Founded in 2001, the Superior International Jr. Hockey League has had a helter skelter existence of disorder and confusion via pop up teams in northwestern Ontario, Wisconsin and Minnesota that came and went without ever gaining validity. But the league’s newest entry, the Kam River Fighting Walleye, has swiftly become an ideal franchise. And the SIJHL is set to expand to Sioux Lookout next season.
To be sure, the SIJHL is giving appearances of being on a good forward path.
As the fifth commissioner in the 20-year history of the SIJHL, Darrin Nicholas has only been on the job for about 18 months. And given that the 2020-2021 SIJHL season consisted of a mere handful of games due to the coronavirus, this is actually the first full year for Nicholas at the helm of the league.
The overnight success that Kam River has shown both on and off the ice — the Fighting Walleye is in first place in the SIJHL and is near the top of the attendance chart playing out of NorWest Arena — followed the return of the league to Spooner, Wisconsin, where the Lumberjacks have rapidly become a member in good standing under the ownership of the Lein family after previous operators failed.
In fact, Lumberjacks co-owner, general manager and coach Doug Lein also serves as the SIJHL’s chairman of the board and is known as someone who not only cares about his team but the league as whole.
And with the Sioux Lookout Bombers poised to debut as the SIJHL’s eighth team for the 2022-2023 season, there is a sense of optimism in the league, even with the recent pause taken by the Minnesota-based Thief River Falls Norskies.
Citing a lack of committed players, Thief River Falls — which entered the SIJHL in 2016 and subsequently had four straight winning seasons — shut down operations in January, though ownership has vowed to reorganize and emphatically stated that the Norskies will be back on the ice next season.
As for Sioux Lookout, the town is poised to return to the SIJHL in the fall after a 10-year absence and under new, all local ownership led by Matt Cairns, Joe Cassidy, Austen Holy and Christine Hoey. Sioux Lookout’s previous team, the Flyers, folded 10 years ago after a player card scandal.
Meanwhile, Robert Mazzuca, who is the chairman of the board of the nation-wide Canadian Jr. Hockey League — and commissioner of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League — likes the leadership that the aforementioned Darrin Nicholas has shown at the helm of the SIJHL.
“He has some issues to deal with up there but Darrin is a good guy who is doing some good things for the SIJHL moving forward,” said Mazzuca, who knows what it is like to oversee the growth of a league.
When Mazzuca took over as commissioner of the NOJHL in 2011, it was a wishy washy league of seven teams. Within four years, Mazzuca took the NOJHL from seven to 12 teams, a number that it still boasts to this day.
As for Nicholas, he is not sitting idle as he plans the growth of the SIJHL, which when Sioux Lookout takes to the ice in the fall, will be an eight team league that features the flagship Dryden Ice Dogs as well as the Thunder Bay North Stars, Red Lake Miners, Fort Frances Lakers and the aforestated Kam River Fighting Walleye, Wisconsin Lumberjacks and Thief River Falls Norskies.
“We are looking to aggressively expand over the next few seasons for sure,” Nicholas told Hockey News North. “I am primarily focused now on communities within our existing footprint so as not to adversely impact travel and operational cost to our teams.
“But we will have to expand our territory eventually,” Nicholas added.
While Nicholas did not reveal for the record what towns the SIJHL is looking at as potential future sites, sources have told Hockey News North that the northwestern Ontario towns of Schreiber and Kenora are possibilities, as is Virginia, Minnesota.
Notably, Kenora has had city council approval to welcome an SIJHL team in the past but a lack of ice availability in town vetoed the plan.
As for Schreiber, it was home to an SIJHL team for four seasons beginning in 2005. Known as the Schreiber Diesels, they won the SIJHL championship in 2007 and represented the league that year at the Dudley Hewitt Cup Central Canada tournament in Iroquois Falls. In fact, Schreiber made it to the DHC championship game.
Lifelong area resident Bobby Spadoni was the coach of the Diesels, who had winning records in three of their four seasons in the SIJHL. Still passionate about junior hockey, Spadoni said he would like to see the SIJHL back in Schreiber, which along with its neighbour town of Terrace Bay, has a combined population about 3,000.
“Yes, hopefully back in the SIJHL one day for sure,” Spadoni told Hockey News North, adding that he has looked at being part of a group that would return the SIJHL to Schreiber, which is a little more than a two hour drive east of Thunder Bay.
SIJHL V. NOJHL
There are those who would like to see head to head games between the SIJHL and the NOJHL that go beyond their championship and host teams meeting at the annual Dudley Hewitt Cup tournament.
In early January of this year, the Soo Eagles of the NOJHL played host to the SIJHL’s Wisconsin Lumberjacks in a pair of exhibition games. And Eagles president and general manager Bruno Bragagnolo told Hockey News North that he would like to see more games between teams of the two leagues.
“I wouldn’t mind seeing if our league could incorporate games with SIJHL teams every year,” Bragagnolo stated.
And general manager Kevin McCallum of the SIJHL’s Kam River Fighting Walleye had planned to have a couple of teams from the NOJHL at a pre season tournament last fall only to not go ahead with those plans because of Covid concerns.
“I would love to have a pre season tournament with teams from both leagues,” McCallum told Hockey News North.