NOJHL offers players chance to advance

NOJHL offers players chance to advance

By Keith Dempsey, For The Sudbury Star

Four years into his tenure as commissioner of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League, Robert Mazzuca is tired of hearing about how players from his league don’t get noticed.

“One of the biggest criticism is that we don’t get scouted,” Mazzuca said. “This past year has been the highest number of players moving on to CHL, NCAA, to a higher level. The level of play has gone up, the quality has gone up.” In July, the Junior Hockey News ranked Canadian Junior A hockey leagues. The NOJHL placed sixth, tied with the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. It’s a fair assessment of the NOJHL, as the league is viewed by many around the hockey community as being a leader in player safety and as a league that is helping rule changes for all hockey leagues.

“The rankings were pretty right,” Mazzuca said. “If you look at the NOJHL, we’re smaller, but our numbers are pretty good. They say there’s no scouts, I’d hate to bust their bubble, but 30 kids moved on. Obviously someone saw them. We sent 15 kids to (Ontario Summer Select Showcase) in Cornwall, one kid made it to QMJHL, RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) came up to see Bradley Bell, etc. It’s more of wishful thinking and more myth than anything (that scouts don’t pay much attention to the NOJHL). I’d love to be higher (in the rankings) but we’ll get there.”

And when those 30 players who were promoted and/or committed to higher levels of competition, it came at a time when the league had eight teams. They’ll have nine teams in the 2014-15 season, with the addition of the Elliot Lake Wildcats, who rejoined the NOJHL after Ryan Leonard, owner of the Elliot Lake Bobcats, moved his team to Cochrane and renamed them the Crunch.

“First and foremost, the mayor of Elliot Lake (Rick Hamilton) pushed it,” Mazzuca said. “He made the call to me and inquired as to how Elliot Lake gets a team. He grabbed the ball and led the charge. It’s not only important for us, but important for the town. They had another choice, they could have joined another league, but they didn’t. You look at travel, and from that point it’s important. But for a community like Elliot Lake, it’s good to have a program there.” This season, the Sudbury Nickel Barons, Abitibi Eskimos, Blind River Beavers, Kirkland Lake Gold Miners, Sault Ste. Marie Thunderbirds and Mattawa Blackhawks (formerly the North Bay Trappers), along with the Wildcats, Crunch and the new Powassan Voodoos, who will be affiliated with the OHL’s North Bay Battalion, will make up a nine-team, two-division league. The Nickel Barons, Thunderbirds, Wildcats and Beavers will make up the West Division, while the East will consist of the Voodoos, Blackhawks, Gold Miners, Eskimos and Crunch.

Each team will play 52 games, with overtimes still consisting of four-on-four hockey, then three-on-three if a goal has yet to be scored. A new rule put in place will be the no-change icing, where the team who commits an icing is unable to make a line change. While the NOJHL is gearing up for another season, it’s also preparing to host the Dudley Hewitt Cup in 2016. The Sudbury Cubs, then owned by Bill Scott, were supposed to host the Dudley in 2012-13, but pulled out, causing a headache for the league as it scrambled to find a replacement. The Trappers, then still in North Bay, stepped in and hosted the tournament. This time around, Mazzuca doesn’t see the league running into the same issue.

“Normally you have to beg and ask to get teams to apply,” Mazzuca said, “but this year they’ll be four applicants to host the Dudley, which is pretty good. That’s the competitiveness of the league. That’s the confidence of the organizations.”

And if expansion and hosting duties isn’t keeping Mazzuca busy, he and his league will also have competition this season, as the Canadian International Hockey League, run by Espanola Rivermen owner Tim Clayden, who left the NOJHL and started up his own hockey league due to issues he had with the NOJHL last season, will begin play this fall. That league, so far, consists of eight teams: Greater Sudbury Royals, St. Charles Spirit, the Rivermen, Colborne Hawks, Central Ontario HTI Stars, Milton Battle Arts Cobras, Collingwood Ice and Batchewana Attack.

While the NOJHL’s rules are set by Hockey Canada, allowing six Americans per roster, the CIHL is not governed by Hockey Canada. It allows American and European players, as well as 15-year-old players. And though Clayden has consistently bashed Mazzuca and the NOJHL publicly, Mazzuca, when asked about the CIHL, took the high road.

“Competition never hurts,” Mazzuca said. “Competition makes you better and we’ve been around for a number of years, and competition is good. I wish the other guys luck, they’ve got to do their thing and we’ll do our thing. They’re two different programs and two different models. We’ve got a set of rules we have to follow, we’re part of Hockey Canada, and they follow their own rules.”

In Nickel Barons news, it was announced on Thursday the local entry in the NOJHL has traded Ryan Punkari to the Hamilton Red Wings of the OJHL. Punkari will join former Barons teammate Giovanni Foschia, who was traded there in early July.

Twitter: @keith_dempsey