SUDBURY, Ont. – Throughout the lengthy and storied past of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League, no one has seen or played a more prevalent role in it than its long-time statistician and historian David Harrison.
From being around in its infancy, to still providing vital information on the league to this day, Harrison has seen just about everything related to it.
This look at the history of the NOJHL, as recalled by Harrison, offers his insight on it, including some of its tops teams and players.
THE EARLY YEARS
The first-ever meeting of the then Northern Ontario Hockey Association was held in Espanola nearly 58 years ago, on July 29, 1962 and Harrison was there.
“I started off as the representative of the Sudbury Star for the first few meetings, as I had been employed by them as the sports reporter for Espanola,” he offered.
Less than a decade removed from emigrating to Canada from England in 1953, where he had no contact with the game, he was soon to commence a long-lasting tenure in Jr. A hockey.
“I didn’t know a hockey puck from a cow puck when I arrived here,” Harrison quipped amusingly.
“I had never been in an arena, skated, or even watched hockey, but probably what got me interested in local sports was attending Espanola High School and getting involved with sports from the sidelines, as at the time, I was recovering from losing sight in my left eye from a fireworks accident when I was 11-years-old.”
Prior to the start of the NOHA’s new junior hockey loop and under doctor’s advice not to play any sports because of the risks involved to his eyesight, it was there that Harrison involvement in the game began.
“I had been involved fairly heavily with the Espanola Lions Juveniles prior to the league beginning.”
The arrival of an eventual NOJHL icon in the late 1950s also spurned Harrison’s curiosity and attention to hockey.
“Red McCarthy came to Espanola in 1958 and from that point on my interest in sports increased and later on, the Star job came along.”
Back on that late July afternoon in 1962 a gathering at the Espanola Hotel saw the groundwork begin to laid for the fledgling league.
Those in attendance at the inaugural get together were the following:
Chairman: Red Venturi (NOHA VP)
Acting secretary: Mirl ‘Red’ McCarthy
NOHA president: Jim Aspin
NOHA vice-president: Red Maltby
NOHA representatives: Jim Crosby, Al Duncan, Jim Kelly
Others: Pete Palangio; Harvie Parke; Max Silverman; Leo Gasparini; Melvin Cryderman; Trevor Boyce; Hec Pozzo; Angelo Bumbacco; Bob Thomlinson; Floyd Bernier; Charles Autore; Jim Olford; John Campbell; Greg Douglas; John Rhodes; W.E.Ross; Dr. Prokop; Phil Suraci.
Press: Paul Leonard (CKCY – Sault Ste. Marie); CJNR – Blind River; Paul Patton (Sudbury Star); Dave Harrison (Espanola for Sudbury Star)
Through this opening meeting and subsequent others throughout that summer, the league would have six member clubs for its first season:
North Bay Trappers
Garson-Falconbridge Native Sons
Soo Michigan Realtors
From the onset, the league did a solid job of keeping track of statistics.
“They hired Peter Handley as the league statistician for the first 10 years,” said Harrison.
“I really got involved with him and there was nobody better to learn from.”
A 40-game regular season saw the Greyhounds from Sault Ste. Marie finish on top with a league-best 28-11-1 mark.
However, they would get upset in the playoffs and it ended up having second place Espanola and No. 3 North Bay advancing to the finals.
There, it was the Eagles who would hoist the first-ever championship trophy led by league-leading scorer Ron Allain, a 77-point man.
From there, northern Ontario’s junior hockey provided well balanced competition for its first decade.
LEAGUE CHAMPIONS (The first decade)
1962-63: Espanola Eagles
1963-64: North Bay Trappers
1964-65: Garson-Falconbridge Native Sons
1965-66: North Bay Trappers
1966-67: Soo Greyhounds
1967-68: North Bay Trappers
1968-69: Sudbury Wolves
1969-70: Soo Greyhounds
1970-71: Sudbury Wolves
1971-72: Soo Greyhounds
With Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie skating as the league’s elite sides the final four seasons of its opening decade, both the Wolves and Greyhounds opted to join the major junior hockey ranks in Ontario, thus sending the NOJHL into a hiatus.
