The Fort Frances Jr. Sabres were unveiled as the newest SIJHL franchise on Saturday, with Wayne Strachan confirmed as the team’s head coach.
The Sabres were introduced to the community at a press conference held by Strachan, owner Carolyn Kellaway, vice president Nancy Gardiman, SIJHL president Ron Whitehead and Fort Frances mayor Roy Avis.
“I’ve been really busy these days,” Kellaway understated. She presented Strachan with a Sabres jersey and cap, breaking the worst kept secret in local hockey by announcing him as the head coach.
“We’ll stop all the rumours right now,” she said, drawing laughs.
For his part, Strachan conveyed a positive outlook for the team, even if it was too early to get into specifics. “There’s a lot of good players out there, and Fort Frances should be excited,” he said. “I think we’ll have a successful season.”
Strachan added that one of his biggest goals in recruiting is to keep the Jr. Sabres as stocked with local talent as possible.
Kellaway - who lives in Thunder Bay - is also committed to keeping the operation in town. “My whole objective is to keep everything within the city, the communities,” she said. “We’re trying to keep it all local.”
She explained that despite living well out of town, the expansion was by no means any sort of compromise. “Even when I first decided to be an owner in the SIJHL, Fort Frances was the first place I had in mind,” she said. “If you could have a team in Fort Frances, who would pass it up?”
As for the question of money, the new owner didn’t deny the possibility of losing some cash to the birthing of an SIJHL franchise. “It’s very expensive. And we’re just going to leave it at that,” she said.
She kept high hopes, however, and motioned across the meeting table. “With all these guys and all this support, I really don’t see how we can go wrong.”
The schedule is still to come, and the league needs to decide how many games to draw up for the season. Whitehead explained that the only options available to the SIJHL are a 48 or 60 game season with a balanced schedule, or possibly a total in-between those with an unbalanced schedule, and that it is being worked on “very diligently.”
Gardiman said that season tickets will go on sale today at the Memorial Sports Centre, the home of the Jr. Sabres. Individual tickets won’t be sold for some time, but will be priced at $10 for adults, $8.50 for students and seniors and $7.50 for children.
She added that some of the merchandise modeled by Strachan will be available before the season starts at various local events, and then at every home game come hockey season.
As for the new team name, Kellaway insisted that it comes from her family’s local hockey team. She explained that every year her husband, Scott, coached their Sabres, he won the title, “so it’s a good luck name.”
Stachan admitted it felt “good” to be back helming a Fort Frances team in the SIJHL, having coached the Borderland Thunder in their inaugural 2001-02 season. “You know, I’m just grateful for the opportunity.”
The coach didn’t want to speculate too much about strategy with no players signed to the club, but had an crowd-pleasing idea for the model of the Sabres. “I think with the new rules and stuff, the way hockey is going is maybe a little more high flying and offensive,” he said, before stressing that the key to winning is sound defense.
Strachan is recruiting top local players to the SIJHL and looking into possible trades with regional teams, saying he had spoken with the Kenora Stars and Thunder Bay Kings regarding some of their talent. “I have been in contact with several - I guess ‘scouts’, you can call them - helping me out,” he confirmed.
He’s also looking to keep the team’s allowed imports somewhat local, exploring possibilities with players from International Falls. He added he wasn’t going “to name names at this time” in terms of prospects, but hoped to have a first camp set up for the Canada Day weekend.
When asked if Strachan had designs for anyone on the Fort High Muskies, he said, “definitely, yeah. There’s a lot of talent on that team.”
Kellaway made it clear that she hadn’t “been confronted with any problems myself,” from the Muskies camp regarding her new franchise.
The conference was well attended, with a smattering of press complimented by a large turnout of local hockey fans wanting to know more about their new junior team.
Avis remarked of the return of the SIJHL to Fort Frances as a point of town pride. “I’m very glad to see it back and would like to thank those who brought it back very much.”
Whitehead jokingly retorted, “I hope you still like me at the end of this season,” adding that the league is “absolutely ecstatic to have Fort Frances back.”
“We’ve missed you.”