Sabres see first season as success

Short of taking home a championship trophy, you couldn’t ask for much more out of a first-year hockey team.
Despite being swept by the Schreiber Diesels in the opening round of the SIJHL playoffs, the Fort Frances Jr. Sabres completed a successful inaugural season in which they won 22 games and earned a playoff spot, claimed several league player, coaching, and management awards, and won over a loyal fan base.
“It’s been great playing in front of these fans,” said head coach Wayne Strachan.
“I think that at the beginning some people were skeptical with how we would do [as a first-year team],” he admitted. “It took a little while for people to get back into the junior hockey mode and when they saw that we were competitive, and that we were working hard, the fan support was great.”
The Sabres lost the first two games of their best-of-five quarter-final series in Schreiber, losing 2-1 last Wednesday before falling 4-3 in double overtime on Thursday night.
The squad then fell 5-4 in Game 3 here on Saturday night.
The Diesels, the defending SIJHL champs, now will face the first-place Dryden Ice Dogs in one semi-final match-up.
The Thunder Bay Bearcats, who swept the Thunder Bay Bulldogs in their quarter-final series, next face the second-place Fort William North Stars in the other semi-final.
Strachan, meanwhile, was honoured with Coach of the Year honours for the second time in his career after guiding the expansion Sabres to a 22-21-4-3 record.
He received his first nod as coach of the now defunct Borderland Thunder in the inaugural season of the Superior International Junior Hockey League, when he guided the team to a 28-11-9 record.
“It is a great honour,” said Strachan. “I was surprised by it and there are a lot of other coaches in the league who are deserving of the award.”
When compared with the first time he took home the honour, Strachan feels this time around means something more.
“This year we started off with nothing. Back then, every team was new so everyone was on equal ground,” he noted. “This year we had to build and develop a team.
“It was tough, but I don’t take all the accolades on my own; the assistant coaches and scouting staff deserve a lot of credit,” he stressed.
For the Fort Frances native, guiding another team in his home town has been rewarding.
“It has been great to see the response,” he said. “With the support we’ve got, I think we have secured the fact that we will be around for years to come and that the program can just get better and better.”
Despite the season’s success, Strachan, who also serves as general manager, certainly will be looking at making some changes in the off-season with regards to player personnel.
“We can possibly have 17 kids returning [from the current roster],” he noted.
One who won’t be returning is league MVP Quinn Amiel, who will hit the 20-year-old age restriction before next season begins.
“We lose a lot in Quinn and [Mike] Ainsworth [who also will be leaving the team having reached age 20],” Strachan remarked. “That’s close to 150 points right there that we have to make up.”
Amiel was the object of affection for many an SIJHL GM over the 2007-08 season, but Strachan wisely hung on to his captain despite fielding calls from a number of teams looking to swap players.
And it’s a good thing he did, as Amiel last week captured MVP recognition from the league.
Quinn, who came to the Sabres after playing with the Lindsay Muskies of the Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League, immediately was struck by the fan devotion in Fort Frances.
“The town supports is what really got me,” Amiel had said in an interview back in November.
Luckily, there’s a strong core of young players who will help in picking up where the departing veterans leave off.
“There are guys returning who are capable,” said Strachan. “We’re looking to Alessio Tomassetti to come back and do what he did this year [12 goals, 39 assists].
“[Chris] Sinclair and [Brendan] Baumgartner are guys who can take up that space.”
Of course, some of that young talent may end up leaving for action at more elite levels of play.
“For those younger kids, some of them have the opportunity to go elsewhere and play at a higher level,” Strachan noted. “When they leave, we have to be prepared to deal with those losses.
“But in our meeting, most of the guys expressed that, yes, they will be there and be part of the team.”
One of those young keys may be local player Mitch Cain. When Cain signed with the team back in July, Strachan had high hopes for the youngster heading into his rookie season with the club.
“He’s a skilled, smooth-skating centreman,” said the coach. “He’s obviously young, but [he’s] a player we hope we can groom for many years to come.”
The SIJHL must have seen the same things, naming the Fort Frances native as Rookie of the Year after a season in which he scored 14 goals and added 27 assists.
Of his goal total, eight came on the power play and two were game-winners. Not bad for a 16-year old.
If Cain continues his current arc, there’s no telling how good he may become. “His skill level is unlimited if he keeps playing and learning,” lauded Strachan.
In addition to Strachan and his players, the “dynamic duo” who were responsible for bringing junior hockey back to Fort Frances also were recognized by the SIJHL.
Sabres’ owner Carolyn Kellaway and team vice-president Nancy Gardiman were honoured with the Executive of the Year award.
Kellaway, who lives in Thunder Bay, has been backing Fort Frances since she first made the move into SIJHL ownership.
“Even when I first decided to be an owner in the SIJHL, Fort Frances was the first place I had in mind,” she had stated during a press conference here back in June.
While further expansion has not been officially announced by the SIJHL, parties have shown an interest in starting franchises in both Wawa and Sioux Lookout for next season.
And looking back at this season, Strachan ultimately is happy with how things turned out.
“If you look back, we got a late start into the recruiting process,” recalled Strachan. “When September came around, we threw together a bunch of kids who are working hard and who fought to make the team.
“We struggled the first couple of months, but the players and leaders really supported each other and stepped up.
“I think we opened a lot of eyes around the league.”
As for the Sabres’ future, all that remains is that championship trophy.