Hockey games — and in due course, championships — are won on the ice. And while hockey writers do not determine victory, some of us see ourselves as soothsayers who forecast and foresee based on a combination of analysis and fact finding. Which brings this singular wordsmith to infer, suppose and have a hunch relative to the balance of power in the Superior International Jr. Hockey League.
Ergo, the Hockey News North projection for the 2022-2023 SIJHL season has the Dryden Ice Dogs and Kam River Fighting Walleye as the lead contestants with the Thunder Bay North Stars in close pursuit. Then it’s the Wisconsin Lumberjacks in the middle and the reigning champion Red Lake Miners in a three-way skirmish with the Fort Frances Lakers and the expansion Sioux Lookout Bombers for the fifth, sixth and seventh place rungs.
In Dryden, no nonsense coach and general manager Kurt Walsten isn’t evading words relative to his expectations for the Ice Dogs to return to their championship ways of the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 seasons.
“We are going to have a way better team this season than we had last season,” said the outspoken, 54-year old Walsten. “I recruited hard this summer. All my guys wanted to come back from last year but I didn’t keep them all. Obviously we didn’t win last year,” Walsten said of a Dryden team that finished a solid third during the 2021-2022 regular season with a record of 26-15-4. The Ice Dogs then swept Fort Frances in the first round of the playoffs before being upended by Red Lake in six games in the second round.
“We were a lazy team in some areas,” Walsten said of the ’21-22 Ice Dogs. “The key guys I wanted are all back with us this year. We were competitive last year. We didn’t have the depth … but we have got depth here this year.”
One of the ace players for Dryden this season figures to be 20-year old returning forward Brady Frattinger, who Walsten named as the Ice Dogs captain for the ’22-23 season. And Frattinger also likes the depth of the Dryden lineup.
“Kurt did a lot of work this summer. We’ve got a lot of depth. We might not have anybody put up 50 goals but we can have three or four guys put 30 in the back of the net. We have got a good core here,” said Frattinger.
Meanwhile, as Walsten has added a bevy of newcomers to the mix with his hand-picked class of returnees, one of his graduated players has signed on as a new full-time assistant coach. He is 26-year old Jake Gushue, who was a rugged, all purpose defenseman during the Ice Dogs championship run of the ’16-17 season. And Walsten is beyond thrilled to now have Gushue back of the bench with him.
“When he played here he worked hard. Jake is a great team guy who cares about the community and always had nothing but good things to say about Dryden. If you’re going to reward someone those are the kind of guys you want to reward. He was proud to wear the Ice Dog jersey when he was here. He stayed in touch over the years,” Walsten said of Gushue, who hails from Maple Ridge, British Columbia.
“Because Jake is a young guy he can relate to players that way. He is a personal trainer off the ice. Our guys are getting first class workouts everyday in the gym with Jake. We are going to be a well conditioned team this year,” Wasten said in further reference to Gushue. “We are doing things back to the way we used to do it when we won all the time. Jake is what the Ice Dog organization is. He cares about the guys. He puts the work in. He is the perfect fit.”
Meantime, as Dryden has sights set on a championship season in ’22-23 so too does Kam River. The Fighting Walleye finished in first place during the ’21-22 regular season with an impressive record of 35-7-2. Kam River then swept its cross-town rival Thunder Bay North Stars in the semi-finals of the playoffs before losing to Red Lake in six games in the championship series.
Matt Valley, the scholarly 32-year old head coach of the Fighting Walleye who won SIJHL coach of the year honours as a rookie bench boss in ’21-22, is looking to take Kam River all the way in ’22-23.
“Last season did not end the way we wanted it to,” Valley told Hockey News North. “While it was a successful regular season for the most part, in the end, we did not get it done when it counted most.
“So, this off season we went back to the drawing board,” Valley continued. “Our staff and organization in general has a bit of a chip on our shoulder after losing to Red Lake in six. We want to prove it to ourselves that we are for real and can go all the way this time. It is going to be very exciting watching these guys on our roster come together over the next several weeks. We believe that we have a strong core of returning and new players to build around.”
A pair of doubleheaders highlight the opening of the SIJHL regular season this weekend. Kam River is at Dryden for a pair of tussles while Wisconsin is slated to play host to Red Lake for two matches.