Fans may not know it these days, but the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League got its start in Espanola.
The league celebrates its 60th anniversary this week and almost from the start, Espanola’s David Harrison, longtime reporter, presenter and historian, has been on hand.
He says 60 years ago, on Sunday January 29, 1962, the very first league meeting took place at the old Espanola Hotel.
This was followed by the first game in Sault Ste. Marie on Saturday October 27, 1962, between Espanola and the Soo.
He adds that despite COVID, it’s a time to celebrate and wishes all 12 teams a dynamic conclusion to their 2021-22 season.
Harrison says the league was formed through a trio of other subsequent meetings.
Six clubs took to the ice in that first season, including the following: Espanola Eagles; Garson-Falconbridge native sons; North Bay trappers; Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds; Sault Michigan Realtors and the Sudbury Wolves.
“The league was a success in most places because before 1962 there was only youth hockey,” Harrison recalled of the early days of the NOJHL.
The game began on Saturday, October 27, 1962 at the Sault Memorial Gardens with the Greyhounds hosting the Eagles.
That duel remained scoreless for two periods, thanks in large part to Soo’s Tony Esposito’s goaltenders as the later Hockey Hall of Fame inductee kept his side ahead despite his 24-12 miss after 40 minutes.
Early in the final frame, the Greyhounds’ George Kosteniuk scored the first goal in NOJHL history, 1:40 into the third half when he defeated Eagles goaltender Steve Dubowsky.
The Eagles would eventually untie Esposito a little over two minutes later through a Terry Thompson try.
However, Bobby Orazietti clinched the game winner for the home side with 8:25 left when they rebounded from a Jean Thivierge slapshot as the Hounds ran away with the win to earn their first triumph of the league game.
Esposito finished with 36 saves and was named the game’s first star, while Espanola’s Orazietti and Ron Allain were awarded second and third stars, respectively.
Allain eventually became the league’s top scorer and won MVP laurels.
Aided by their goaltender’s outstanding play, the Greyhounds topped the table and won 11 straight games to finish six points ahead of the Eagles and secure the regular-season title.
“The Greyhounds finished first in the league and were stopped by Tony Esposito,” says Harrison. “He played all 40 regular-season games that year and finished with 28 wins, one draw and 11 losses with 2.60 goals against average and four shutouts.”
In the playoffs, however, the Soo was upset by North Bay in a streak that went the distance, with the guest trappers winning the finals 4-2 in front of over 4,200 fans.
The other division’s semifinals were a tough affair, with Espanola eventually defeating Garson-Falconbridge.
In the League One Finals, it was only the Eagles as they mastered North Bay in at least four games to win the inaugural NOJHL championship.
“Espanola had a strong team that first season thanks to the local kids who had climbed the ranks and had good success in the years leading up to Jr. A,” Harrison recalled. “Many of these players who played the league’s first year had previously won two NOHA titles and emerged as league champions.”
The Eagles, led by the legendary Mirl (Red) McCarthy and with the NOJHL Coach of the Year award named in his honor, would then beat the Timmins Flyers 6-2, 11-4 back-to-back -of-three- Set to claim the Northern Ontario Hockey Association Jr. A crown.
That earned them a 1963 Eastern Canadian Jr. berth. A final against a talented Niagara Falls Flyers team.
Niagara Falls won the series in four straight games before finally losing in six games to the Edmonton Oil Kings in the Memorial Cup Championship Series.
“I remember the Espanola – Niagara Falls series,” says Harrison. “While the games in the South were very one-sided, this was not the case when they were played at Sudbury Arena and Espanola.”
Game 1, held in Sudbury, saw a crowd of 3,500 watch the action, while 1,850 adoring fans flocked to the Espanola venue for Game 2 before the series headed south.
Looking further back at the league’s early days, Harrison recalls, “There were big crowds in those early years. I look back on those days and it was mostly a local player league. There were restrictions on where teams could get players and it resulted in a lot of great viewers because the players were playing in front of a lot of friends and family.”
Now, 60 years later, the youngest tribe of players in the league eagerly awaits their chance to make their mark in the annals of NOJHL history.
1962-63 NOJHL PRIZE WINNER
Regular Season Winner: Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Playoff Champion: Espanola Eagles
Best Player: Ron Allain, Espanola Eagles
Best Goalkeeper (best goals vs. average): Tony Esposito, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Leading Scorer: Ron Allain, Espanola Eagles
Freshman of the Year: Rollie King, Soo Michigan Realtors
Coach of the Year: Mirl (Red) McCarthy, Espanola Eagles
Photos: A young Mirl McCarthy, Official Espanola Eagles Programs and Mirl McCarthy, co-founder of Ringette and instrumental in the development of hockey in Northern Ontario – Photos from NOJHL – Eagles Archives and Sault Star’s first official NOJHL game.