Getting to host the OFSAA ‘AA’ boys’ hockey championship normally would be looked at as a compelling reason to stay in a certain area.
But with every passing week, and with the high school season just weeks away from training camp, the Muskies continue to see an exodus of eligible returnees bound for what they believe are greener pastures.
Forwards Sully Shortreed and Jake Clendenning, along with defenceman Colton Bodnar, all made the 20-man roster of the Kenora Thistles for the upcoming Manitoba Midget ‘AAA’ Hockey League season.
Forwards Cooper Witherspoon, Nick Hahkala, and Ethan Carlson, meanwhile, are all ticketed to suit up for the Thunder Bay Kings Minor Midget ‘AAA’ squad this fall.
And forward Graeme Kitt is foregoing a “victory lap” season with the black-and-gold in order to begin work towards earning a law degree.
The looming possibility of Muskie sports being put on hold due to the ongoing labour dispute between the Rainy River District School Board and local high school teachers was a factor Bodnar addressed head-on with regards to his impending move.
“It definitely played a part in my decision,” the blueliner stressed.
“I want to play hockey this year and I don’t know when the board and the teachers are going to settle.
“That pretty much made the decision for me,” Bodnar added. “Hockey for me is big.
“If there wasn’t labour problems, I probably would have been inclined to stay.”
NorWOSSA rules dictate high school athletic teams must have a teacher rep as part of their coaching staff in order to compete.
Local teachers enacted work-to-rule measures in the latter part of the previous school year, which included weekly strikes that meant withholding volunteering for extra-curricular activities such as serving as teacher reps.
Bodnar was offered the chance to sign after just the first tryout session, but waited until yesterday before committing to the Thistles while dealing with his father’s misgivings about joining Kenora.
“My dad is a big part of what I do and I don’t think he wants me to go, but I had to make the decision myself,” he reasoned.
“He was pushing me to play junior with the [Fort Frances] Lakers but I didn’t see myself fitting in with that team being a young guy,” Bodnar admitted.
“Wayne [Strachan] has a good run of success with that team and wants to find a team that can keep that going.”
Shortreed, who was a key offensive cog in the Muskies’ run to their fourth OFSAA gold medal in program history this past spring, got feelers from the Thistles’ coaching staff even before last weekend’s 32-player tryouts.
“[Kenora general manager and head coach Doug Novak] watched me enough last year,” said the Emo resident.
“It’s a really good league, one of the top Midget ‘AAA’ leagues in Canada, and I was excited they wanted me to come and try out,” he added.
As for Clendenning, he has friends who were on the Thistles last season who talked him into coming down for the tryouts.
“I had to put it all out there with just three ice times to show what you can do,” recalled Clendenning, who is entering Grade 11 this fall like both Bodnar and Shortreed.
“You had no time to make it up if you messed up.
“It was a lot higher pace than here and I knew I had to up my game, slow things down, play my game, and play good defensively,” he noted.
Shortreed was signed by the Thistles right after the first day of tryouts so he didn’t have to go through the excruciating waiting game that Clendenning did.
“Sunday night after the third ice time, they posted a list of the names of the guys who made it near the boards,” he recounted.
“There was a big group of guys gathered around to look [and] suddenly my buddy, Graham Oliphant, walks up and high-fives me and says, ‘Congratulations!’”
Both Shortreed and Clendenning were adamant the decision to walk away after winning the OFSAA title, combined with an automatic entry into this year’s all-Ontarios as the host squad, did not come about easily.
“It was a good experience to win the gold and it would have been fun to do it all over again with my friends,” said Shortreed.
“I talked to my older brother [former Muskie Spencer Shortreed] about it and what would be the best decision for me.”
“It was a huge decision and I really had to think about it,” echoed Clendenning.
“But I want to get better and play against better competition.
“I had enough teammates coming back to play that I would have enjoyed it,” he added.
“But we lost a lot of guys, and I want to try something different while I’m still young and can put myself in a better position to get noticed by the scouts.”
Clendenning also said having fellow Muskie alumni sharing the dressing room will make for an easier transition to the Thistles.
“I have lots of support from them and we have played together for some time,” he noted.
“I don’t know if Sully and I will be on a line together, but we’ll give feedback to each other when each of us wants it.”
Shortreed, meanwhile, thinks it might be a difficult season for the Thistles with only six returning players.
“It’s going to be a fight to get through the season,” he predicted. “But we’ve got some good returning players and I think we should do good.
“They’re a great group of guys.”