Red Lake Miners dug deep to clinch the 2022 Superior International Jr. Hockey League championship on April 30. Now, the Miners have until May 19 before playing again, which is when they will begin to represent the SIJHL at the 10 day, 10 team Centennial Cup national junior A hockey championship tournament in Estevan, Saskatchewan.
Geoff Walker, who is the head coach and general manager of the Miners, gave his Red Lake crew a couple of days off after winning the SIJHL championship. And now the focus is on the May 19-29 Centennial Cup tournament.
“We gave the boys a few days off, there was a real good celebration (following the SIJHL championship victory) and cheers to our organization for having that. But we are back on the ice now and our guys are willing to put in the work conditioning wise so we can be as ready as we can be for Game 1 on May 19,” Walker told Hockey News North.
Injury and health wise, the Miners are good, said Walker.
“We actually have no injuries and all of our guys are healthy which is awesome for us and them as individuals going into the nationals, especially considering how physical both of our league playoff series were, especially against Dryden,” he relayed.
When asked, Walker said he and the Miners take pride in representing the small town of Red Lake and its 4,000 or so residents — and that fact that the national stage awaits.
“It means a lot to us that we are able to represent this community and speaks to the job that was done here this year that little Red Lake is on the hockey map and has a chance to compete on the biggest stage that there is in junior A hockey, the Centennial Cup,” said Walker.
“It is a great little hockey community,” Walker added of Red Lake, which is located about 330 miles northwest of Thunder Bay and is just over 60 miles from the Ontario-Manitoba border. “I am far from home (Prince Edward Island) and it is great when my mom and daughter come to visit. I really like it here in Red Lake. It is a great little hockey town with supportive fans and the Miners are a first class organization.”
Walker said he would like to return to Red Lake to coach beyond this season.
“I have not signed an agreement for next season yet … we are in talks and ironing out some details. But for now my focus is 100 percent on our prep and having these kids ready to play and compete in Estevan,” he said firmly.
The 34-year old Walker, who took over as the GM and head coach in Red Lake in 2019 and promptly led the Miners to a 32-18-5 record before COVID-19 made its presence, is a former Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League scoring star with his native Prince Edward Island Rocket. He went on to a 10-year pro playing career and had success in both North America and overseas, complete with National Hockey League contracts in his pocket.
At any rate, it was no easy playoff ride en route to SIJHL championship fame for Red Lake this season. It took the Miners six games to sideline the Dryden Ice Dogs and six more to overcome the Kam River Fighting Walleye to conquer Superior.
Laden with a lineup of veteran players on a time-tested team that was solidly built by Walker, Red Lake won eight of 12 playoff matches, ousting both Dryden and Kam River to stake claim to SIJHL glory. The Miners had been to the finals twice previously, losing to the Thunder Bay North Stars in 2019 and to Dryden in 2017.
It was the ability of Red Lake to win on the road in front of big crowds in the enemy territories of Dryden and Kam River that was instrumental in the Miners first championship in a franchise history that began in 2013. Red Lake ran up a 5-1 road record in the SIJHL playoffs, winning all three games in Dryden and taking two of three in Kam River’s home rink.
To be sure, it was Red Lake’s 20-year old players who led the playoff march. Of the Miners top five scorers on the playoff path, four were last year, overage players led by Ryan Howe (eight goals, 10 assists, 18 points), local lad Jordan Baranesky (8-6-14), Ryan Hunter (4-8-12) and Mathieu Belanger (4-4-8.) 19-year old Brady Harroun was Red Lake’s other top playoff producer with five goals, three assists, eight points.
As for Hunter and Belanger, they both arrived in Red Lake during the season via the trade route. Hunter was acquired from the Cochrane Crunch of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League and Belanger was added from the Summerside Western Capitals of the Maritime Hockey League.
In upending Kam River for the league championship, Red Lake was able to score a 3-2 win on home ice in Game 6 to seal the deal. The Miners won the first three games of the series before the Fighting Walleye showed its teeth by winning the next two.
Kam River, which was in its first full season as members of the SIJHL, finished in first place during the regular term, mere percentage points ahead of Red Lake. In an unbalanced season of games, Kam River had an .818 winning percentage from a record of 35-7-2 while Red Lake had a .797 winning percentage via record of 28-6-3.