Two U.S. teams joining SIJHL

Dan Falloon

Fort Frances Lakers’ head coach Wayne Strachan didn’t mince words over news of the addition of two new U.S.-based teams in the SIJHL.
“It’s huge,” he stressed. “All the Canadian teams were prepared to go at it with the four teams, but what kind of schedule would we have had?”
With the SIJHL operating a 50-game schedule, both Strachan and league commissioner Ron Whitehead breathed a sigh of relief when the USA Hockey Junior Council decided Monday to let the Duluth Clydesdales and Spooner (Wis.) Wilderness join the league for the 2010-11 season after all.
The additions bring the league up to a six-team loop from four.
The SIJHL had operated with five teams last year, but the K&A Wolverines folded at the end of this past season.
“It’s extremely important,” agreed Whitehead.
“We were down to four teams, which is not a good number to operate a 50-game schedule, which is what you have to do in Junior ‘A,’” he noted.
The decision came after a process that was tougher than Whitehead expected. The original applications for membership were rejected, but the teams were admitted to the SIJHL after an appeal.
The Clydesdales are an expansion team in the truest sense of the word while the Wilderness come out of the ashes of the Wisconsin Mustangs, who dropped out of the Minnesota Junior Hockey League in May and dispersed all of its players to the circuit’s other franchises.
“It was difficult,” Whitehead said. “We weren’t expecting, and neither were they [the U.S. teams], any difficulties whatsoever.
“[But] at the national meetings, the Junior Council, for whatever reason, denied them permission to leave.
“It was strange given that neither of these teams was in a U.S. league at the time.”
Now that the decision was reversed, Whitehead is thrilled that the SIJHL now has a pair of full-time American members.
American squads were welcomed right from the get-go, but those stateside teams the league has seen over the years—the Iron Range Yellow Jackets, Northwestern Wisconsin Knights, and Bottineau Lumberjacks—only played partial schedules.
“In the SIJHL logo, the American flag is in it,” noted Whitehead. “The league is known as the Superior International Junior Hockey League.
“This was supposed to be a trans-border league right from Day 1,” he argued.
American teams operating in Canadian junior leagues isn’t unheard of. Teams in Buffalo, N.Y., Wheatfield, N.Y., Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., and Spokane, Wash. all do.
Both new teams will be required to follow USA Hockey rules in terms of roster sizes, which allows each one to carry up to 25 players, but only two of which can be from outside of the U.S.
“Their system works a little different than ours,” explained Strachan.
“I’m sure both teams will be ready to go by the drop of the puck some day in September and they’ll both have good hockey teams,” he added.
Strachan also was enthusiastic about the locations of both franchises, given both are in hockey-mad regions.
As well, the travel situation is ideal for the Lakers, who now are centrally-located in the SIJHL, although it impacts Sioux Lookout and Dryden a little bit more.
Strachan noted the distance between Fort Frances and Spooner is comparable to the distance to Thunder Bay—a trip the Lakers make several times a season.
Moreover, the Mustangs played a 20-game slate in 2009-10, with the Lakers and Mustangs each hosting two games against each other.
“It’s worked great, and it’s a great thing for the entire SIJHL,” Strachan said of the league’s relationship with Spooner.
He also hopes the close proximity to Duluth could result in a bit of added importance to match-ups between the Lakers and Clydesdales.
“With Duluth only two-and-a-half hours away, it could be a good rivalry for us,” he reasoned.
“A bit the same as our Dryden rivalry with the two close towns.”