After a season shortened by the pandemic and a team picking up the pieces after a coaching controversy, a familiar hand has come back to town hoping to help right the ship.
Dave Allison loves the Rainy River District. He has a cabin on an island in the lake so when he was given the opportunity to stay in the place he loves so much and coach hockey as he’s been doing for over 30 years, he felt it was time to come home.
“I’m excited about it,” Allison said. “Rainy Lake is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and the cabin I have, I go back and forth every day. We’ve all been lots of places but this is my hometown and if I can make it work (I want to).”
The area and his family are two of the biggest attractors for him.
“I love the area, I love the lake, I’ve got a brother and two sisters here and I love them,” Allison said. “I’ve got friends here and I love the area. I love that I get to be closer to my own kids.”
He loves the idea of being back in a smaller town coaching hockey after being away so much because of how hockey unites the community.
“The board and the group that we have is wonderful,” Allison said. “Nick Beyak, what he’s done for this group and this community, and there’s others. This is the fabric of what keeps small towns connected in the wintertime. Friday, Saturday you go to the game, you cheer the home team on, it’s something to do, it brings people together.”
Allison has been coaching since the 1990s after a playing career that saw him bounce around minor pro hockey. He’s coached at a variety of levels, including in the ECHL, OHL, AHL and the NHL with the Ottawa Senators. His last stint in Fort Frances was as coach of the now-defunct Borderland Thunder.
Lakers president Gary Silander says it’s nice to bring in someone local after the issues of last year.
In January the Fort Frances Lakers suspended head coach Bernie Lynch for inappropriate texts and emails to a Lakers player. Lynch was subsequently fired following an investigation. Lynch has since been charged with sexual assault and assault in SK. None of the allegations against Lynch have been proven in court. His next court date is Sept. 24, in Regina.
After Lynch’s suspension, Ron MacKinnon was appointed interim head coach until the season was suspended in the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It fell right into place after our issues last winter,” Silander said. “It was nice to have a local guy with the talent, connections and contacts that could fit right into what we were looking for. It’s really benefiting us in the long run.”
As they prepare for the season, Allison says his primary goal is to see players develop. Following the trying times of the last couple of years, the staff is starting from nothing to build a team to play this year.
Allison says that It’s been a bit of a hard time getting a full team together as other teams in the league are still building theirs as well, but he feels the core group of players that are together now is a good starting point and other players will trickle down as teams finalize rosters.
“I really like the character of the nucleus that we do have and I think our goaltending is solid,” Allison said.
When asked what style of play he hopes the team can put together this year Allison says he doesn’t want to complicate things.
“I don’t think hockey’s brain surgery. You just have to understand it,” he said. “When I was in Pittsburgh the two criteria (for a player) were you had to compete and you had to have hockey sense.”
Other traits high on Allison’s list are respect and punctuality.
“The only rule that we have is ‘treat people the way you want to be treated’ and that’s with respect, and being on time,” he said.
Allison wants to put players in a position to help them succeed. In the past, teams from Fort Frances have had players make it into college programs in the U.S. or graduate to major junior teams and continue on to play professional hockey. Others get a free education on a hockey scholarship and go on to careers in other industries.
As an encouragement to players the coach often tells the story of San Jose Sharks defenseman Mario Ferraro. When Allison was coaching the Des Moines Buccaneers of the USHL (The top junior league in the U.S.) he was watching the Dudley Hewitt Cup and scouted Ferraro. “He was an under-sized guy, but he always had the puck. He was enthusiastic, and he was competitive.”
Ferraro was drafted by Allison and the Buccaneers into the USHL, then he played NCAA hockey and was drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the second round of the NHL draft he made his pro debut in the NHL and never played in the minors.
Allison tells that story to show players that if they work hard when they play in the SIJHL they can go places and can be successful in hockey. He quoted Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road saying: “The door’s open but the ride ain’t free.” Meaning the opportunity is there for people who are willing to work for it.
As for goals for the team this year, Allison says he wants to see the team improve so they can build better going forward.
“(The goal is) to get better, and to understand that it’s an enjoyable process and just to come and have enthusiasm,” Allison said. “We’re not gonna be perfect, but just have enthusiasm for what you do and at the end of it don’t look back with regrets.”
Allison also wants the young men playing for him to realize that hockey is a game and it should be enjoyable.
“The game has always been good to me,” he said. “It’s just been good to me and I want them to enjoy it.”