Sabres seeking year’s hiatus

It’s hard not to buy into the “Chicken Little” mentality when two teams of a six-team circuit hand in their walking papers.
The SIJHL is used to this sort of makeover—and has come out of each near-meltdown relatively unscathed.
Though nothing has been made official between the SIJHL head office and the Fort Frances Jr. Sabres’ ownership, the team looks to be leaving the league for at least one year after just two seasons in operation.
Co-owner Scott Kellaway said the team has asked for a leave of absence and will pursue returning the following season. The players signed for next season have been notified of the team’s intentions.
The SIJHL ran with five teams for the better part of this decade, three of which were in Thunder Bay and two of which mostly wanted out.
They talked about expansion while new teams trickled in as old ones seeped out. The Fort Frances-based Borderland Thunder, for instance, wanted to move to the MJHL before eventually folding in 2005.
The league always has lived a precarious existence and recent economic events may be pushing it over the edge.
Making a success of things in what is a dispersed league, geographically speaking, is never easy with travel and accommodation costs to consider, but on the surface it looked as though the local Fort Frances Jr. Sabres were making a go of it.
The Sabres slowly went about establishing a presence within the fabric of this community.
The Sabres mattered here. It’s what people wanted to talk about.
By small-town standards, junior ‘A’ hockey is about as premiere a level as you are going to get. It also gives an opportunity for local players to suit up at a higher level they’d normally have to move away to play, which generates an extra buzz of enthusiasm around town cheering for their home-grown talent.
People always have used sports to escape reality, and that is no truer now than ever before. With the forestry industry shedding jobs as it clings to life, sports can offer a much-needed distraction.
The Sabres drew pretty good crowds last season, averaging a league-best 397 per home date, but that fan support apparently was not enough.
Further still, a dedicated group of volunteers spearheaded a fan club over the winter aimed at trumpeting the Sabres’ brand in the community. Such concepts as barbecues, player-of-the-game designations, and public appearances seem obvious, but are smart ways to increase awareness in the team moving forward.
Those apparently were not enough, either.
The departure of the Borderland Thunder left a sour taste in people’s mouths and those bitter memories sadly will be dug up once again.
Last season, the perfect storm was brewing for a long playoff run and embrace by the community, but that ultimately fell short when the Thunder Bay Bearcats proved the better team in a five-game semi-final showdown.
Had the team managed to acquire locals Brian White, Tyler Miller, and Jeremy Beller for a run to the RBC Cup (instead of having them sign with the Bearcats), things might have played out differently.
The Bearcats, meanwhile, surrendered a lot of assets for those players in hopes of making a long playoff run—which ultimately didn’t pan out, either, when the Fort William North Stars took the SIJHL crown.
Whether those costly moves led to the demise of the Bearcats, we will never know for certain.
The North Stars are a formidable opponent and the class of the SIJHL, and even had the Sabres spent a lot of their assets—and future—to make their squad better, they wouldn’t have been guaranteed a trip to the RBC Cup.
And that, ultimately, was just too big of a risk to take.
Clearly the finances weren’t there to support those sort of acquisitions (the teams that held those assets demanded a high price) and the only reason the Sabres challenged for top spot last year was because of a bumper crop of local talent, including goalie Ryan Faragher, and solid scouting by head coach Wayne Strachan and director of scouting Grant Perreault.
Can the SIJHL survive as a four-team circuit featuring the North Stars, Dryden Ice Dogs, the fledgling Sioux Lookout Flyers, and the new Thunder Bay-based K&A Wolverines? Four teams is a division, not a league, and the SIJHL will need to look towards expanding—not contracting—if it hopes to ride out this current economic downturn.
The addition of the Wolverines is interesting, but will they suffer the same fate as the Bearcats? After all, the SIJHL is not the only show in town, with Lakehead University sports often taking centre stage in Thunder Bay.
So whether they can draw the fan support needed to stay afloat remains to be seen.
• • •
The NHL entry draft over the weekend in Montreal clearly was a successful one for Canadian-bred players once again. Canadians made up four of the top five selections, seven of the first 10, and 17 of the 30 taken in the first round.
I think it’s safe to say the national pastime is alive and well for years to come.
I’d be remise to not give full props to my Swedish heritage, as well, with a record seven going in the first round. It’s nice to see Sweden has recovered from its days preaching systems over skill—and is now back among the hockey elite.
Meanwhile, Dryden native Chris Pronger once again will be seeing a change of address this season. The Anaheim Ducks traded the bruising defenceman to the Philadelphia Flyers for salary cap reasons, and were able to get plenty of assets in return.
The enigmatic Joffrey Lupul returns to the city where it all started while the Ducks also added young defenceman Lucas Sbisa and two first-round picks.
Doesn’t it seem like the Flyers are a perfect fit for Pronger? He comes equipped with plenty of sandpaper—and that gritty style of play always has been a prerequisite in the City of Brotherly Love.
Based on Pronger’s recent track record, you probably can expect to see the Flyers in the Cup final this coming season or next.

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