“At the end of the first 10 years and the folding of the league when the Sault and Sudbury went to the OHA Junior A League and North Bay went to the south, the remaining teams formed a Junior B League for five years,” stated Harrison.
Returning in 1978-79, the NOJHL hit the ice once again, featuring six sides.
Nickel Centre Native Sons
Onaping Falls Huskies
Keeping track of the numbers would soon fall into the hands of Harrison, who also boasted a prolonged statistical stint with the Ontario Hockey League’s Sudbury Wolves.
“I was the only one around with stats experience at the time, he provided. “I learned well from Peter Handley.”
LEAGUE CHAMPIONS (1979-1994)
1978-79: Nickel Centre Native Sons
1979-80: Onaping Falls Huskies
1980-81: Onaping Falls Huskies
1981-82: Onaping Falls Huskies
1982-83: Elliot Lake Vikings
1983-84: Rayside-Balfour Canadians
1984-85: Sudbury Cubs
1985-86: Onaping Falls Huskies
1986-87: Nickel Centre Power Trains
1987-88: Sudbury Cubs
1988-89: Sudbury Cubs
1989-90: Sudbury Cubs
1990-91: Sudbury Cubs
1991-92: Powassan Hawks
1992-93: Powassan Hawks
1993-94: Powassan Hawks
Things really took off for Harrison with a more permanent involvement in the NOJHL back in 1994 when Joe Drago was appointed the league’s first-ever commissioner.
“When I became commissioner of the league, I knew what a knack and skill Dave had for numbers and keeping accurate records,” said Drago.
“I approached him to become the official statistician for our league. He agreed and has done a remarkable job for so many years,” added the long-time hockey man and former Chair of Hockey Canada.
All the while, Harrison’s efforts did not go unnoticed.
“I often received compliments from other clubs and organizations about our stats. I salute Dave and always recognize how he made the organization stand out, summarized Drago.
LEAGUE CHAMPIONS (1995-2009)
1994-95: Timmins Golden Bears
1995-96: Rayside-Balfour Sabrecats
1996-97: Rayside-Balfour Sabrecats
1997-98: Rayside-Balfour Sabrecats
1998-99: Rayside-Balfour Sabrecats
1999-00: Rayside-Balfour Sabrecats
2000-01: Rayside-Balfour Sabrecats
2001-02: Rayside-Balfour Sabrecats
2002-03: North Bay Skyhawks
2003-04: North Bay Skyhawks
2004-05: North Bay Skyhawks
2005-06: Sudbury Northern Wolves
2006-07: Soo Indians
2007-08: Sudbury Jr. Wolves
2008-09: Soo Thunderbirds
Having seen and kept statistical records of hundreds and hundreds of NOJHL players over the decades, there aren’t too many he wouldn’t be able to give some sort of account of.
When queried about some of the best, Harrison gave some insight.
“To me, there were many excellent players that came through the different versions of the league,” he beamed. “Many going on to the National Hockey League and the NCAA too.”
Here’s a glance of some of his NOJHL standouts:
As you look at the early 10 years of the league, there was Tony Esposito (Hockey Hall of Fame Honoured Member) who tended nets for the Soo, Michigan team in the first season. There was also Billy White and Don Muio of the Soo Greyhounds as well as Gaye Cooley, Andre Lalande and Bob Dupuis of the North Bay Trappers.
More recently, a goalie that has really stood out over the past few years and will be returning for his final season this year is Tyler Masternak of the Timmins Rock. He has amassed 16 shutouts in 98 games and recorded a 1.66 goals-against average this past season.
Back on the blueline, the Espanola Eagles had Jim Currie, Wayne Lachance and Don McCulloch. Wayne McQuaig and Roger Wilson led the way in Sudbury as did Ab Demarco Jr., Sheldon Kannegeiser and Ron Burman in North Bay.
