MJHL not all it’s cracked up to be

With word last week suggesting a possible sale of the Fort Frances Jr. Sabres, which would see the team staying put for this coming season as a member of the SIJHL, old arguments over whether junior hockey—and the SIJHL for that matter—are good for the town surely will resurface once again.
Ever since the loss of the Borderland Thunder back in 2005, the “blogosphere” and coffee shop chatter has been rife with conspiracy theorists who believe the SIJHL—specifically its Thunder Bay-based members—are denying Fort Frances the opportunity to branch out into the neighbouring Manitoba Junior Hockey League.
Not a fair assessment, if you ask me.
A look back at junior hockey history here shows the Fort Frances Royals, founded in 1963, were brief members of the MJHL.
But after just one season playing against Manitoba opponents, the Royals elected to transfer to the Thunder Bay Junior ‘A’ Hockey League, where they spent four fairly successful seasons before a 1-24 start in 1969 led to them closing up shop.
Between 1969 and when the Thunder joined the SIJHL in 2001, a large gap existed where a local owner could have grabbed the bull by the horns and worked towards getting a local junior team into the MJHL—but nothing ever materialized.
“I’m tired of all the people writing ‘Thunder Bay should get out of the way so Fort Frances can go to Manitoba,’” SIJHL president Ron Whitehead lamented.
“There was an awful long time when there wasn’t a [junior] team in Northwestern Ontario, and someone [locally] at that time could’ve started up a team and went to the Manitoba league,” he added.
“No one stepped up, so without the SIJHL, there wouldn’t be a team in Fort Frances in the first place,” Whitehead argued. “So I don’t think it’s fair for people to be throwing stones at the SIJHL or Thunder Bay, for that matter, because they are just another member of the league as far as I’m concerned.”
The Thunder later tried unsuccessfully to join the Manitoba circuit after four seasons in the SIJHL—and that attempt seemed to leave the relationship between the team and its former league irreconcilable.
Fort Frances rejoined the SIJHL as the Sabres in 2007 but the team now is up for sale after just two seasons.
The MJHL has run as an 11-team circuit, with an extra team in one division. The league has taken on a “cross-over” format for the playoffs as a way to balance the divisions.
Most of the teams seem to be on solid footing—with the exception being the Beausejour Blades, who will have a fresh start in Steinbach this coming season as the Pistons.
From an outsider’s perspective, a 12th team would make sense to balance things, but joining the MJHL comes with a steep start-up cost, not to mention the travel expenses associated with long trips to Dauphin and Swan River.
“You’ve got to pay $150,000 to join that league up front, no questions asked, and then you still have your operating costs, travelling there, bringing in players, and over-nighting [on the road], just like here [in the SIJHL],” Whitehead explained.
“And if you think that league is so much better, and I’ll tell you it’s actually not, then you’ve got to get better players,” he reasoned.
“Where’s that money going to come from?”
Whitehead has been working around the clock to prevent the folding of the Sabres’ franchise, and two potential ownership groups have stepped forward with legitimate interest in keeping the team here.
“I’m doing my best, busting my [butt], trying to find owners for Fort Frances,” he remarked. “There’s no magical millionaire who’s going to come in and drop $400,000 a year and not care if the fans don’t show up because he doesn’t need the money.
“That isn’t going to happen,” Whitehead stressed. “I don’t want to start a war [with Fort Frances], but I don’t see anybody from Fort Frances stepping up to take this team over right now.”
Despite plenty of obstacles the SIJHL has faced economically, Whitehead deserves credit for keeping it afloat over its eight seasons and counting.
“We’re trying to keep this thing alive,” Whitehead said. “It’s eight years running a league that a lot of people said wouldn’t last one year, and it’s a local league for local kids to stick around.
“If they want to spend a year here and then go to the [OHL], or spend a year or two here like [Ryan] Faragher and [Mitch] Cain, who are now in the United States Hockey League, then that’s great,” he said.
“They got their exposure and polished their skills in the SIJHL, and are now in a league that’s a step up, and that’s a great thing for the kids and the town.”
The SIJHL is a good brand of entertainment, but a 52-game schedule can seem like overkill when you’re playing the same teams night in and night out.
The Sabres, for instance, played 13 games against the hapless Sioux Lookout Flyers a year ago, which was 13 too many.
But the gate revenue generated from those games is needed to cover billet, travel, and other expenses associated with running a hockey team, and realistically you need good fan support and significant sponsorship backing to break even.
The Sabres drew an average of 400 fans to their home games last season, but that likely would need to spike to 600 to generate roughly $150,000 in gate revenue.
Is that enough? I’m no economics professor, but I’m not so sure.
There’s also talk of a senior men’s team coming to the area, and is Fort Frances big enough to support both?
The men’s team won’t have nearly the same operating costs, with most of the players already living in the surrounding area. And from a sports fan’s perspective, having another entertainment option would be nice.
But the argument that these teams take away from interest in the high school’s sports programs locally will be another point of contention.
However, the senior men’s team would play a much-lighter schedule, with eight home games being discussed. That’s not overkill.
The Steinbach North Stars is a shining example of a successful senior men’s franchise, evidenced by the crowd of 1,450 who took in their semi-final loss to the South East Prairie Thunder in April’s Allan Cup playoffs.
But with the emergence of the Steinbach Pistons (formerly Beausejour Blades) into town as members of the MJHL, you can bet that will take away some of the North Stars’ clientele.
The Stars might be less willing to fly in former NHL’er Theo Fleury to suit up for them like they did a year ago. However, the two surely will find a way to co-exist—and I think the same argument could be made here.
Having two quality teams to support might stretch the local entertainment dollar too thin, but the prospect of having both would act like an IV full of Red Bull for the hockey scene here.
I don’t want to jump the gun here, but having two teams of that calibre would be a nice feather in the cap for this town.

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