Junior hockey on the Manitoulin

February 12, 2014

Manitoulin Island — for the most part, the town of Little Current — was home to a team in the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League from 2003 until 2011.

Known as the Wild for two seasons and the Islanders for six, Manitoulin had little on-ice success.

Manitoulin never had a winning season of the eight years that it spent in the NOJHL, though it initially enjoyed good fan support, especially from 2003 until 2006.

But as win totals dwindled and debts piled up, Manitoulin exited the NOJHL in 2011.

There has since been talk of junior hockey returning to the Manitoulin, though it still remains without.

Talk has again surfaced about Manitoulin being home to junior hockey for the 2014-2015 season, either by way of a relocated NOJHL franchise or a new team in another league.

Skeptics say it won’t work, that Manitoulin had its chance and should not get another one.

Well, junior hockey also failed in Espanola before, both in the NOJHL and the Greater Metro Jr. Hockey League.

But under new ownership, specifically Tim Clayden, Espanola returned to the NOJHL this 2013-2014 season as the Rivermen. As the Rivermen are a solid fourth in the NOJHL standings, they are first on the attendance chart, averaging about 550 fans per game.

The difference from past junior teams in Espanola to the Rivermen of now?

Folks who I talk to in the Espanola area — from junior hockey legend David (Statsman) Harrison to Espanola Minor Hockey Association president Ross Nichols to Heather Wilson of Espanola Boogie Mountain — tell me it is how the Rivermen operate as a community-first team under Clayden, his hockey staff and office staff that is the difference between past teams and the current one.

So, if junior hockey can work in Espanola after failing before, why not in Manitoulin?

As mentioned earlier, Manitoulin drew well in its early years in the NOJHL but as the on-ice product failed to improve amid management turmoil, the fans turned their backs on the team and it became history.

With the right ownership and management, junior hockey could work in Manitoulin, just as it is in Espanola.

I watched multiple games on the Manitoulin back when Todd Stencill was coaching and managing a respectful Islanders outfit back in the 2005-2006 season.

That ’05-06 season was the first under the name Islanders and while the team finished last in the NOJHL with a record of 8-36-4, it was a hardworking, energetic crew under Stencill.

I was witness to four or five Islander home games against the Blind River Beavers and Soo Thunderbirds that ’05-06 season that all drew in excess of 400 fans to cold-but-lively NEMI Recreation Centre in Little Current. But Islander ownership fired Stencill as coach-general manager after the ’05-06 season and the franchise was never quite the same again.

Take a page from Espanola, put the right ownership and mangement group in Little Current and junior hockey can be a success on the Manitoulin.

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