“Make It Seven” was the rallying cry for many Canadian hockey fans over the last decade hoping to see the NHL expand north of the border, and they finally got their wish a couple of months ago with the Winnipeg Jets returning to the 30-team loop.
The same thing has now occurred in the Superior International Junior Hockey League, which welcomed a new franchise in the Iron Range region of Minnesota last Wednesday, giving the league seven teams for the first time since the 2007/08 campaign.
“I think this is absolutely great for the league,” said SIJHL president and commissioner Ron Whitehead.
“It gives the fans a little bit more diversity, it helps to add to the talent pool within the league, and, as a whole, it’s better for the entire league as you’re not playing the same guys over and over again,” he reasoned.
The process to bring in a team from the Iron Range actually was kick-started by Butch Williams, the general manager of the Duluth Clydesdales.
“He had been looking to help the league with expansion on the American side,” Whitehead noted.
“He and his family came up with a logo and a team name [the Iron Range Steel], and they began to start working with Hibbing, Virginia, Eveleth, and a few other towns on where exactly to locate the team.
“At the same time, he [Williams] was working with a couple of
investor groups to become partners in the deal, and at the end of the day, Steve Chelios and a group out of Vancouver have become the managing partners,” Whitehead added.
Before the new squad takes to the ice, though, there may be a change in the team name with rumours circulating that the franchise may be called the Iron Range Ironheads instead.
“We haven’t received a final [statement] as to where that stands, but we expect Iron Range to make an official announcement on that soon,” Whitehead said.
The new franchise also is expected to announce where it will be situated in the near future, but Whitehead believes the team will be based out of Hibbing.
“I think it’s a fantastic location, but any of those towns would have been good choices as they are all famous in the Minnesota high school hockey circles,” he stressed.
Among those looking forward to the Iron Range joining the SIJHL is Fort Frances Lakers’ head coach and general manager Wayne Strachan, who feel a third U.S.-based team in the league is a huge key moving forward.
“Having them come in is much better for not only the players, but for the calibre and skill level of the league,” Strachan remarked.
“You could see that from the two teams [the Wisconsin Wilderness and the Duluth Clydesdales], especially with Wisconsin as they were the league champions and you had to be ready for them every night.
“And I’m sure that Iron Range [is] going to be very similar.
“It’s tough to be an expansion team and have a lot of success right off of the bat, but I’m sure that they’ll grow as a team,” Strachan added.
“And with them being the closest team to us, maybe we have a pretty good rivalry going forward.”
The head coach and general manager for the franchise will be Chelios, brother of long-time NHL defenceman Chris Chelios.
“We’ve been talking to him recently and he’s excited about getting started,” Whitehead said.
“He and his group were researching a Junior ‘A’ league to go into and get started in with an ownership position, and we are pretty happy that they have decided to come to our league.”
As for any future expansion, Whitehead said only the Iron Range region was courted for this coming season but didn’t rule out that possibility for somewhere else down the line.
“What I would like to see is a balanced league and schedule with an equal amount of Canadian and American teams,” Whitehead noted.
“With Iron Range, we concentrated on being in our existing footprint, and we wanted to get into an area that is not being served by another league so that we can avoid any political backlash,” he explained.
With a new team joining the fold, and the SIJHL hosting the 2012 Dudley Hewitt Cup in Thunder Bay, Whitehead is fairly excited about the upcoming season.
“By having 50 percent of the participants in the Dudley, we have a pretty good shot of doing well at the tournament,” he reasoned.
“With the [Thunder Bay] North Stars already in the tournament as host, I’m sure you are going to see a really great battle between the other teams in the league as they try to make a run for the tournament.”