I have followed the Superior International Jr. Hockey League in a sporadic manner since its formation about 20 years ago. Mostly, any heed I indemnified towards the SIJHL was the championship squad that represented it at the annual Dudley-Hewitt Cup tournament that also included the title teams from the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League and Ontario Jr. Hockey League.
But I opted to begin to cover the SIJHL in a more steady and systematic fashion this season and there is much to like about the league, which is mainly based in northwestern Ontario and also has a reliable, pledged, American existence in the Wisconsin Lumberjacks, who play out of the small northern town of Spooner.
Thanks to the good peeps at HockeyTV.com, I have watched parts of at least 50 SIJHL games thus far this season. And having seen and heard many negative comments about the caliber of play and players in the SIJHL over the years — most of it from southern Ontario, of course — I beg to differ now that I have had closer looks.
From what I have watched — and, um, I have taken in and caught sight of thousands of junior hockey games as a journalist of 47 years — the SIJHL is a pretty good league with more than its share of choice, primo players and teams.
Comparing the SIJHL to the NOJHL, there are positive similarities.
The 12 member NOJHL does have double the number of teams than the SIJHL and is more anchored and fortified. But per capita and especially in the 19 and 20 year old age category, the SIJHL has its comparable share of star and impact players. And as the NOJHL is bringing along up and coming young coaches to compliment its veteran bench boss mainstays, so too does the SIJHL have credible junior A level coaches sprinkled throughout the ranks.
One such top notch coach is Kam River Fighting Walleye head master Matt Valley. The epitome of an up and coming young coach to lead a junior A program, the 32-year old Valley not only starred in the SIJHL for the Thunder Bay North Stars as a top defenseman but then played four years at the Division 3, National Collegiate Athletic Association level. He also has a degree in education from Lakehead University and is a school teacher in Thunder Bay in addition to coaching the Fighting Walleye.
Meantime, in a show of solidarity, SIJHL teams have established good working relationships with NOJHL clubs when it comes to making trades. This season alone, quality players who have moved from the NOJHL to the SIJHL include forwards Ryan Hunter (Cochrane Crunch to Red Lake Miners), Dayton Clarke (Elliot Lake Red Wings to Kam River Fighting Walleye), Pineshish Whiteduck (Espanola Express to Dryden Ice Dogs) and Ethan Elgie (Blind River Beavers to Fort Frances Lakers), defenseman Tie Jacobs (French River Rapids to Dryden) and goalie Eric Clark (Blind River to Dryden.)
Then there is the fact that both head coach Doug Laprade and general manager Bruno Bragagnolo of the Soo Eagles of the NOJHL who would like to see more inter-league games in the future between teams from their league and the SIJHL.
Laprade and Bragagnolo speak from experience of earlier this season.
When the Province of Ontario was in shutdown in January and leagues such as the NOJHL and SIJHL were forced into a refrain from play, the Eagles played host to Wisconsin in a pair of exhibition matches at Pullar Stadium in the Michigan Soo. The Eagles of the NOJHL skated to a pair of narrow 4-3 wins over the Lumberjacks of the SIJHL.
“They were two really good games,” said Laprade. “I definitely would like to see us play more games against teams from the SIJHL in the future. Wisconsin is a good, well run program. And the feedback that we have on the SIJHL as a league is good.”
“The games would not have to be part of the regular season schedule. Just to play some exhibition games against each other would be good for players, teams and fans in both leagues,” said Bragagnolo. “We really liked playing against Wisconsin. They have some good players on that team and (owner, general manager and coach) Doug Lein is a good guy who runs a good program out there in Spooner.
“Personally, as an owner of an NOJHL team, I would like to see more of a relationship between our league and the SIJHL when it comes to playing against each other,” Bragagnolo added. “I know that it is our plan to return the favour to the Wisconsin Lumberjacks and head to Spooner to play some exhibition games with them next season.”
On a similar note of inter-league competition, Kam River of the SIJHL has confirmed that it will be hosting a pre-season tournament prior to the 2022-2023 campaign. And Fighting Walleye general manager Kevin McCallum told Hockey News North that “we would love to have a team or two from the NOJHL take part in our tournament.”
Certainly, as is the case in the NOJHL, the SIJHL has its share of well run, model junior A franchises with credible, valid coaches and general managers.
Two SIJHL franchises that stand out are the league’s newest entry, the first-year Kam River Fighting Walleye, and the Dryden Ice Dogs, who are a charter member of the SIJHL from its debut season of existence, the 2001-2002 campaign.
Kam River has quickly become a model SIJHL franchise as first-place finishers during the 2021-2022 regular season and for the manner in which ownership and management markets its fan friendly program. Dryden, likewise, not only continues to consistently ice a winning team but along with Kam River, is atop the SIJHL attendance chart.
Like the NOJHL, the SIJHL is home to a slew of 20-year old standouts, many of whom will move on to Canadian and American colleges and universities in the fall. But if there is one area where the SIJHL does not match up to the NOJHL is being a haven for 16 and 17-year old players. In that aspect, 99 per cent of players in the SIJHL are 18, 19, and 20 years of age.
Still, as the 2021-2022 SIJHL season heads towards the league championship series and an earlier finish than the NOJHL campaign, the Superior loop can look ahead to the 2022-2023 term and the arrival of the Sioux Lookout Bombers as an expansion team.
And while eligible returning players could well end up suiting up for different junior teams in other Canadian or American leagues next season, there is the potential for SIJHL teams to have a multitude of high end veterans back in the fold for 2022-2023.
In particular, Kam River, Dryden and Wisconsin stand to have the services of an attractive list of top flight performers for next season.
As examples, forwards Trenton Morriseau, Ethan Lang, Jeremy Dunmore and Carson Gorst, defenseman Johnny McCollum and goalie Eric Vanska of Kam River have junior eligibility remaining as do forwards Brady Frattinger and Ondrej Bardos, defensemen Dayvan Bull, Jackson Jacques and Lane Snell and goalie Eric Clark for Dryden and forwards Sal Poggiali, Ryder McMillen and Ryan Blackburn, defensemen Jake McCall and Zach Carson and goalie Kyler Lowden for Wisconsin.
It does not have the number of teams as the NOJHL does. But it says here that the SIJHL is an enticing, beckoning option as a conceivable, feasible junior A hockey league of choice.