Kam River Fighting Walleye will be out to extend its 12 game winning streak when play resumes in the Superior International Jr. Hockey League after February 1. Meanwhile, fifth seed Wisconsin Lumberjacks will be building towards what their coach calls the “end game.”
Like the other four northwestern Ontario based teams in the SIJHL, Kam River has not played a game since before Christmas. In fact, Kam River has been inactive from game action since December 17-18 when the Fighting Walleye scored 7-2 and 6-4 home ice victories over Wisconsin.
Then came the holiday break followed by a provincial government mandated, Omicron variant driven, pause in play that will finally be lifted on February 1.
Wisconsin, on the other hand, was able to play four regular season games between January 11 and 15 against the SIJHL’s other American entry, the Thief River Falls Norskies.
Now, the SIJHL is finalizing a full return to play schedule for all seven of its teams for February 1 and beyond.
At the top, Kam River, with its 22-3-1 record and first place standing, still has a ways to go and more to give, according to head coach Matt Valley.
“It has been a solid year for our group as far as our record goes. The staff, myself included, feels like we showed flashes of a team that can win it all but also flashes of a team that has a long way to go. So, we still have a lot more to give, that is for sure,” Valley told Hockey News North.
“But, it is exciting to win games despite not playing our best hockey all the time. It seems like in one way or another, we find a way to get it done,” Valley noted. “It is crucial for that to continue down the stretch.”
Valley commented on the affect that the pause in play has had on the Fighting Walleye.
“We were active at the (January 10) deadline and leading up to it as well. We’ve brought in a handful of quality individuals who can all play. Having said that, we moved out some solid players as well. With the recent pause in activity, it has been difficult from a coach’s standpoint maintaining the chemistry since we don’t have access to our facility. I have to credit our guys for stepping up during that time and making sure all the new guys were properly welcomed to the team. Our leaders especially have done a fantastic job in that regard.
“Looking ahead to when play resumes, it is going to be very exciting to see what this group can do. While we’re confident in all of the pieces in place, I think that it’s anybody’s league to win. Our guys all know that the real work starts now and we have to be ready to continue growing if we want to make a real run here,” Valley said, in summation.
Meanwhile, Kam River general manager Kevin McCallum gave his take on the 2021 segment of play while looking ahead to the 2022 recommence.
“We are extremely happy with our current record and spot in the standing knowing we haven’t accomplished anything yet and still a mountain in front of us to get to where we want to be,” McCallum began. “Our hockey operations department was full throttle during the deadline making moves we believe that will allow us to be successful.”
To be sure, the Fighting Walleye went out and traded for several forwards and defensemen in deals with teams in other junior A leagues.
“Bringing in Dayton Clarke was a major move for us early and during the deadline bringing in Anthony Oviedo, Logan Gallaher, Holden Woodcroft, and Max McNeil were all strategic moves knowing they potentially have two to three years in our organization. We wanted to address our current needs with our future in mind and I believe they were all great moves that added size, experience and skill,” McCallum pointed out.
As for the pause in play, McCallum relayed its affect on the Fighting Walleye.
“With restrictions it’s been tough to have group settings and really bring our group together and bond and something that we plan on doing when we can be together as a group and back in the daily grind of being in the room together,” he noted.
“Having said that, all of our new acquisitions have blended right in and already feel a part of the Walleye family. Obviously with the pause we couldn’t do anything in the way of team events. We had guys working out at private gyms and some outdoor rinks and our guys never wavered on wanting to leave and go home for the shutdown which is a testament of the culture we have built and our guys buying into what we have set out to do from day one … which competing for a championship and the Bill Salonen Cup,” McCallum added.
Meanwhile, with a fifth place standing and record of 8-18-2 to date, Wisconsin is aware of the task ahead for the balance of the season, according to general manager and coach Doug Lein, who is also part of the ownership group of the Lumberjacks.
“The guys have been working hard over the pause. We have been uniquely fortunate to be able to play over this time. I think our guys came back from Christmas break ready to hit the ground running and we have been able to get some extra work in. The guys are looking forward to getting back to regularly scheduled league games,” Lein relayed to Hockey News North.
“We know we have an uphill climb to dig out of the slow start but at the end of the day, we are focused on getting ready for the playoffs. Having the best regular season record was never a goal of this team. We have been focused on the end game,” said Lein, while noting that all seven teams in the SIJHL will qualify for the playoffs.
The Wisconsin boss added that he likes the makeup of his team.
“We have a great locker room right now and we have some guys coming back from injury and high schoolers back after their seasons that will allow us to open up our game a bit. We picked up the one guy at the deadline. (Forward) Ryan Blackburn is a young guy that I’ve been chasing for a few years now. I was finally able to snag him (from the Greater Ontario Jr. Hockey League) and we are looking forward to what he brings,” Lein pointed out.
“All in all, we couldn’t be more ready and feel any better about where our club is going into the second half. It should be a really high level of play across the league and all the teams as we get into more of a normal schedule,” Lein concluded.
- Kam River Fighting Walleye, 45 points (22-3-1) 2. Red Lake Miners, 34 points (16-3-2) 3. Thunder Bay North Stars, 33 points (15-7-3) 4. Dryden Ice Dogs, 33 points (16-9-1) 5. Wisconsin Wilderness, 18 points (8-18-2) 6. Thief River Falls Norskies, 11 points (5-15-1) 7. Fort Frances Lakers, 4 points (2-19-0).
Photo: Kam River and Wisconsin, in SIJHL action from the first part of the 2021-2022 season.