June 1 was supposed to be judgment day for the Borderland Thunder.
They were supposed to be giving either the thumbs up or down on whether to play a fifth season as part of the Superior International Junior Hockey League.
“We’ll know on June 1 exactly what our plans are and exactly where we will be,” Thunder general manager Brent Tookenay had said last week.
“We told them [the SIJHL] we would let them know by [today] one way or another whether we’re in or out,” he added.
But the wheels turned a little faster than originally planned as the Thunder announced Tuesday (May 31) they will not be part of the SIJHL this coming season.
“I know a lot of people want to know what’s going on, and it’s hard for me and other people involved to announce that we’re not going to operate next year,” an emotional Tookenay said Tuesday from behind his desk at Fort High, where he’s a vice-principal.
“We were going to wait until [today] but I talked to the different people that were involved in this decision and we decided the earlier the better,” he added.
“They [the SIJHL] have a draft coming up and there’s no point in screwing things up for them.”
It’s certainly no secret that the Thunder have been trying to jump ship from the SIJHL to the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.
But when that move was denied by both the SIJHL and Hockey Northwestern Ontario, the only place the Thunder could play was in the SIJHL.
Compounding the problem is the fact the Thunder no longer have an owner.
After four years of shelling out the dollars to support a junior hockey team locally that has been losing money in the five-team SIJHL, Couchiching First Nation has decided to step away from the ownership title.
But that’s not to say the split has caused any bitterness or animosity between the two groups.
“Couchiching has done a fantastic job of keeping this team afloat in a league that is difficult to do,” Tookenay said.
“Their chief [Chuck McPherson], council, and community had done a fantastic job in creating something that is pretty special,” he added. “It’s not an easy thing to [support a junior hockey team]. It takes time and costs money, and takes time and effort.”
“It’s probably as hard for the people of Couchiching that we won’t be playing next year as it is for me,” said Tookenay, who is a band member.
Tookenay and other members of the Thunder organization had to play the part of salesman to try and get ownership in place, but it was anything but smooth sailing trying to “sell” the SIJHL to prospective buyers.
“The ultimate thing is get the team publicly-owned, but it’s a difficult sell to the public,” Tookenay admitted. “If I’m going to buy a share of a team or be a part-owner, I want to know all the details of the league.
“And the problem with that is that it’s like, ‘The KC Bulldogs are out and then they’re in, and K&A [Golden Hawks] is out and in,’ and it’s the whole instability of it that makes it difficult [to get people interested in investing in the Thunder].
“We’ve talked to a number of people and the response is, ‘SIJHL, lots of questions.’ It’s a very difficult sell.
“The word of mouth is out there, and people have come and talked to me and it sounds like they all want to get on board, but I’m not sure they want to get on board with the SIJHL,” Tookenay added.
“That’s the feeling that I’m getting.”
SIJHL vice-president Ron Whitehead could not be reached for comment yesterday, but he had said last Friday that he was hopeful the Thunder would be back this fall.
He also noted the uncertain status of the Bulldogs and Golden Hawks had been dealt with, saying both teams will be back for another season.
“As far as I know, all five teams are back for next season,” Whitehead had said. “Until Brent Tookenay tells me personally that Fort Frances won’t support and can’t have a team, they will be included in everything we do.”
Tookenay said he called Whitehead on Monday afternoon to tell him of the Thunder’s decision to opt out.
The Dryden Ice Dogs also will be part of the SIJHL for the 2005-06 season. Ironically, it was the Thunder and Ice Dogs—together—who had wanted to leave the SIJHL for greener pastures in the MJHL.
“We’re extremely pleased [Dryden has stayed], but on the other side of things, I think it may have been blown out of proportion,” said Whitehead.
“I think that Fort Frances and Dryden had said that they would like to go to the MJHL, but at no time was that ever a possibility with the SIJHL in existence.”
That is true. As long as there is a SIJHL, the Thunder cannot go to the MJHL.
The Thunder initially had planned a court battle to win the right to join the MJHL, but progress on that track has all but ground to a halt.
“We haven’t really pushed that to the full degree because time is now against us,” Tookenay had said Friday.
“With Couchiching stopping their ownership of the team at the end of this season, that made it difficult for us, because you have lawyers but you don’t even have an owner of the team to battle with you,” he noted yesterday.
Tookenay has always said the Thunder would stay on board with the SIJHL if the league were to expand. But with that being unlikely, at least in the short term, the only way the Thunder could play next season would be as a member of the MJHL.
And the only way that could happen would be if the SIJHL folded (Hockey Canada stipulates a team cannot go to another league while one already exists in their area).
But say the SIJHL was to fold next year. Would the Thunder be able to start back up again?
“I don’t think it will be a problem starting up again, but I think it would be a problem dependent on which league you were in,” said Tookenay.
“Sometimes you have to take a step back in order to move forward and that’s what we’re looking at right now,” added Tookenay, who seemed to suggest he expects the SIJHL to fold after this season, which would start paving the road for the Thunder to join the MJHL.
That kind of talk is hypothetical, but this much is certain—there will be no Junior ‘A’ hockey in Fort Frances in 2005-06.