of Cameron Walker, Bradley Brunet and Devon Savignac. Walker is the scoring leader with seven goals, five assists, 12 points while Brunet is right there with 5-7-12 numbers and Savignac just behind with 6-5-11 totals. Walker is the OHL property of the Kingston Frontenacs, Brunet belongs to the Niagara Ice Dogs and Savignac is a prospect of the North Bay Battalion. Meanwhile, rather impressively, no less than 18 Espanola players have picked up at least one point this season. SOO THUNDERBIRDS (4-3-1, nine points.) The Soo took three of four closely-contested matches from Espanola before the lock down to move over the .500 mark. A superb story for the Thunderbirds through eight games of the regular season has been the play of 2004-birth-year defenceman Connor Toms, who was a third-round pick of the Soo Greyhounds at the 2020 OHL priority selection draft. From his blue line post and as the youngest player on the Thunderbirds, Toms is the Soo’s scoring leader with two goals, seven assists, nine points. Also among the Thunderbirds top points producers are Cooper Smyl with 4-4-8 totals, Caleb Wood with 3-5-8 numbers, Michael Chaffay at 4-2-6, Avery Rebek at 4-2-6 and 2004-birth-year rookie Tyson Doucette with 3-3-6 stats. Of note, Doucette has already surpassed his goal total of last season when he tallied just twice in 24 games for the Soo Jr. Greyhounds of the Great North Under 18 Hockey League. Meantime, Toms isn’t the only defenceman who has been putting up the points for the T-Birds. Jacob Doucette (who is Tyson’s older brother) and Cameron Dutkiewicz have identical numbers from their defence position, both with two goals, three assists, five points. Between the pipes, Alex Bugeja has proven to be a nice off-season pickup by Thunderbirds general manager Trev Zachary from the Fort Frances Lakers of the Superior International Jr. Hockey League. Bugeja, who has a 2001 birth date, has a 3-1-1 record for the Soo to go with a 2.42 goals against average and an eye-catching .938 save percentage. RAYSIDE BALFOUR (3-6-1, seven points.) After starting the season with a 1-4-1 record in six crossover games with the Timmins Rock of the East Division, the Canadians split four decisions with Blind River. Nick DeGrazia, with seven goals, eight assists, 15 points, and Owen Perala, with 7-4-11 totals, have been lighting it up for Rayside Balfour through 10 games of the regular season. DeGrazia, who has a December, 2002 birth date, has been tabbed as a prospect for the 2021 National Hockey League draft. Which not only speaks volumes about DeGrazia but the NOJHL as a league and Rayside Balfour as a program. What is interesting is that, in some corners, the Sudbury Wolves of the OHL are trying to take credit for DeGrazia’s ranking with NHL Central Scouting. But the fact of the matter is that DeGrazia has played in only four OHL career games with the Wolves. Meanwhile, also contributing in a big way for the Canadians thus far this season has been another veteran forward in Brady Maltais, who has three goals, eight assists, 11 points. And the Canadians have a tidy one-two tandem between the pipes in proven veteran David Bowen and rookie Jake Marois. FRENCH RIVER (3-3-0, six points.) The Rapids have played the fewest games of any squad in the West Division. French River boasts five players who are averaging more than a point per game through the Rapids six outings. Levi Siau is leading the French River points post with four goals, nine assists, 13 points. Following Siau are fellow forwards Ryan Smith with 3-6-9 totals, Ty Chambers at 3-5-8, Jack Tos with 2-6-8 numbers and Griffin Simpson with 3-4-7 stats.

