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The Rob Mazzuca award: NOJHL top stickhandler

A rugged blueliner who accumulated no less than 423 penalty minutes over the course of his three year career with the Sudbury Wolves, NOJHL commissioner Rob Mazzuca was not necessarily known, first and foremost, for his deft stickhandling skills, back in the day.

In his current role, however, in the current climate of hockey, his ability to weave in and out of conversations with various stakeholders has been at the forefront of the return to play that the league enjoyed last weekend.

Suffice to say that getting to this point has not been easy.

"Everything is based on the health and welfare of the players and their community," stated Mazzuca. "As things have progressed and other leagues in other parts of the country are doing whatever they are doing, I've had to explain a few times how the structure within hockey works in Ontario."

While the NOJHL falls under the umbrella of the OHF (Ontario Hockey Federation), the CCHL (Central Canada Hockey League) and the SIJHL (Superior International Junior Hockey League) report to HEO (Hockey Eastern Ontario) and HNO (Hockey Northwestern Ontario) respectively.

Both of those leagues, as well as many other junior loops ranging from British Columbia to the Maritimes, have been on the ice, with game action, for some time now. Yet obtaining OHF approval is but the tip of the iceberg for Mazzuca and company.

Truthfully, it represents only the hockey-specific oversight process.

"Politically, the provinces are in charge of the health portfolio, and you have to respect the decisions each province is making," said Mazzuca. "Every part of the country is different, in terms of new cases."

Time to drill down a little further, a little closer to home.

"I've dealt, almost from the very beginning, with public health," he added. "Whatever they tell me to do is exactly what I do."

That's all fine and dandy, except for the fact that NOJHL franchises cover health units ranging from Algoma, Sudbury, Nipissing, Temiscaming to Porcupine, without even mentioning that each city and town can invoke their own measures with regards to fan capacity and such.

"You are on a rope, being pulled left, being pulled right," acknowledged Mazzuca. "That's where it gets a little frustrating. You have a province like Ontario, with one set of regulations for the entire province from their ministries."

"But then you have, within one province, different interpretations being made by the hockey people."

Just to be clear, the issue of playing a game which does not allow for body checking has not been the hold up for the NOJHL. Mazzuca was crystal clear with his response to the question. Likewise, any limitations on the number of fans being allowed in the venues has not been the reason behind the delays the league has encountered.

While he has always respected the processes that are required in dealing with the pandemic, Mazzuca can be forgiven for looking to parts of the province, parts of the country, where COVID-19 appears to have a much tighter grip, and yet junior hockey moves forward, in some way, shape or form.

"We are up here, in the north, and generally, our (number of) cases have been smaller," he said. "We're fortunate to be more isolated with our population base. I look and see other parts of the province playing games with their numbers, but I still seem to be spending a lot of time that I should not have to spend, given that we should all be running with the same plan, all working together."

All of that said, the former OHL captain is thankful for the unwavering support that he has received from the NOHA, and notably Executive Director Jason Marchand, as well as from all of the NOJHL franchise owners - not to mention his league staff.

With one weekend of play in the books, Mazzuca knows all too well that this situation remains fluid. Working in 30-day cycles, the NOJHL must embrace flexibility. Things that are a given on Friday might be altered substantially by Monday morning.

"It's a learning curve for all of us," said Mazzuca.

Heck, the commissioner can now stickhandle with the best of them.

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