In the wild west Ontario town of Thunder Bay, four junior hockey teams are battling for the prized Dudley Hewitt Cup.
In the Battle of Michigan, two junior hockey teams are ready to face off for the North American Hockey League's North Division crown.
Just about everyone who I have talked to -- those who have knowledge of the situation -- have Soo Thunderbirds of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League picked as the favourite to win the four-team, Dudley Hewitt Cup, Central Canada, Jr. A Hockey Championships that are being held in Thunder Bay this week.
The Soo, along with the Ontario Jr. Hockey League champion Stouffville Spirit, the Superior International Jr. Hockey League champion Wisconsin Wilderness, and the Thunder Bay North Stars, who are the host entry, are the four teams vying to win the Dudley Hewitt Cup.
To be sure, the Thunderbirds are a veteran-laden, well-assembled, full-of-talent, team. I've been covering the NOJHL for a while now and the Thunderbirds are the best all-round team I have seen in years.
The Thunderbirds top two forwards -- Micky Sartoretto and Matt Amadio -- are both in their fifth season of junior hockey. Besides two seasons in the NOJHL -- as a 16-year old and now as a 20-year old -- Sartoretto played three full years in the Ontario Hockey League with first the Kitchener Rangers, then the Saginaw Spirit.
Amadio, who is in his second tour of duty with the Thunderbirds, has been a high-level performer in three different Ontario junior leagues.
Thunderbirds also have a 20-year old goalie in Sterling Heights, Mich. product John Kleinhans who, quite simply, was the NOJHL's best goalie during this 2011-12 season.
Then there's 19-year old blueliner Corey Jackson, who was named the league's best defenceman. Jackson is former OHL draft pick and could well finish out his junior career in the North American Hockey League next season as he pursues a Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association scholarship.
WIN A CHAMPIONSHIP, LOSE A REPUTATION
While they are the NOJHL's best team by a clear-cut margin, a lack of off-ice discipline has fans and supporters in Sault Ste. Marie talking about the Thunderbirds for all the wrong reasons.
The NOJHL has hired a third-party, independent investigator -- a retired Ontario Provincial Police officer no less -- to investigate reports of alleged off-ice misconduct involving members of the Thunderbird organization.
I have heard from parents about the off-ice stories involving the Thunderbirds. In fact, I told Thunderbird general manager Kevin Cain about what I had heard and basically, he dismissed me.
To me, Cain seems of the notion that underage drinking by his players "is no big deal."
I beg to differ.
Underage drinking is against the law and anyone who provides an underage person with alcohol is guilty of a criminal offence.
I am not saying Cain provided underage players with alcohol. In fact, Cain himself rarely drinks.
But if he knew his players were drinking underage with adult members of the organization and did nothing to stop it, then Cain has failed as a person of authority entrusted with the well being of young men.
Cain did a fabulous job of putting together a championship team for the Thunderbirds this season. But at what cost to the reputation of the organization?
Right now, the good reputation of the Thunderbirds and their ownership is taking a beating in Sault Ste. Marie.
All I can say is those in a position of authority with the Thunderbirds need to address the team's tattered reputation at some point.
Win a championship, lose a reputation.
FIGHTING FALCONS V. JR. K-WINGS
Port Huron Fighting Falcons and Kalamazoo Jr. K-Wings will begin play on Friday in a best-of-five series for the NAHL North Division title.
Port Huron and Kalamazoo finished 1-2 in the NAHL North during the regular season so perhaps it's fitting that the two teams are meeting to decide a berth at the Robertson Cup National Tournament, which will feature the league's five division playoff champions and the host entry.
Only a single point separated the Fighting Falcons and Jr. K-Wings during the 2011-12 regular season, so one would expect a close playoff between the two teams.
I talked to Fighting Falcons coach-general manager Bill Warren and Jr. K-Wings headmaster Marc Fakler and both told me pretty much the same thing.
"We've won big games in their rink and they've won big games in our rink. We are very-closely matched," said Warren.
"I expect a tight series," chipped in Fakler. "There have been a lot of close games between the two teams."
I'll have more on the upcoming series later in the week.