2 days ago Local Sports
Column

AIDAN DOES IT THE WRIGHT WAY 

He is one of the really good guys of the Sault Ste. Marie amateur hockey scene.  In fact, he is just a really good guy, period.  As a player, Aidan Wright was a steady, stay-at-home defenceman who took a long and winding road from the Sault and back again to play four full seasons of hockey at the Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association level.  To be sure, Wright played the game the right way.  And for him, playing the game ended in graduation in the spring of 2018 after four seasons with the Lake Superior State University Lakers of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.  An All-American scholar for his work in the classroom, Wright graduated from Lake Superior State a few years back with a degree in Fire Sciences.  And Wright, who will turn 28 next month, now works in his chosen field with Sault Ste. Marie Fire Services. He has also remained in the game he loves as a first-year assistant coach with the Soo Thunderbirds of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.  I was able to catch up with Wright following a recent edition of the Hockey North Show that I host on local radio station Eagle 95.1. And the kid who I first wrote about when he was playing for the Soo North Stars of the Great North Midget Hockey League about a dozen years ago has not changed much.  He is still the same friendly, personable, down-to-earth person. Just talking to him for a few minutes and it is evident that he carries the work ethic, character and good attitude that made him a good student and an overachieving hockey player.  Wright, who was born in Wawa and lived there until his family moved to Sault Ste. Marie during his minor hockey days, took a roundabout route to make it back home and play for Lake Superior State.  Never drafted into the Ontario Hockey League, Wright left home as a 17-year-old to play for the Kingston Voyageurs of the Ontario Jr. Hockey League. He played three seasons for Kingston before heading west to finish his junior career with the Powell River Kings of the British Columbia Hockey League.  And it was from playing the one season out in B.C. that caught the attention of Lake Superior State, which brought Wright home to play for the Lakers as a walk-on freshman.  From freshman to sophomore to junior to senior, Wright stuck it for four years of hockey at Lake Superior State, playing 144 games in total for a Lakers team that posted a lowly record of 43-90-18 under coach Damon Whitten during that span.  At any rate, as Wright has settled into the working world as a member of the fire department with a university degree and an always positive outlook on life, he remains a good example of a solid hockey player who went to great lengths to be successful as a classic overachiever.  Simply put, he continues to do things the Wright way — as a local firefighter and as an assistant coach with the junior hockey Thunderbirds.

Randy Russon 2 days ago Column
Local Sports

NOJHL NOTES: Players on the move

As the Powassan Voodoos have officially opted to take a leave of absence from the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League, players on their roster are free to sign with other teams for the remainder of the 2020-2021 season. One such player is Jackson Buffam, a highly regarded forward with a December, 2002 birth date who signed with Powassan prior to the start of the current ’20-21 campaign after three productive seasons with the New Liskeard Cubs of the Great North Under 18 Hockey League. And Sault This Week has confirmed that Buffam has signed with the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners of the NOJHL. Hailing from the venerable northeastern Ontario town of Cobalt, the 5-foot-10, 150-pound Buffam was a big player for New Liskeard in a three-year career that ended with him being captain of the Great North U-18 team. In all, Buffam suited up in 102 regular season games for New Liskeard and produced 39 goals, 58 assists, 97 points for head coach Steve Polyblank’s Cubs. Now, in heading to Kirkland Lake of the NOJHL via Powassan — the Voodoos had little choice but to vacate the 2020-2021 season as they could not access their home arena relative to COVID-19 — Buffam joins a Gold Miners team that has a record of 3-2-0 in five outings to date. Kirkland Lake got a later start to the 2020-2021 season than the other eight NOJHL teams that are active because of its own arena restrictions. ••• The holiday embargo on player transactions in the NOJHL has been lifted. And Sault This Week has confirmed that Timmins Rock has traded 2003-birth-year defenceman Chris Innes to the Rayside Balfour Canadians in a cash exchange. The six-foot, 180-pound defender had suited up for just three games for Timmins this 2020-2021 NOJHL season and had one assist. Prior, Innes played in 10 NOJHL games in 2019-2020 — one with Timmins and nine with the Cochrane Crunch — after being a 12th round pick of the Sarnia Sting at the 2019 Ontario Hockey League priority selection draft. He spent most of the 2019-2020 season with the Sudbury Nickel Capital Wolves of the Great North Under 18 Hockey League where he produced four goals, 21 assists, 25 points in 31 games. Innes originally hails from Moose Factory, Ont. “We are very fortunate to acquire a young skilled defenceman of Chris’s ability at this key point of the season,” relayed Rayside general manager Jeff Forsyth. “We look forward to providing Chris with the opportunity to develop his skills with us this season. “It is always great to add a player of Chris’s abilities and we are confident that he will fit in very well with our young core group of talented players that we have here in Rayside,” Forsyth added.

January 12, 2021 Local Sports
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