Trips to Sabres’ home ice driving SIJHL teams crazy

There’s something about those Sabres that just brings out the worst in everyone.
Make no mistake about it—the Fort Frances Jr. Sabres are a strong team in the SIJHL and are recognized as formidable opponents by all (okay, maybe not the Dryden Ice Dogs).
Other teams make sure to bring their ‘A’ game to Fort Frances.
The problem is that they also bring something else entirely: a nasty, brutish edge. Two line brawls and a rowdy sideshow against the Schreiber Diesels in just 16 home games on the season is alarming—even in a league as identified by fights as the SIJHL.
It’s an element to the Sabres’ game that isn’t present on the road, and the team genuinely comes across as the victim most of the time.
They definitely did when Thunder Bay Bearcats’ captain Brad Pawlowski jumped the diminutive Chris Sinclair just because linemate Steven Sus had scored the game-winning goal with mere seconds on the clock Sunday afternoon.
What is it about this team that so enrages opponents? “I have no idea. Surprises keep coming here,” Sinclair said.
If anybody knows what’s going on here, it should be Sinclair. He’s only had a half-dozen home games in a Sabres uniform and already has been assaulted twice—once by Pawlowski on Sunday; the other time by Schreiber Diesels’ goalie Matt Kernick during an intermission back on Dec. 7.
Sinclair’s been at the eye of the storm both times and, as a skilled yet mouthy target measuring just a few inches over five feet tall, admittedly is an easy and inviting target.
But as a 19-year-old junior vet who’s been playing his own game for years, Sinclair doesn’t have much light to shed on the subject.
“People chirp back and forth in a game, but I’ve never seen that before,” he said. “Let alone twice.”
The situations seem different every time. Against the Ice Dogs on Oct. 9, nine-consecutive—and five simultaneous—fights broke out when the Fort Frances-Dryden rivalry boiled over after the Sabres suffered their fourth-straight loss to the Ice Dogs in just six league games over only a few weeks.
Kernick, meanwhile, was a bit of an isolated incident. And as shocking as it was to all in attendance, no additional fights grew out of that—and the game came to its physical, yet relatively reserved, conclusion.
As for what elevated Sunday afternoon’s close contest to the kind of mess where coaches had to restrain their players from clearing the benches, head coach Wayne Strachan has yet a different answer.
“I hate to complain about the referee but that’s what led to it,” he said, noting correctly that the calls were inconsistent throughout the game.
It wasn’t officiated to either team’s favour, nor was it especially lax or harsh; it was just unpredictable enough that both teams didn’t know where the line was—and always felt they were coming out on the losing end.
“Players take exception to it. They get yappy, they get in each other’s faces,” Strachan said. “It’s unfortunate that it’s most of our skilled guys that were out there [for the brawl].”
Three different reasons for three notable incidents—the complete trio coming at home. Strachan doesn’t have an answer why, but Sinclair tried to connect the dots.
“I think our fans are a big help,” he said. “They’re always on our side, plus we’re an expansion team. Everyone wants us to do bad, but we’re a contender in this league.
“It’s hockey. That stuff does happen,” Sinclair added. “We’re just gonna keep playing our game.”
Maybe it’s a matter of the Sabres’ home crowds, which are more spirited than most in the SIJHL. Maybe it is that teams expect the Sabres to better play the role of the doormat, though after a few months their reputation in such a small league should be pretty clear.
Maybe it’s because the Sabres so rarely back down from a fight, although that’s true of most anyone in the league.
Whatever it is, it’s plenty entertaining for the fans—and it definitely makes headlines. But, as they say, it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye.

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