Jr. Sabres not dead quite yet

Mitch Calvert

The effort looking to sustain Junior ‘A’ hockey in Fort Frances appears to be making headway with little time to spare before the puck drops on the new SIJHL season.
Fort Frances Jr. Sabres’ head coach Wayne Strachan and Grant Perreault, the team’s director of scouting, hosted a meeting Sunday evening in an attempt to parlay support for the transfer of the team from private ownership to a locally-based, not-for-profit operation.
A season ticket sales drive was hatched out of the meeting, with tickets being sold from 1-3 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. through tomorrow (Sept. 3) at the Memorial Sports Centre lobby.
The goal is to drum up at least 100 season-ticket holders for the 2009-10 season.
If they can reach that goal by tomorrow night, organizers expect to forge ahead with plans for the upcoming season.
Season tickets cost $220 for adults, $170 for seniors, and $110 for students (aged five and older), with the group confirming 28 names after Sunday’s meeting.
A bill of sale from the previous owners, Scott and Carolyn Kellaway of Thunder Bay, has been presented to SIJHL president Ron Whitehead so a local group can acquire the franchise immediately without inheriting any of the debt owing.
“I discussed a rough budget with Scott Kellaway, and we were pretty close on the minimal amount to run a team [about $150,000 a season], and how we could cut costs here and there,” Strachan said during Sunday’s meeting.
“He’s willing to help us out in any way he can with getting us Thunder Bay sponsorship and helping us out on the road.
“We only have five overnight trips [scheduled] this year, and most road trips are about $3,500,” Strachan noted.
A successful season-ticket sales drive would give the Sabres a start, but the group is hoping to secure additional funding locally to help give the squad an initial boost.
“Grant and I have gone to local businesses and there is interest,” Strachan insisted. “We have raised $10,000 to date, and that was in just three days.”
Strachan said a local effort to run the team would follow in the mold of the Sioux Lookout Flyers, who survived several ownership squabbles last season before opting to run the team as a community-owned operation backed by a board of directors.
“Sioux Lookout had a private owner [Basil Goodchild] and basically he just walked away from the team about mid-December, then another gentleman had come in out of Winnipeg [Richard Brozinski] and saved the team, but he then, through his past dealings, was pushed out of the ownership and it was taken upon by a couple of the volunteers to approach businesses and the community for support.
“They got a local businessman, Doug Lawrance, on board, who has been a big hockey guy his whole life and had dealings with the old senior men’s team there in the late ’80s,” Strachan explained.
“He got a crew together and they do a lot of hard work.
“It’s a lot of time, but they did a community-wide sponsor blitz and they just kind of rallied as a group and got a substantial amount of donations, in the $125,000 range, in just a short period of time to save the team,” Strachan added.
The Flyers held three fundraising golf tournaments over the summer, which raised more than $20,000, while two sponsors contributed in excess of $20,000 apiece.
Sioux Lookout offered founding memberships in the team for $250. It basically was a donation that included having your name on a plaque and a vote at the annual general meeting in June.
The Sabres might offer something similar but are also formulating a plan to seek donations in the neighbourhood of $1,000 on an individual basis in exchange for a season ticket.
Members of the former Borderland Thunder executive, namely Brent Tookenay and Eugene McPherson, spoke on Sunday of a similar approach with the Thunder that saw some 300 people agree in principle to support the team with individual donations before the team ultimately folded.
“It’s going to take everyone from the players to the community to the district to make the team run, and that’s basically what Sioux Lookout’s done,” Strachan stressed.
The Dryden Ice Dogs similarly are run by a board of directors who gain funding through the Ontario Trillium Foundation working as a not-for-profit entity.
“Both [those] communities are making it happen, and I think Fort Frances is a place that could do the same,” Strachan said.
The team also would assume the remaining assets associated with the Sabres’ franchise, including jerseys and equipment, merchandise, a skate sharpener, washer and dryer, office equipment, and medical supplies.
Acquiring the necessary funds to run the team is priority No. 1 right now, but with such a short window before the season begins Sept. 17 when the defending champion Fort William North Stars are scheduled to visit the Ice for Kids Arena, questions arose Sunday night about the quality of the team that could be iced on such short notice.
But Strachan said several talented players have been recruited and were being brought in this week to open training camp. Not including local players, a total of 25 skaters and seven goalies were confirmed to be at camp when it opens today.
“We did recruit all summer believing that we would have a team, so there are players out there who are interested in coming here and know our situation,” he stressed.
“The players I had contact with late in the winter and in the summer are still committed and waiting for my phone call after [Sunday’s] meeting,” echoed Perreault.
“There are teams across Canada who are pointing quality players this way who we would basically get as free agent players, just because the coaches want to see them play in their final year of eligibility or they just don’t have room,” he added.
“It’s a numbers game, and given that we are in the Ontario province with the OHL, there’s just a filter effect that works in our favour.
“This year has been good with players wanting to come this way and just play hockey,” Perreault noted.
Colton Kennedy and Ryan Witherspoon—two key pieces to last year’s team—still are Sabres’ property. Kennedy was at Sunday’s meeting to show his support.
The team also would expect to ice some local talent from Rainy River District like it did for its first two seasons in the SIJHL.
“Realistically, there’s about five [locals] who can make that jump to the next level, and that doesn’t include the players we did have to trade away,” Perreault said, mentioning Kyle Turgeon, among others, who were sold off during the summer.
Complicating matters is the limit on the number of out-of-province imports (eight) allowed while a minimum of 12 Ontario players are required.
“It’s probably going to be a team that’s going to grind out 2-1 or 3-2 to win and it’s good hockey to watch, [but] that’s what we have to be prepared for,” Strachan said.
“Throughout the year, we will improve and as the years go along, we’ll keep working to improve the team and get to the point where we can possibly win a championship,” he vowed.
“I don’t think people would be angry if you guys didn’t have a winning team as long as it was competitive,” local resident Dan MacDonald said at the meeting.
“If you can ice that team that shows up every game and works their [butts] off, people here will support it.
“Make a team with guys who want to be here,” MacDonald added. “This town is all about community and it always has been about that.”
Mike Freeman, a former local radio personality and Times’ sportswriter, voiced his support for junior hockey in an interview last week and also was on hand for Sunday’s meeting.
“We’re all keeping our fingers crossed that there will be [junior] hockey,” Freeman said. “Although we all love Muskie games, it adds a little more to the wintertime.
“It can be a long winter here in Northwestern Ontario so it’s always nice to have that extra hockey,” he reasoned.
Sabres’ fan club member Larry Patrick said it would be a shame if a hockey-mad area like this one couldn’t claim a junior team on its résumé.
“We’ve got the best venue in Northwestern Ontario, our arena,” Patrick lauded. “This is ‘Hockeytown Northwestern Ontario’ and when you look at the hockey legacy in our community dating back to the Allan Cup days, I mean, we’ve gotta make this work.”
Many of the 40 or more people who showed up for Sunday’s meeting were supportive, although one individual said while he’d like to see it work, he but didn’t think the effort was well-organized enough to be successful in such a short timeframe.