While the official cancellation of this year’s Junior hockey season has been tough for local fans, leaders say it’s been most difficult on players born in the year 2,000, who spent their final year in limbo.
League Commissioner Darrin Nicholas made the announcement that the Superior International Junior Hockey League would be cancelling their 2020-2021 season earlier this week, after unsuccessfully fighting for exemptions from public health guidelines in recent months.
While the Northwestern Health Unit’s level of Yellow-Protect does allow for competitive sports, Thunder Bay spent much of last month in the Red-Control level of restrictions, which doesn’t allow sports, and they’ve since moved into a Grey-Lockdown level after Ontario used their “Emergency Brake”.
President of the Dryden GM Ice Dogs, Mike Sveinson, says the decision to cancel this season was an unfortunate one, but it was necessary to keep players, staff and communities as safe as possible.
“Every year we’re invested in the success of the team, pushing forward hockey in our region. This year, we felt a different kind of pressure. We were hoping to have an opportunity to provide an extremely-needed outlet for our young athletes, fans and our community. To have it come to a conclusion like this, it’s difficult.”
He stressed the hardest part of the situation has been how to help players who have aged out of Junior hockey continue their careers elsewhere, as scouts weren’t able to see players in action outside of a few regular season and exhibition games this season.
“I’m watching parents in minor hockey who are having kids lose their first novice year or their bantam year, but the thing with that is that there’s still time left. But these kids in their 20-year of junior hockey, this is what they’ve been working towards their whole lives.”
The Canadian Junior Hockey League, which encompasses the SIJHL and 9 other Junior hockey leagues across the country, currently only allows six players in their final year of Juniors on any team, and their age-limit is 20.
Ice Dogs who will be ineligible to return next season include forwards Xavier Haltermann, Nolan Marshall, Evan Pakkala, Jon Tagoona and Kendall Schulz and blueliner Austin Gaspar.
Sveinson adds thankfully, the Ice Dogs were able to take part in exhibition games and 4 regulation games before January’s pause, where they were leading the league with a 3-1 record, tied with the Kam River Fighting Walleye.
Sveinson says footage, statistics and more from those games earlier this season will all be given to coaches and scouts who would typically be interested in talking to or signing Ice Dogs players, and staff have been vouching for their abilities whenever possible.
“[This is] a stepping-stone for their futures. We graduate players from our program into post-secondary opportunities, scholarships and professional careers. These guys will get their opportunity, but typically, there’s a showcase tournament where they can speak to scouts about their opportunities. It’s tough.”
Sveinson notes the 2021-2022 hockey season will mark the SIJHL’s 20th year in operation, and he will be advocating for a safe return to the rink as soon as possible.
“The longer this goes on, the more trying it is for these organizations to continue to absorb the economic impacts of not being able to play or generate revenue. I’m still motivated to lead this group forward and see a successful return to the ice. I’m going to try to make sure the Ice Dogs grow through it, roll with the punches and come out the other end in good shape.”
The SIJHL had previously announced that the Wisconsin Lumberjacks and Thief River Falls Norskies would be pausing their seasons due to ongoing border restrictions, and the league was hoping to continue on with fewer teams. They later added Kenora’s AAA Thistles and Thunder Bay’s AAA Kings, who couldn’t take part in their usual leagues.