Wednesday, July 02, 2008

NOJHL Soo rivalry ready to resume

RR Media Service

Paul Theriault can barely contain his excitement that junior hockey has returned to the Michigan Soo, specifically venerable Pullar Stadium.

And the fact that it revisits a crossborder rivalry with the Soo Thunderbirds is merely a bonus.

"There's a lot of excitement about this team already," Theriault said of the Soo Eagles, an expansion franchise that will debut in the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League this coming '08-09 season.

Theriault noted that a recent tryout camp for the Eagles drew several hundred interested spectators.

Hoping to succeed in a town where the Northern Michigan Black Bears couldn't make a go of it as recent as the 2005-06 season and where the Soo Indians had little fan interest during the 2006-07 campaign despite winning the NOJHL title, Theriault is cautiously confident that a move from Big Bear Arena to the downtown Pullar will result in better support for the Eagles.

"The Pullar is the ideal rink for junior hockey," said Theriault. "You can hear everything, you can see everything and the ice is very fast."

No stranger to the junior game on either side of the St. Mary's River, Theriault coached the old Soo Indians of the erstwhile International Junior Hockey League during the mid-1970s.

"We were well supported at the Pullar then and I see no reason why we won't be now," said the 58-year old Theriault, who has had success as a head coach with the Soo Greyhounds, Oshawa Generals and Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League and with pro teams in Germany, Italy and Japan.

Theriault also feels that stable ownership led by Michigan Soo native Greg Eagle along with corporate sponsors already on board and an "eager volunteer base committed to helping out" will make the Eagles a viable franchise.

"I'm just one of many who are willing to work hard to try to make this work," added Theriault, who was born on the Canadian side of the St. Mary's River, but has owned a home in the Brimley, Mich. area for many years.

As the Eagles' head coach, Theriault has thus far signed 17 players for the 2008-09 season, including centre Jason Johnson, who skated with the AAA midget Soo Indians during the 2007-08 term.

"Hopefully Jason will be the first of many local kids who'll play for the Eagles," noted Theriault, who said he hopes to assist with the development of the Michigan Soo minor hockey program.

Meantime, Theriault who has added veteran Michigan Soo minor hockey coach David Guisbert as an assistant, said Isaac McKechnie will be the Eagles' administrator with George Nesom performing the duties of manager.

The well-travelled Theriault said he has made a two-year commitment to the Eagles and "after that, we'll see where we are. We did a lot of work over the winter to get ready for this and overcame a lot of obstacles thanks to the efforts of Isaac and others. There's more work ahead, but I'm as excited as I've been about hockey in a long time."

Theriault said that not only is he enthused about coaching junior hockey in the Michigan Soo again but he's looking ahead to the crossriver rivalry with the Thunderbirds.

"I think that will be great for the league and for both teams," he stated emphatically. "I don't need to tell you about the intense rivalry there's been over the years with junior and senior teams from the two Soos."

Meantime, Thunderbirds' general manager Al Jones is eagerly anticipating the return of the Michigan Soo to the NOJHL.

"As an organization, we're pretty thrilled," said Jones. "Hopefully the rivalry will put more fans in both rinks. With Paul at the helm, the Soo Eagles will be a well-coached team."

Neither Jones or Theriault will have to wait long to establish the latest Twin Soo rivalry once the 2008-09 regular season starts. The Thunderbirds will play host to the Eagles on Sat. Sept. 13 at John Rhodes Community Centre. And on Wed. Sept. 17, the Eagles will entertain the Thunderbirds in their Pullar Stadium home opener.

"I can't wait to get started," Theriault concluded.

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