The dress rehearsal is over and now the real show begins in earnest tomorrow night.
The Fort Frances Lakers’ rookie-laden roster will have their mettle tested with a season-opening home game versus the SIJHL defending champion Fort William North Stars at 7:30 p.m. at the Ice For Kids Arena.
The squad had one final audition here Saturday night with an exhibition tilt against the expansion K&A Wolverines, coming out on top in a 4-3 overtime thriller that featured plenty of regular-season intensity.
Colton Kennedy netted the game-winner on a blast from the point.
“I was on the ice for three minutes in overtime and [head coach] Wayne [Strachan] just said, ‘Stay on the point, stay on the point,’ and I said to Byron [Katapaytuk], ‘Get me the puck because I’m going to score,’” Kennedy recalled.
“Sure enough, he tossed me a nice pass off the side wall and I hammered it post and in.
“I wanted to get one in pre-season to get it going and I did,” Kennedy added. “It came late, but came at the right time.”
Saturday’s game featured four fights, including a noteworthy bout between the Lakers’ Irv Lockman and Cory Scali—with Lockman taking the unanimous decision after landing a pair of bone-jarring rights.
Henry Gutierrez scored twice for the Lakers in the first, with Katapaytuk adding the other in the second.
Nathan Spina had a pair of goals in a losing cause for the Wolverines.
“I thought we started out slow,” noted Strachan. “May have been nerves, but it took us a while to get into the game.
“Once we started skating, being physical, and moving the puck, we got rolling and into the game,” he added.
The biggest positive to come from Saturday’s win was the play of the offence—which came alive in a big way after being limited to just two goals in a pair of exhibition losses to the Sioux Lookout Flyers.
“Our forwards had been shutout in scoring in the first two games, but Gutierrez went to the net twice hard and a couple nice plays resulted in goals,” Strachan noted.
“We came out [in the second period] where we left off and got up by three, [but] then sat right back, quit hitting and skating, and let them back into the game,” he added.
“A couple [of] missed assignments on defence and they were only behind by one.”
The game opened up in the third period as both teams exchanged quality scoring chances, with the Wolverines eventually notching the equalizer.
It was an adventure between the pipes for Lakers’ goalie Coleman Wetherelt as the puck snuck behind him on several occasions before being cleared to safety.
But despite a good spell of puck luck on the night, Wetherelt was sent packing after the game.
The team also cut goalie Blake Robinson, who allowed two goals in his half of Saturday night’s game.
The Lakers have since signed Zac McMichael of Bancroft, Ont., who started three games for the Lindsay Muskies of the OJHL a season ago, for insurance.
Emo native Jameson Shortreed has impressed with his play in net so far, and likely will get ample opportunity to start or at least split time with McMichael.
“Zac brings good fundamentals and work ethic, [and] he will battle it out with Jameson for the No. 1 [goalie] position,” Strachan said.
Despite a late start to training camp, the Lakers have made considerable strides towards icing a competitive team over the past couple of weeks.
“It was good to get a win under our belt,” Strachan remarked. “We have made some decisions to get the team closer to formation and we will keep working on our systems, conditioning, and growing as a team.”
The players got some time away from the rink on Sunday with a day trip to trainer Dale Cooper’s cabin on Lake Despair.
“It was a good day of meeting one another and having fun together,” Strachan explained.
With every training camp, the coming and going of players is expected, but especially so this year with an almost entirely fresh group trying to establish themselves and earn a spot on the roster.
The Lakers have added 19-year-old Tyler Stevenson of Edmonton, Alta. to the roster. Stevenson had eight points in 13 games during a stint with the Temiscaming Royals of the NOJHL last season.
“He brings an offensive presence and will add depth to our forward ranks,” Strachan said.
Kennedy, a mainstay from a season ago, will look to provide leadership to a mixed bag of players trying to get their feet wet in the SIJHL.
“Wayne is looking on me to lead in all areas of the ice, and the best way to lead is to play hard and that’s what I’m going to do,” Kennedy vowed.
Kennedy and Devlin native Ryan Witherspoon are the lone returnees from last season’s 30-17-3 team (then known as the Fort Frances Jr. Sabres). But third-year defenceman Mario Boivin has been signed and will play part-time while attending university in Thunder Bay.
“We’ve brought in a lot of good guys, there’s more coming, and everything is looking positive,” Kennedy said. “We’re starting to click and get along, and everything is moving forward.”
After tomorrow night’s game, the Lakers go to Thunder Bay for back-to-back games this Friday and Saturday (Sept. 18-19) against the Wolverines.
Along with Shortreed, Witherspoon, and Lockman, other district talent cracking the opening night roster include Josh Scott, Jordan Sinclair, and Jamie Kaun (part-time affiliated player).
Meanwhile, the board of directors for the not-for-profit group now operating the team has turned its attention towards ways to sustain the team here for the long-term.
“We’re going to apply to incorporate our team as a non-shareholder, non-profit organization, and that allows us to do some fundraising, but we’re really behind the eight-ball on that one,” Lakers’ president Milt Strachan Jr. conceded.
“We’re scrambling to get things underway so we can finance our team,” he added.
“We got a lot of the organizational parts in place [at Wednesday’s meeting] and our main goal right now is putting together some fundraisers and a sponsorship package so we can go ahead and ask for some help in the community, and so they know what incentives there are [to sponsoring] and what we represent.”
The pre-existing Sabres’ logo is expected to be replaced by a revamped Lakers’ one, which currently is being designed. New uniforms featuring a different colour scheme likely will be purchased further down the road for use next season.
Season ticket packages are in the process of being developed, but won’t be ready for tomorrow’s game. Strachan Jr. said a list will be at the door in the meantime, while season tickets will be available for purchase a booth on the concourse during the game.
The Lakers’ first-annual golf classic will be held Saturday, Sept. 26 at Kitchen Creek. The cost is $75 person or $300 for a foursome, which includes a spaghetti dinner. Those interested in taking part may do so by calling the golf course at 274-4653.
Billet families also are still in short supply. Anyone interested in being one is asked to call Mary Cooper at 274-6608.