They won a mere fraction of the regular season games they played from 2005 to 2011. Yet, 10 years after their departure from the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League, the Manitoulin Islanders are still an iconic franchise, at least to me.
For the most part, the erstwhile Islanders tried hard, worked hard, were entertaining to watch and fun to write about. In fact, I probably wrote more than 100,000 words about the old Manitoulin teams.
In short, they were a collection of castoffs who played together and stuck together through way more losses than wins.
As mentioned, the Islanders did not have much on-ice success over a six-year run as a small market NOJHL franchise between the 2005-2006 and 2010-2011 seasons.
In fact, over the six years, the Islanders won only 36 of 296 regular season games.
Yet somehow, the Islanders were a captivating team and I covered them with regularity throughout their six seasons in the NOJHL, writing them up as a freelancer for the Manitoulin Expositor newspaper and what was a Postmedia site known as Osprey Blogs, not to mention doing a number of play by play broadcasts with Ken Hilderley Jr. over the airwaves of the erstwhile likes of Sports Juice and Sports Zeus.
At any rate, the Islanders initial season of 2005-2006 was led by coach-general manager Todd Stencill and his trusted assistant, Manitoulin native Lawrence Enosse.
On the ice, the Islanders of 2005-2006 featured a multitude of memorable players such as goalie Billy (The Kid) Stone, forwards Jody (Bad News) Biedermann, Curtis (Moose) Johnson, Johnny John-George, Carlo Metatawabin, Corey Metatawabin, Dennis French, Brent Henley, Ken May, Jeff Mussen, Mike Moote, Dan Nadeau, Owen Peltier, Joel Villeneuve and defensemen Tyler Corston-Moore, Mark Baker, Dale Herodier, Anthony Fey and Jeff Maronese.
Of note, it was me who pinned the nicknames ‘Billy The Kid’ on the baby-faced Stone and ‘Bad News’ on the fearless, pugilistic Biedermann.
And notably, Manitoulin became a junior hockey haven for a number of kids from remote First Nations communities — players such as Biedermann, Johnson, John-George, the Metatawabin lads, Peltier, Corston-Moore, Herodier et al.
Anyway, the Islanders of that season managed just 20 points from a record of 8-36-4. But they endured a 25 game win-less streak (in which they lost a dozen games by two goals or less) before extending coach Toots Kovacs and his powerhouse Soo Thunderbirds to five games in what was a hard fought, opening-round playoff series.
During the off season, though, the Islanders executive would make a crucial mistake and fire Stencill as the coach and GM. Undaunted, Stencill would pack up, take his assistant coach Enosse with him, and head to Blind River to lead the Beavers to three straight winning seasons.
Barry Parsons would take over as coach and general manager of the Islanders and he lasted close to two seasons before giving way to legendary National Hockey League super star Reggie Leach of Philadelphia Flyers and Team Canada scoring fame.
The tireless Leach would coach, manage and own the Islanders for parts of three seasons while carrying on the Manitoulin franchise tradition of being a hockey home for First Nations players from near and far.
A few words about Leach, a man, who away from hockey, has become a celebrated spokesperson and champion for First Nation peoples across the nation to the extent that he would go on to receive the Order Of Canada. That is, I have never met a more down to earth and friendly pro hockey player than Leach, who has a way of talking to someone who he has just met like he has known them all of their lives.
Leach, along with aforementioned Islander coaches Todd Stencill and Lawrence Enosse remain, to this day, three of the good guys I have met in 46 plus years of covering junior hockey.
At any rate, with financial support dwindling, Leach sold the Manitoulin franchise after the 2010-2011 season and it was moved to Kirkland Lake, where it still exists as the Gold Miners.
Still, I have many good memories of the six years that I wrote about the Islanders on a regular basis. Besides Stencill, Enosse and Leach, I have remained in contact with a number of former Islander players through Facebook and Twitter.
The wins were not there but the Islanders forged a memorable run with teams of good repute that worked hard and played hard. And the fact that so many First Nations players were given the opportunity to play for Manitoulin will always speak volumes about the erstwhile NOJHL franchise.
TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION
Will the NOJHL ever return to Manitoulin? I have my doubts. But I do have an idea.
That is, in these revealing times of truth and reconciliation and what our First Nations people have endured throughout history, maybe the NOJHL could find a willing partner to help fund a franchise that would play in the league with a focus on stocking the team with Indigenous players.
That, to be sure, would be something for NOJHL commissioner Rob Mazzuca and the league to try to pull off. I can’t imagine anyone in the amateur hockey world saying no if someone were to come through with such a proposal — one that might rightfully include some serious government funding.