Local group hoping to keep junior team alive

Mitch Calvert

The theme of the Fort Frances Jr. Sabres’ summer has centered around ownership uncertainty and potential mystery out-of-town owners, but a last-ditch local effort to save junior ‘A’ hockey in Fort Frances is rising to the surface.
They need your help, however.
Sabres’ coach Wayne Strachan said one option to keep the team here is to operate as a non-profit organization, but it will require significant local funding to get off the ground.
The team would continue to play as the Sabres this season before changing names and uniforms the following season.
The cost of operating a junior ‘A’ team is around $150,000 a season, and Strachan said a minimum start-up cost will need to be in place by Sept. 1.
“If we can secure the interest of the town by selling at least 75 season tickets and getting 20 sponsors in the range of $20,000-plus [total], it gives us a base to start with,” he stressed.
The Sabres are scheduled to open the SIJHL season Sept. 17 here against the defending champion Fort William North Stars.
Strachan also said some fundraising efforts like golf tournaments, raffles, and team barbecues will need to be held, which has been done with good success this summer to promote the Ice Dogs’ brand up in Dryden.
Sioux Lookout has taken a similar approach and the Flyers look to be on solid footing going into their second season in the league, as well.
“Sioux Lookout, a town smaller than us and in the same economic times as us, rallied to save their team and is building for the future,” Strachan noted.
“We need to get the message out that this team is good for the community,” he remarked. “Especially the young kids who look up to the Sabres and all they do to inspire and help them in the community.”
SIJHL president Ron Whitehead agreed, noting Sioux Lookout’s local ownership committee is a template for success in smaller markets.
“If there’s some money coming into the town, then there’s more willingness for the local businesses to step up and sponsor when the money’s not going to some private owner or to Thunder Bay,” he said.
“But what you need is volunteers and a recognized, downtown, suit-and-tie guy who’s well-known to head it up, organize it, and get your committees going,” he stressed.
A committee that would delegate people into specific roles—like media relations, volunteer organization, and sponsorship dealings—would help ease the burden and spread the workload.
“I’ve been trying to encourage that since June,” Whitehead said. “It’s a little late, but the rest of these other options are starting to fade.
“Everybody is afraid of the economy and afraid to step up,” he admitted.
The community-run team would offer memberships in the franchise for $50, which would include a tax receipt, a vote at the annual general meeting, and an opportunity to become a board of director.
Strachan and Grant Perreault, the Sabres’ director of scouting, have approached local businesses and crunched the numbers and believe it could be done—but time is quickly working against them.
“We were at 700 fans for our last home game and it was a great sight to see,” Strachan noted. “This team needs a little rally to get going, but it can work and be successful.”
Obviously starting a team from scratch this close to the opening of the season is a daunting challenge, but Strachan said laying a foundation in the first year will pay dividends later.
“Maybe this season we won’t be as competitive or have a whole lot of local kids, but we will build throughout the year to get better,” he vowed.
“This community has a bunch of young talent coming up that will have the possibility of playing junior hockey . . . why not play it at home?
“People can say what they want about the league [SIJHL], but it has lasted nine years,” Strachan added.