Ron Allain of the Espanola Eagles won the league’s first scoring race. Randy Prior and Marty Reynolds were good for the North Bay Trappers. Former NHLer Wayne Maki, Bob Smith, Bob Tombari and Lloyd Bentley were solid with the Soo Greyhounds. So were Al Blanchard, Bill Buba and Bobby Leduc of Sudbury Wolves.”
“When the league returned in the 1978-79 season to Junior A status a whole new group of players emerged.
Bryan Verreault of the Rayside-Balfour Canadians is the all-time league scoring champion with 409 points in 198 games, including 172 goals.
Shawn Dubois, who played with the Elliot Lake and Sudbury clubs in the 1986-90 years, recorded 155 goals in 108 regular season games.
Harrison has also witnessed his fair share of quality teams over the decades.
None more outstanding than the powerhouse Rayside-Balfour Sabrecats.
“I think the most amazing team throughout the 52 seasons of the NOJHL was the Rayside-Balfour Sabrecats,” he proclaimed.
“They had such a great run of 10 years beginning in 1995-96 where they won seven consecutive league and playoff championships, highlighted with a perfect 40-0-0 record in 1999-2000.”
“They were a great team to watch on the ice, but not too good for the opponents however. In their 10 years they averaged over six goals a game.”
As the master of all NOJHL numbers, the very personable Harrison sees some records that might never be broken.
“The eight shutouts registered by Tyler Masternak of the Timmins Rock in 2019-20 is one record that I think will stand for quite awhile. Plus, his 16 career shutouts to date is going to be tough to beat.”
Scoring wise, the league’s best totals posted should also be difficult to surpass.
“Bryan Verreault’s 409 points for a career mark with Rayside-Balfour will also be tough to match, or better,” he mentioned.
“Some of the single-game records in the earlier years will also be really tough to beat. Eight goals in a game by Mark Lafraniere (Rayside-Balfour). 15 assists and 19 points in a game by John Stos (Rayside-Balfour).
Those wide-open days are not around anymore.”
While many nights have been spent compiling and producing a plethora of statistics, it’s not the thing that stands out the most in his lengthy tenure associated with the NOJHL.
“The friendships that I have gained in hockey over the years tops the list,” Harrison stated firmly.
“It has been really interesting tracking the careers, both on and off the ice, of players who have played in the league over the years too. I would spend hours after the end of each season finding out where the players moved on to and their individual records whether it was to another junior league, Canadian universities, NCAA or to the pros. It was an interesting exercise.”
The decades-long association with the NOJHL has not gone unnoticed by the league itself.
“There is without a doubt, no person who has played a more prominent role in our league throughout the years than Dave Harrison,” commented NOJHL commissioner Robert Mazzuca.
“Just imagine. Having been there in person when the league was initially formed back in 1962 to still providing valued statistical information to this day, is simply amazing,” Mazzuca added about the individual who has the league’s Most Gentlemanly Player award named in his honour, which remains a very special honour for Harrison.
“There is no person more synonymous with the NOJHL than Dave Harrison.”
While having cut back some of his previous duties within the league, he does like where the league continues to be headed.
“I think the league has come a long way under the guidance of Robert Mazzucca and it looks promising in the years to come.”
“Teams will come and go, as they have in the past, but I think there is a strong group of teams that will be around for a long time.”
Those clubs, past and present, owe a deep measure of gratitude and appreciation to the kid from England, with no hockey knowledge at the time, who arrived in northern Ontario all those many years ago.
LEAGUE CHAMPIONS (2010-2019)
2009-10: Abitibi Eskimos
2010-11: Soo Eagles
2011-12: Soo Thunderbirds
2012-13: North Bay Trappers
2013-14: Kirkland Lake Gold Miners
2014-15: Soo Thunderbirds
2015-16: Soo Thunderbirds
2016-17: Powassan Voodoos
2017-18: Cochrane Crunch
2018-19: Hearst Lumberjacks
2019-20: No winner due to COVID-19 pandemic