It would not be stretching the point to say the Borderland Thunder have been at the head of the class this season in the SIJHL. But it’s how much the team uses its head that will determine whether the post-season will render championship glory or another sad story.
A terrific 8-0-2 start to the season laid the groundwork for what turned into an eventual first-place finish to earn home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, which begins Friday night at the Ice for Kids Arena with a semi-final showdown against the Dryden Ice Dogs.
The motivation to knock off the defending SIJHL champs should be intense for the Thunder, who were swept 4-0 in last year’s final by the Ice Dogs.
A 12-game season series—which became progressively more bitter—has seen players, coaches, and even the Dryden mascot ejected for their actions. When guys in costume are getting the heave-ho, you know it’s getting serious.
But there’s an undeniably bigger picture Borderland sees on the horizon, whether they admit it or not. As hosts of the Dudley Hewitt Cup on April 22-26, the Thunder have an automatic berth in the tournament that will decide provincial junior ‘A’ hockey supremacy in Ontario.
If you subscribe to the theory, as I do, of never counting out a champion, the Ice Dogs will be more than a handful for the Thunder—despite a 7-2-0-1 record for Borderland (excluding the forfeited 3-0 victory Oct. 30) in the season series heading into last night’s regular-season finale.
Dryden isn’t about to concede their title easily, and may feel as though they have the Thunder in a vulnerable mindset with so much more riding on the line for the under-Dogs.
The Thunder have to decide before Friday if an SIJHL championship run is worth the struggle when the final outcome is—in the end—meaningless to them.
They’ll also have to figure out if they are going to get caught up in the physical and verbal challenges Dryden will present, or if they’re going to stick to playing solid, disciplined hockey.
Choosing the first path could lead to devastating injuries, suspensions, or both, which could have a serious impact on not only their SIJHL title chances, but their opportunity to capture the provincial title.
I’ll bank on calmer heads prevailing. The Thunder in six.
As for the other semi-final series, it should be a dazzling duel in goal between Bill Gerry of the Thunder Bay KC Bulldogs, who is 10-4-1 with a league-best .917 save percentage since joining the team in the last quarter of the season, and Jean-Frederick Beaudoin of the Fort William First Nation Wolves, who is second in the SIJHL with 16 wins.
But the Bulldog trio of league scoring champ Trevor Karasiewicz, and fellow top-five point producers Rylan Vesa and Brian Dzijak, will be too much for the Wolves to overcome in the end. KC in five.
- • • Speaking of the two Thunder Bay squads, let’s hope their season-long identity crisis comes to a conclusion by the start of next season—because, frankly, it’s giving me a headache. Fort William, which went by the moniker of the Thunder Bay Snowplow Wolves last season, changed its place name for the start of this season. No problem. If they wanted a unique identity from its Thunder Bay city rivals, that’s understandable. But then the SIJHL all-star break rolled around at the end of January, where the Wolves were hosting the mid-season classic (okay, classic might be an overstatement for an event in just its second year). The league issued a press release stating the team thereafter would be called the Fort William First Nation Wolves—but only for a little while. At some unnamed point soon after, the Wolves then would be transforming into the Fort William First Nation North Stars, to go along with the similarly-named hockey development program it was starting up on the Fort William reserve. But as of last weekend’s two-game series with the Thunder, the North Stars officially were still listed on the SIJHL’s Web site as the Wolves—despite the fact they played Borderland wearing imitation jerseys of the former Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. The explanation I received from Wolves/Stars/Whatchamacallits trainer David McCallum, who doubles as the SIJHL’s official statistician, was laughable and illogical all at once—and I don’t blame the messenger. It seems that the powers that be who own the franchise want the team referred to within the boundaries of the Thunder Bay region as the North Stars—but when they leave the area, they would rather be referred to as the Wolves. Then you have the KC Bulldogs, who on another SIJHL press release at all-star time, suddenly were being named the Thunder Bay Downtown Volkswagen Bulldogs. I went along with this purely commercial ploy under the impression that the new name would be universally used after the all-star break. To date, other than by my own hand, I have not seen one reference on the SIJHL Web site, or any newspaper article in any other SIJHL community, using the term Downtown Volkswagen Bulldogs. Being the case, I have decided to go with the flow and revert back to the KC nickname. The Nipigon Feathermen Hawks’ dropping of their town name part way through the season also falls into this category of mixed-up team metamorphosis. Confusing? Absolutely. Bush league? Definitely. Here’s hoping the league mandates the teams next season to choose a franchise title and stick with it for the entire campaign. This constant shell game of names isn’t helping the fledgling league’s credibility.
- • • There were few miscues on the part of Dave Escuyos last weekend in Dryden as the Fort Frances resident won the 13th-annual Mike Rushak Memorial pool tournament. Escuyos defended his title from a year ago, outlasting the 64-person field by going 12-3 in the preliminary round, then surviving the single knockout round to retain his eight-ball crown.
- • • Best of luck to 10-year-old Taylor Latimer of Emo, who journeys the long road to Whitby this weekend for the all-Ontario figure skating championships. Taylor, the first skater to represent the Emo Figure Skating Club at the provincials, is fresh off of two first-place finishes at the Thunder Bay Open two weekends ago.
- • • If you are planning any sporting events, or have some sports-related information or scores, feel free to call me at 274-5373 ext. 237 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org All statistical and story information, with the exception of events held Monday or Tuesday, must be received no later than 5 p.m. on Monday to be eligible for publication in that week’s edition of the Times.