If there is a model for success for a junior A hockey franchise in its first full season then just take a look at the Kam River Fighting Walleye. Besides a first place finish during the 2021-2022 regular season as the new kids on the block in the seven member Superior International Jr. Hockey League, Kam River — along with the established Dryden Ice Dogs — topped the attendance chart, well above the rest.
An .818 winning percentage and a record of 35-7-2 was enough for Kam River to edge the Red Lake Miners for top spot on the SIJHL standings rung. The Fighting Walleye then swept the well-entrenched, cross-town Thunder Bay North Stars in four games in the semi-finals of the playoffs before losing to Red Lake in six in the SIJHL championship series.
The chief engineer of the Kam River hockey project is general manager Kevin McCallum, who is a local Thunder Bay product. And McCallum was verbally voluminous in passing around praise for the first year successes of the Fighting Walleye.
“I couldn’t have been more proud of what we accomplished on and off the ice. We have great people in our organization from ownership to the stick boys,” McCallum relayed to Hockey News North. “We came up short in the end and lost to a team that seemed to want it a bit more and maybe a bit more seasoned. I can assure you we don’t have regrets. I’m cheering for Red Lake and hope that they and the Soo Thunderbirds represent our two leagues with the best we have (at this week’s Centennial Cup, national junior A championship tournament.)”
McCallum is already looking ahead to the 2022-2023 season.
“We never stop recruiting for next year and are always looking to improve,” McCallum pointed out. “We have scouts in attendance in a lot of showcases across North America and we want to bring in the best personnel we can to compete for a title. We are receiving lots of calls our way with our success in leading the league in commitments.
“What is very exciting is our new recruits and returning players have seen or experienced our atmosphere in the arena and absolutely love it. These kids want to play in a packed barn and the support we receive from the community of Oliver-Paipoonge (which is located on the outskirts of Thunder Bay) and our sponsors is overwhelming,” McCallum added.
As a new team in the SIJHL, Kam River quickly made a fan of 72-year old Don Smith, a lifelong hockey follower who hadn’t paid much attention to the SIJHL and the long-standing Thunder Bay North Stars until the Fighting Walleye arrived on the scene.
“What attracted me to the Fighting Walleye is the community spirit, professionalism and quality of the product they provided,” Smith told Hockey News North. “Walking into the smaller venue (Norwest Arena) rink for the first time I had no idea of the experience on and off the ice that I was about to see. The place was packed and the enthusiasm was contagious. I felt like I was at an NHL game with the player intros.
“Through you I had the opportunity to meet one of the owners and GM in Kevin McCallum and to say I was impressed is an understatement. One of the things that really struck me was the give back to the community and kids that the Fighting Walleye provides, from bringing younger teams to the rink, showing up at kids practices and promoting the host community of Oliver-Paipoonge as well as Thunder Bay,” added Smith.
“The Walleye has made me a huge SIJHL fan and as I said it is because the atmosphere and class they provide on and off the ice. The Walleye should be used as a template for taking a small venue rink and new organization and providing a true hockey experience to fans young and old. They realize the importance of community buy in and go above and beyond in providing it,” summed up Smith.
Smith was born in Thunder Bay and played hockey there as a youngster before moving to Sault Ste. Marie in 1967. He eventually finished high school in the Sault and went to Lake Superior State University across the International Bridge. And Smith not only became a big fan of the Soo Greyhounds but served as a billet parent for players of the Ontario Hockey League team.
A retired optician, Smith moved back to Thunder Bay in 1986 and besides taking in SIJHL games of the Fighting Walleye, he enjoys watching his grandson play hockey with the AAA Thunder Bay Kings.