The tried, tested and true Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League begins the 2012-13 regular season with seven teams, having seen the Michigan-based Soo Eagles depart for the North American Hockey League while adding the Elliot Lake Bobcats from the Greater Metro Jr. Hockey League.
Elliot Lake joins its North Shore neighbours, the Blind River Beavers, along with Soo Thunderbirds, Sudbury Nickel Barons, North Bay Trappers, Abitibi Eskimos and Kirkland Lake Gold Miners in forming a sweet seven setup.
All seven teams will play one another eight times for a 48-game, regular-season schedule. All teams will make the playoffs with the first-place finisher getting an opening-round bye.
The defending champions from the Soo have reloaded and along with North Bay, are expected to wage war for first place, at least in the minds of most NOJHL insiders with an educated guess.
Thunderbirds have a new head coach in long-time NOJHL assistant Warren Lavoy while Tom McCarthy returns for a second season as bench boss of the Trappers, who are now led by chairman of the board and director of operations Tim Clayden. The no-nonsense Clayden returns to North Bay and the NOJHL after several seasons as a power-broker in the rival Ontario Jr. Hockey League.
In Sudbury, there is new ownership and a new name. Michael Mooney replaces Bill Scott as owner and has changed the name of Sudbury's NOJHL team from Cubs to Nickel Barons. Dave Clancy, who has NOJHL championships on his resume from when Sudbury was called the Jr. Wolves, returns to the NOJHL as coach of the Nickel Barons. Long-time Ontario Hockey League scout Oscar Clouthier also returns to his NOJHL roots as general manager of the Nickel Barons.
Up in Iroquois Falls, hometown favourite Paul Gagne is back for his 12th season as coach-general manager of Abitibi Eskimos. Along with North Bay's McCarthy, Gagne is the NOJHL's only holdover coach.
In nearby Kirkland Lake, former Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League assistant Marc Lafleur heads to the Mile of Gold as coach-general manager. Kirkland Lake and Abitibi figure to form a rivalry that should match the intensity of Elliot Lake v. Blind River.
Ryan Leonard leads the Elliot Lake entry as owner-coach-general manager. Leonard will be assisted behind the bench by Todd Stencill, who has four years of experience as an NOJHL head coach, three with Blind River and one with the erstwhile Manitoulin Islanders.
Blind River has a new hockey department. Former assistant coach Rusty Joncas is now the GM while Doug McEwen is the Beavers first-year bench boss.
Based on a number of factors and conversations, here is my predicted order of finish for the NOJHL's seven teams:
1. North Bay 2. Soo 3. Kirkland Lake 4. Sudbury 5. Abitibi 6. Elliot Lake 7. Blind River.