Sabres reflect on season cut short

Most prognosticators would have favoured the Thunder Bay Bearcats in a seven-game series, there’s no question about that, but the Fort Frances Jr. Sabres didn’t roll over and die in their semi-final showdown.
Far from it, in fact.
However, a big reason for their quick exit can be pointed to Game 4’s striped scapegoat, who ultimately decided the Sabres’ fate with a questionable call on Kyle Tront’s overtime winner—helping put the Sabres into a 3-1 hole when the series just as easily could have been knotted at 2-2.
“That’s a tough call to make,” Sabres’ captain Chris Sinclair said. “The ref said he was in a good position so you have to go by his word, I guess.
“He thought he had the best angle and said it was in the net before [Ryan] Faragher grabbed it, but I don’t even know if video review would’ve proved anything,” he added.
In order to win the series with the Bearcats, the Sabres were going to need to get a good number of breaks—and capitalize on limited offensive opportunities—but neither materialized on a consistent basis over the five-game set.
The Bearcats were a good squad, and they helped their cause greatly by loading up the roster just prior to the trade deadline. The trio of Tyler Miller, Brian White, and Tront—all acquired in mid-season—accounted for eight of the Bearcats’ 12 goals in the semi-finals.
Despite the disappointing end to what was a good second season in the SIJHL, the Sabres have plenty to look forward to with 19 players eligible to return—although Sinclair won’t be one of them.
“It’s tough knowing you’re done, especially with the great group of guys we had here,” Sinclair said of his swan song in junior hockey. “It’s emotional because you spend all winter with them and then it just ends.
“But it has to come to an end sometime, and it just didn’t go our way.
“The Bearcats have a good team. We just didn’t have that extra drive to want it I guess, and didn’t capitalize enough,” Sinclair reasoned. “The group of guys we had this year was great and I just want to thank them all for making my last year memorable.”
“Really close, good games, but it came down to the little things at the end,” agreed teammate Mario Boivin. “There were a few times when we could’ve had the bounces go our way, especially in that overtime game.”
Sinclair, meanwhile, now will be turning his attention to the college ranks.
“I’m going to college next year, but it’s a matter of where,” he remarked. “Hopefully it plays out with St. Scholastica, so I’ll be close to home in Duluth there.
“I’ve been talking to the coaches with every school I’ve looked at, and it sounds like [St. Scholastica] is interested and I’ll just hope for the best.”
So who is going to grab the torch and run with it now that Sinclair is hanging up his Sabres’ jersey for good?
“There’s a few guys that I think can step up and be a leader in that room, and I look towards Colton Kennedy stepping up next year,” Sinclair said. “He’s going to be 20 years old, four years of junior hockey now, and he’s one of those guys who will do anything for the team to win.
“He’s going to be a big part of this team next year,” Sinclair predicted.
Sinclair also gave full marks to linemate Brendan Baumgartner, who combined with Sinclair for 142 points during the regular season.
“I love the kid,” Sinclair lauded. “We have the same game, so we got along great on and off the ice. And it was a good opportunity to play with someone like that who finishes the play around the net all the time.
“I’m not sure what his plans are for next season, whether he’s coming back or planning on playing closer to home,” Sinclair added of the Alberta native.
The black-and-red witnessed their share of ups and downs this past season, but the steady personnel changes just seemed to bring the core that remained intact closer together.
“We were short guys there for a couple months and stuck it out and played well, and we had guys that left [Gabe Capozzi, Dan Smith, Chad Reynolds] and a guy go to the ‘O’ [OHL, Carson Dubchak],” Boivin recalled.
“There were a couple trades where we had guys who were going to come but didn’t, but that’s all part of hockey,” he noted. “You’ve got to bounce back from that sort of stuff.”
Boivin isn’t 100 percent sure if he’ll be returning for his final season of junior hockey eligibility—but admitted he’ll likely have a hard time staying away when the leaves start to turn in the fall.
“We have a good core coming back, but there’s also school in the back of my mind,” Boivin admitted. “I have a ton of stuff to do before I can go apply and be ready for school, and I just don’t want to give up on hockey yet.
“I’ve been doing it my whole life.”
Another 19-year-old who would be counted on for veteran leadership next season is Graham Dyck, who sounds dead-set on returning.
“I’m coming back here,” Dyck vowed. “I talked to Wayne [Strachan last week] and he said ‘if we would’ve played you on one of the top lines with Mitch Cain or whoever, you obviously would’ve got more points, but we like using you in a defensive role, too’ and I like that,” Dyck said of the two-way centre role he was thrust into for much of the season.
“It made my defensive game better, and next year hopefully I can take on an offensive role, too.”
The Atikokan native has heard from several teammates who are planning on another season here, but knows the reality of junior hockey often means some turnover from year to year.
“They say that now, but stuff sometimes happens over the summer that changes their mind,” Dyck reasoned. “I hope they come back because we’d have a really good team.
“A lot of 19-year-olds here, so next year we’ll have a lot of third-year players with a lot of experience.”
Sabres’ head coach Wayne Strachan is as optimistic about next season as his players.
“Some players came a long way this year and with a good, hard off-season of getting stronger and improving certain aspects of their games, [it] will help them even further throughout their hockey careers,” he noted.
“All in all, an improvement from last year and our future as an organization looks good and healthy.
“I feel we had much better leadership this year that resulted in a better attitude around the rink and a closer-knit team,” Strachan added. “We attracted a bunch of interest from various scouts throughout North America, and it’s a compliment to the players and how they acted both on and off the ice.”
Strachan won’t rest on his laurels, however, knowing full well there are always holes to fill and inevitable bumps in the road to overcome.
“In our year-end meetings, some players have expressed interest in trying their hand in other leagues, but we will see what the summer brings as far as where and what direction we go with the team,” Strachan stressed. “I believe we had 10 vets from last season’s team end the year with us.
“As for next season, it will depend on what a few young guys decide to do, but if we could return 12-13 of the possible 19 and have a good recruiting season, we look to build on this year’s performance.”
That recruiting season gets into high gear now with plenty of out-of-town hockey games to attend before next season begins.
“We will attend some Midget ‘AAA’ playdowns, go to a couple showcase tournaments in the U.S., and put together a list of potential recruits from northern Minnesota high schools, our local high school, [and] ‘AAA’ Midget teams in Northern Ontario as well as Manitoba,” Strachan explained.
“We rely on sources throughout Canada and the U.S.,” he noted. “We have had some good luck in finding players in certain areas, and we will definitely go back to see if we can entice any new players.”
Despite good attendance numbers at the gate for most of the season, the Sabres face an uphill battle making ends meet in the SIJHL with high travel expenses.
“The economy is going to [take] its toll on everybody but in talking with the ownership, the organization is strong and running for the future,” Strachan pledged. “The team is budgeted accordingly in different categories, and we try and follow them or meet all of them.
“I believe the Sabres’ team is only going to get stronger for years to come,” Strachan stressed. “We have the backing of some good fans, we have a good strong fan club, and we are improving on the ice.”

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