Sabres still sitting in limbo

The Fort Frances Jr. Sabres ownership situation is beginning to resemble the legal mess taking place in Arizona courtrooms these days over the sale of the Phoenix Coyotes.
The current Sabres’ owners, Scott and Carolyn Kellaway, want out but, much like Coyotes’ owner Jerry Moyes, they want something of value returned on their investment.
They initially discussed a one-year leave of absence from the SIJHL, but that really isn’t an option anymore with the 2009-10 season fast approaching.
A prospective, unnamed buyer was said to be in talks with the Kellaways to purchase the team, but several issues arose unrelated to hockey that slowed that process down and it looks to be a long shot now.
The Jim Balsillie comparison in this trifecta is headed by a group from Winnipeg which was said to be interested in setting up a new team here if the current franchise folds.
That seems fair. After all, not much is left of the Sabres besides some hockey equipment and a recognized brand—albeit a damaged one—in town.
However, how long will this Winnipeg group wait before they pull the plug on their offer? Some sources have mentioned they no longer are interested.
If a sale does fall through (and that looks to be a real possibility at this point), then the SIJHL will have one heck of a scheduling mess on its hands with no group in the weeds waiting to take over.
However, a third option that recently surfaced would see a locally-based, not-for-profit organization developed to operate the team.
This seems like the route with the most potential to succeed since ticket-buyers and sponsors should be more inclined to support something that keeps money in the local economy.
They have a steep hill to climb with less than a month to go before the SIJHL season—with part of that delay due, in part, to the ownership uncertainty throughout the summer—and will need significant support from local community members and businesses to even consider operating for the 2009/10 campaign.
But regardless of who ends up with the team, another obstacle is the fact the roster will have to be built from the ground up with less than four weeks to go before the Sabres are set to open the regular season at home against the defending champion Fort William North Stars on Sept. 17.
It’s an ugly situation no matter how you look at it, but SIJHL president Ron Whitehead believes a team can be put together here in a short timeframe.
“Getting players isn’t a huge issue, there’s thousands on the wire every day, but it’s a matter of whether or not you want to pay the price for them,” he remarked.
“With cheap players, you are going to get what you pay for. Sidney Crosby isn’t available for $50.”
Fair enough. However, there are several roster restrictions in junior ‘A’ hockey that limit what you can and can’t do with your team, including a cap on the number of imports (non-Ontario residents) you can have on your squad.
“You are only allowed eight imports, but up until about three years ago, anybody outside the HNO [Hockey Northwestern Ontario] area was considered an import,” Whitehead noted.
“Marathon couldn’t even get a kid from Sault Ste. Marie who wasn’t an import, which was just stupid.
“All the other provinces had just one hockey branch and Ontario had four, so three years ago they adjusted it now so you can go get a kid from Toronto, for example, and he’s not considered an import,” Whitehead explained.
If the imported player stays on for a second year, he no longer is slotted into one of the eight import spots. Had B.C. native Kenny Carpenter returned this season, for example, he would have been excluded from that category.
Another hiccup to building a team is the cap on the number of 20-year-olds, with only nine allowed per roster.
“Most of the ones who are on the wire are the 20-year-olds who only have one year left [of junior], so from a value point-of-view, teams are trying to dump them and start fresh with a guy who has a few years left,” Whitehead said.
“You also can’t likely have nine 20-year-olds and eight imports as much of them could be the same player.”
Adding further to the conundrum is the limit on 16-year-olds, with a cap of two per roster. Basically meaning you can’t load up on a bunch of local kids and mail it in.
“We’ve had problems in the past with teams not being very competitive, and we’d like to avoid that,” Whitehead stressed, noting the struggles of the Thunder Bay Bulldogs and Marathon Renegades as prime examples.
“There’s growing pains and that’s understandable when someone starts a new team in its first year [Sioux Lookout Flyers], but not year after year.”

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