Friday, August 29, 2014

SIJHL season underway without Thunder

It became a thing of habit for Brent Tookenay. Performing general managerial duties for the Borderland Thunder had become second nature to him, like brushing his teeth in the morning or asking his son how his day at school was. But the Thunder are now defunct, having made that announcement shortly after the end of last season. So does he miss it? “Yeah, I do,” said Tookenay. “It’s disappointing because you get into a routine about it,” he added. “And people are going to realize they’re going to miss it, too.” The Superior International Junior Hockey League already has started its season (they are about 10 games in). And though they lost the Thunder, they were able to keep it a five-team league when the Township of Schreiber stepped to the plate and put forth a team. The Diesels were brought to life by Bill MacLaurin, who also owns the K&A Golden Hawks. And if you scan over their roster, it might be more suitable to call the team the Fort Frances Diesels. “Yeah, they should be called that,” laughed Tookenay. Well, maybe we’re taking things a little far but there were eight players on the team to start the season—Josh Sutherland, Tyler Gosselin, Brett Perrault, Matt McLellan, Nick Wreggitt, Tyler Starling, Darcy Arde, and Blake Starling. Because most of them played for the Fort Frances Canadians Midget ‘AA’ team last season, Tookenay is concerned they won’t be able to not match up physically with teams like the three-time defending champion Fort William North Stars, who swept the Thunder in last year’s final. “I don’t know how those players came about playing for Schreiber,” said Tookenay, who received a number of calls from SIJHL teams about players who were with the Thunder last season. Most of those have gone to the Manitoba Junior Hockey League while players like David Gooch and Dennis Morrison now are with the North Stars. “There’s a big gap between a Junior ‘A’ player and a Junior ‘B’ player, and an even bigger gap between a Junior ‘B’ player and a high school player,” noted Tookenay. “There are a lot of men playing on teams like the North Stars and if you put a kid in against them that’s not ready to play them, then that kid could get hurt,” he warned. “I don’t know how successful they [the Diesels] are going to be as a team [they sport an 0-7 record so far], but as long as they are getting some life experiences and developing their skill, it’s great. “But are you putting them in a situation where they can’t succeed? I don’t know, but probably not.” And it seems some of those players became aware of that as Gosselin and the two Starlings have since returned to Fort Frances. The North Stars are the host team for this season’s Dudley Hewitt Cup (the Ontario Junior ‘A’ championship tournament) and it’s widely known that is one of the few reasons why the SIJHL is still in existence. But the same problems the league faced in the past have not disappeared. Attendance remains at anemic levels, sponsors still are hard to come by, and there still is no variety in the league. The North Stars were the cream of the SIJHL crop last season, with the Thunder and the Dryden Ice Dogs battling for second place (the Thunder swept the Ice Dogs in last year's playoffs). And since the Thunder are no more, there only are two teams that have a reasonable chance at claiming the championship—the North Stars are 5-1 while the Ice Dogs lead the SIJHL with a surprising 6-0 record. But Tookenay believes the North Stars soon will take over the league like they did last season. “The North Stars haven’t gotten any weaker, but it will be hard for them to keep up their motivation,” said Tookenay (the North Stars lost just two games last season in the SIJHL, but fared poorly at the Dudley Hewitt Cup). It was no secret the Thunder were hoping to be a part of the MJHL this season. But that dream was negated when the SIJHL predictably denied them permission to jump ship. And after being denied permission by Hockey Northwestern Ontario, the Thunder were preparing to head to court, saying it was unjust for them to have to stay in the SIJHL, where they were losing money, when the MJHL was a place they could make money. And the MJHL most likely would have taken the Thunder in, given the league had issued a press release at the beginning of the season saying it was looking to expand. But by the time the Thunder had made their intentions clear and hired a lawyer, and started making arrangements to bring their case to court, it was too late as the MJHL couldn’t afford to wait around for a trial, which surely would have been a drawn-out affair, as it had to draw up its schedules for this season. So the Thunder held back from a trial, though it would have been interesting to see what kind of verdict would have been reached (it also should be mentioned that the Ice Dogs also were looking to move to the MJHL. So are the Thunder dead or simply in hibernation? “It’s tough to put how we’re at,” Tookenay replied. “We know where the interest lies and we don’t want to stir that up, and we want to keep that low-key. “We’ll see where the league [SIJHL] is going.” But the way things are going, it seems there might not be a league next year, said Tookenay. “Every little problem is magnifies into one big problem,” he remarked. “You never want to wish bad on anyone, but there are too many factors that are leading to the disbandment of this league.” If the SIJHL ceases operations, that could pave the way for the Thunder—or a Junior ‘A’ team out of Fort Frances with some other identity—to wake up and be a part of the MJHL.

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