High school hockey teams back to more full schedule after COVID restrictions

By Allan Bradbury
Staff Writer
abradbury@fortfrances.com

After only being able to play a fraction of their usual schedule last year the Fort Frances High School Muskies hockey teams are back to playing a much busier schedule and are seeing success in NORWOSSA play.

The teams have had significantly expanded seasons this year over last which saw teams play only a handful of extra games in addition to NORWOSSA play. Despite both boys and girls teams winning the NORWOSSA championships, they did not have the opportunity to go to OFSAA last year due to COVID restrictions.

With renewed hopes of getting to the all-Ontario A/AA championships in St. Catharine’s for the boys and Stratford for the girls both teams have increased their schedules significantly over last year. Both girls head coach, Shane Bliss, and boys head coach Chris Sinclair were very eager to build up the schedules again.

“One of our goals was to really try to build up our schedule, because after a couple of years with COVID it wasn’t much of a schedule,” Bliss said. “I think in order to have a good hockey program you need to make the program exciting and challenging at the same time. So we really built it up a lot, playing a lot of great American teams making some trips to Manitoba. I think it’s been a lot of fun and a lot of new challenges which always makes it exciting.”

The boys team has also had an expanded schedule with no restrictions.

“We’ve travelled to Winnipeg, Steinbach and Brandon in Manitoba as well as Fergus Falls in Minnesota,” Sinclair said. “It’s been very beneficial for us to play outside our league against some strong teams elsewhere and it’s been great to get back to our full schedule like it was prior to COVID.”

In all competitions the boys team has a 13-9-1 record and the girls have a 15-7-1 record. In NORWOSSA play the boys are 6-0 good enough for first place and clear of the next closest team and the girls are 2-1 and currently in third, the last playoff spot. The boys have four league games remaining on their schedule, three away and one at home to Red Lake on Jan. 19. The girls have 6 games left, all away from Fort Frances. Both teams have other home exhibition games interspersed.

On team performance Bliss says the girls team has been hampered by injuries for a big part of the season.

“We’ve been running what’s kind of been a skeleton crew due to illness and injuries,” Bliss said. “Concussions, and broken hands, people getting their wisdom teeth out. Just little things that happen in any hockey season, hockey seasons are long.”

He also says there’s an adjustment to fill in for players that left last year as seniors or others who didn’t return.

“In girls hockey, there isn’t AA hockey (like boys have) so we’re taking them from a house league background for the most part and introducing them to a really high-speed hockey and a fast pace of hockey that they have to adjust to. Then the other big adjustment is the schedule. We’re on the ice six days a week and it’s a grind you kind of hit a wall at some point in the season and once you get over that then you can really build and grow and I think that’s where we’re at now, the building and growing stage, gearing up for a playoff run.”

For the boys, Sinclair says they’d like to have a better record but the experience from the losses helps the team grow.

“Although as a team we would have liked to have more success in terms of wins and losses, we have gained some really good experience and learning moments through these games,” Sinclair said. “There has never been a game that we weren’t in it, or didn’t give ourselves a chance to win. It’s just a matter of limiting our mistakes and taking advantage of our opportunities. Overall, our record is 13-9-1, which is alright considering the strength of our schedule so far.”

Sinclair added that the boys team is heading to Winnipeg for a tournament this weekend which will see them play some of the teams they played earlier in the season and be a good gauge of how far they have come since they played last.

Another highlight for both teams has been the return of the border battle rivalry games against cross-border opponents, the International Falls High Broncos.

The Muskie girls took the first matchup, 5-2 in early December in the Falls. The boys played a few weeks later in Fort Frances and the muskies won 5-1. The girls played again last night in the Falls and won 2-0. Another game between girls teams will go Jan 17 in Fort Frances And the boys will play another match up at Bronco Arena on Feb. 17.

Sinclair said the atmosphere at the rivalry game was great.

“Our home game against International Falls was a huge success, both on and off the ice,” Sinclair said. “It was great to have the rivalry game back, the atmosphere and the support at the rink that night was amazing. The kids loved it and seemed to feed off the energy and fans were treated to a really good hockey game from both teams. We are certainly very excited to go over there for game two in early February.”

Both teams will be looking to sharpen their games as they inch closer to NORWOSSA playoffs with the hope of making it to provincial championships in March.

Right now, the playoff picture on the girls side looks like it will see a combination of Fort Frances, Dryden and St. Thomas Aquinas (TA) from Kenora in the top three spots to make the playoffs. The top finisher gets a bye to the finals while the other two teams play a best of three series to determine who else goes on. Bliss says he knows both Dryden and TA will up tough fights going down the last stretch and into the playoffs.

“Dryden, they’ve probably got a little bit more veteran experience with grade 12s and grade 12-plusses,” Bliss said. “At the end of the day it doesn’t matter who’s on the other team it does help. They don’t typically panic when it’s a tight game, they just keep grinding and they know how to get the job done…So, I think Dryden will be a tough battle and so will TA. TA has been playing really well this year. They skate hard, they’re a very similar team to us. They work, work, work. Obviously, [it looks like] one of us will have to play the other in the semifinals of the playoffs and it’ll be a tough battle and hopefully, they’ve got some left for the finals.”

Sinclair says the boys are ready to push to maintain home ice advantage in the finals which has been a goal since the start of the season.

“This season so far has had some ups and downs but this team has battled through all the adversity and have handled these stressful situations like professionals,” Sinclair said. “Through everything we’ve been through they continue to stay positive and work together and battle for each other every time we are on the ice with one ultimate goal in mind which is getting back to the OFSAA championships.”

Both teams will face off against Dryden tonight, check out their facebook pages for potential game streaming options. Girls Puck drop is at 6:30 p.m. and boys is at 7 p.m.