Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Economic downturn takes its toll on SIJHL

The struggling forestry industry has had an affect on several teams of the Northwestern Ontario-based SIJHL.
The league’s six-team circuit initially was reduced to four when the Thunder Bay Bearcats and Schreiber Diesels notified league president Ron Whitehead of their intentions to cease operations at a league meeting earlier this month.

But the Bearcats will be replaced by the K&A Wolverines of the Thunder Bay Junior ‘B’ Hockey League (who won a silver medal at the junior ‘B’ championship Keystone Cup last season), leaving the league with five teams, also including the Fort Frances Jr. Sabres, Fort William North Stars, Dryden Ice Dogs, and Sioux Lookout Flyers, heading into the 2009-10 campaign.
“We’d like to operate with six, but that’s not going to be in the cards for this year,” Whitehead noted. “I’m working with a group out of Spooner, Wis. for an exhibition schedule with the intent of them becoming full-time members next year.”
The Sabres played several exhibition games against those Mustangs last season.
Schreiber hosted the Dudley-Hewitt Cup provincial championship in late April—and had managed to ice a competitive team year-in and year-out despite being the smallest community to have a junior ‘A’ team in Canada.
But since winning the league title in 2007, attendance has declined to the point where they had the third-lowest attendance figures in the league—averaging just 233 fans per home date last season.
“[Attendance] was down but the economy was the main factor there,” Diesels’ president Tom Quinton said. “We had great support for the Dudley and it was very successful, but you don’t have that every year.”
Quinton said the team hasn’t officially folded up shop but admitted the writing certainly is on the wall.
“It sure looks that way but we haven’t made it official yet,” Quinton noted. “It’s completely for financial reasons. We don’t have an owner so we don’t have the financial backing.
“It’s community-run and the pulp mill is down here and the economy has just gone for a poop,” he added. “People have left the community in droves, not that they want to but they’ve had to.”
Quinton said if the forestry industry rebounds, the Diesels wouldn’t hesitate to rejoin the league.
“We’re probably going to be
asking for a leave of absence with the SIJHL, with the hope that if things improve and we can get some money behind us that we’d like to rejoin eventually,” he stressed.
“We certainly like junior ‘A’ hockey and we’ve had a lot of success [on the ice].”
The Bearcats, meanwhile, averaged just 186 fans per game last season despite making several big trades at the deadline in hopes of making a run to the RBC Cup before falling short against the North Stars in the SIJHL final.
Whitehead said Bearcats’ owners Bruce Pye and Mark Mrakic told him they were cutting ties with the league to focus their attention on other business ventures.
As for the remaining teams on the circuit, whether or not any of them are on good financial footing is cause for debate.
“I wouldn’t go that far in today’s economy,” Whitehead said. “I don’t think anybody’s in real good position, but it’s just one of those things.
“You do what you can with what you got,” he lamented.
“We’re going along business as usual,” Sabres’ co-owner Scott Kelloway said. “The only teams that have pulled out were the ones that we already knew were going to, [but] rumours are always flying around.”
The league normally has its schedule out by this time of the summer, but recent events have delayed that process.
“We had a scheduled meeting two weeks ago and obviously had to cancel it when everything started happening,” Whitehead remarked. “I haven’t got around to re-booking, so that’s where we’re at with that.
“We’d like to still have a 50-game schedule, with 25 home and 25 away,” he added.

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