Weldon's gold shines in 2012
Change and the potential for more of it down the road highlighted the year in Thunder Bay sports for 2012.
The city was represented by a two-sport Paralympian this past summer while moves — with plenty of debate — to break ground on a new multi-purpose centre were the top two sports stories as chosen by The Chronicle-Journal.
Here’s a look at the top five selections:
1. Weldon excels in another sport
Paralympian and Thunder Bay native Robbi Weldon added the Summer Games to her impressive athletic resume as she teamed up with her pilot, Lyne Bessette, to win a gold medal in women’s cycling road race in London on Sept. 8. Weldon, who is visually impaired, and Bessette were coming off numerous Canadian and World Cup titles leading up to the Games. They opened with a disappointing fourth-place finish in the time trials.
What made Weldon’s performance even more memorable was that she had skied for Canada at the 2010 Paralympic Games. And while she didn’t win a medal in that discipline, she says she plans to make a run at the 2014 Games in Russia.
Weldon’s participation was the only one from a local athlete at either the Olympics or Paralympics this year.
2. Arena talks get heated
The old adage in the game of real estate is “location, location, location” and in 2012, the location of the planned arena/event centre/multi-purpose centre (or whatever you want to call it) was under a lot of scrutiny.
The top two choices were Innova Park and the downtown marina area. After many public meetings and debates, Thunder Bay city council voted to endorse the downtown location and move on to Phase 3 of the feasibility study,
The $106-million event centre is still not a guarantee — Phase 3 includes more information gathering, and the city has said it won’t go forward unless federal and provincial funding can be secured.
More work lies ahead in 2013, including exploring which hockey team will be the main tenant (one that will provide more than 40 home dates; something the Lakehead Thunderwolves can’t offer) of the facility. Ice Edge Holdings talking heads Anthony LeBlanc and Keith McCullough continue to stress an AHL or ECHL team is a possibility. But their non-commitment is another of string of questions left to be answered.
3. Thunderwolves lack chemistry
The ugly side of player politics in hockey made an impact on the Lakehead University men’s hockey team. The majority of 2012 was a mixed bag for Thunder Bay’s top hockey attraction. The Thunderwolves were knocked out of the second round of the OUA playoffs in February before recruiting an impressive freshmen crop that included three recently graduated Ontario Hockey League captains — Carson Dubchak, Luke Judson and Michael MacDonald — who were all raised in Northwestern Ontario.
But the abundance of talent needed time to gel and, as it turned out, head coach Joel Scherban didn’t have much of it. Despite a 10th-place ranking in the national standings and a 3-1-0 record, the Thunderwolves fired Scherban on Oct. 19 without giving an official reason. According to sources close to the team, players tuned out Scherban’s coaching style and collectively made a demand to management that a change should be made.
The players won out, but the team is now out of the CIS top 10 and tied for fourth in the OUA West at 9-5-2 as interim coach Mike Busniuk tries to right the ship for the second half of the season.
4. Wrestlers stand tall
While the university’s hockey team struggled on and off the ice, the Thunderwolves wrestling team had the town all to themselves for one weekend and didn’t disappoint.
The Canadian university wrestling championships was the highest profile, non-regular athletic event hosted by Thunder Bay in 2012. The Thunderwolves men’s and women’s teams couldn’t crack the podium in the overall points derby. However LU veterans Preston Mikulasik and Emma Brightwell won gold medals in their respective weight classes minutes apart on Feb. 25 at the C.J. Sanders Fieldhouse.
The duo also won the national tournament MVPs — the highest individual honours at the event. Brightwell went to forego her senior season to serve as president of the LU student union while Mikulasik is back to defend his championship later this winter.
5. Wedding crashers
Jordan Staal’s wedding day in Thunder Bay on June 22 was the closest this town has come to a celebrity “find-fest.” Fans were tweeting photos and stories about meeting NHL stars and wedding guests such as Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury around town. Did Pittsburgh Penguins owner Mario Lemieux make a quick appearance during the ceremony before jetting off to Pittsburgh for the draft later that day?
Security at the hotel Staal’s guests were staying at kept us local media-types in check while we awaited the guests’ arrival after the ceremony (but well before the reception — we wouldn’t crash that!).
But the capper on a memorable day came during out was supposed to be a private reception when the Penguins announced at the draft that they traded Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes, the team with his older brother, Eric, as captain.
“The room was tense a little bit,” Jordan told The Chronicle-Journal over the summer. “It was tough, a little emotional for me anyways, going back there and talking to the guys. It’s tough when you’ve had friends for six long years there and to watch them go on a night that they came up for you and to celebrate so it was a very difficult time but I knew in the long run, in the back of my mind, that it was a good thing.”
Unfortunately, Jordan’s anticipated debut with the Hurricanes has been delayed by the ongoing NHL lockout.
Aside from goaltender Alex Auld, who signed to play in Europe before the lockout, not one NHLer from Northwestern Ontario opted to play overseas as the stalemate dragged out.
The Thunder Bay North Stars junior A team changed ownership once and changed coaches four times. Lost in the background shuffles was their strong appearance as hosts of the Dudley-Hewitt Cup in April. Thunder Bay upset the SIJHL champion Wisconsin Wilderness before falling to the Soo Thunderbirds in the semifinal. . . . The Thunder Bay Queens midget AA girls hockey team reached the final of the Esso Cup national tournament for the second time in three years in May. The Queens fell 4-2 to Pembina Valley in the gold medal game on April 28. . . . The Lakehead Thunderwolves men’s basketball team and the Thunder Bay Chill soccer club proved in 2012 that a dominant regular season doesn’t easily translate to playoff success. The Thunderwolves, ranked at No. 2 at season’s end, rolled through their OUA schedule with a 20-2 record only to go 1-3 in the playoffs, including an 0-2 showing at the nationals. During the summer, the Chill’s 13-2-1 mark to win the Premier Development League’s Heartland Division regular season title meant little as they went “one and done” in the playoffs, losing to eventual league champion Forest City London 1-0 on July 21.