To the fore of a looming season

August 4, 2022

Symmetry was somewhat suggestive among the top four teams in the Superior International Jr. Hockey League over the course of the 2021-2022 regular season. Kam River Fighting Walleye, Red Lake Miners, Dryden Ice Dogs and Thunder Bay North Stars all finished above the .500 mark with respective winning percentages of .818, .797, .622 and .561. Projections for the looming 2022-2023 season are not as clearly expressed.

Matt Valley

• Reigning playoff champion Red Lake Miners are in a state of unpredictability. Highly successful coach and general manager Geoff Walker recently opted to leave Red Lake for a pro coaching job in Sweden. And quite a few high end players from the ’21-22 season have either graduated or had trade requests granted by the Miners to move to teams in other Canadian junior hockey leagues.

• A better picture frames the prevailing regular season champion Kam River Fighting Walleye. Kam River has already confirmed the return of several key performers from last season including goalie Eric Vanska, defenseman Kyle Lamoureux and forwards Trenton Morriseau, Ethan Lang, Carson Gorst, Jeremy Dunmore and Colton Crysler while acquiring seasoned homegrown forward Ryan Doucette from the Blind River Beavers of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League. The Fighting Walleye is assembling for just its second full season as members of the SIJHL and has rapidly become a first-rate franchise from ownership to the masterful duo of general manager Kevin McCallum and head coach Matt Valley. There is little misgiving that Kam River is prepped to again be a prime time title contender in the SIJHL and, along with Dryden, at or near the top of the league’s attendance chart.

Kurt Walsten

• One can reckon that Dryden will again be in a position to contend in ’22-23 with Kurt Walsten at the steering wheel as coach and general manager. In six full seasons as the Ice Dogs hockey boss, the 54-year Walsten has led Dryden to two SIJHL championships and four trips to the league finals. As for the ’21-22 season, Walsten took the Ice Dogs into the second round of the playoffs where Dryden lost a tough six game series to the eventual champions from Red Lake. Viewing the series via Hockey TV it was rather pronounced that Dryden got the short end of the measuring stick when it came to debatable penalties being handed out by the referees. At any rate, there is much to acknowledge about Walsten and his proven ways, which include the old school approach of having players earn their positions and status on the team rather than have them handed out. Walton’s loyalty to the Ice Dogs as an organization and to Dryden as his adopted home — he is originally from the nearby northwestern Ontario town of Kenora — is without question. Player wise, it is but a foregone conclusion that the Ice Dogs will return a pair of accomplished, driven leaders in ’22-23, namely all purpose forward Brady Frattinger and serviceable, right hand shooting defenseman Jackson Jacques.

• Over to Thunder Bay, since 57-year old Rob DeGagne took over as head coach, the North Stars have had four straight winning seasons — and one SIJHL championship — with records all above the .500 mark. Just based on that and given that Thunder Bay operates in the league’s biggest market — albeit now sharing it with cross town Kam River — the North Stars would rightfully be expected to again be in the challenger mix in ’22-23.

• As for the other three teams that are in the makeup of the SIJHL, the Wisconsin Lumberjacks will be looking to build from a ’21-22 campaign in which their work ethic and resolve was on to display as the season progressed. Wisconsin has net worth in the bank as workhorse goalie Kyler Lowden has confirmed his return for ’22-23. Meanwhile, the Fort Frances Lakers have nowhere to go but up following a ’21-22 season in which they won just five of 44 games. And the new kids on the block are the expansion Sioux Lookout Bombers.

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