The Thunder Bay North Stars will start the new hockey season having lost an entire all-star team, but are confident this campaign is recharge and not a rebuild.
The 2019-20 Superior International Junior Hockey League champions opened training camp on Friday minus co-league leaders in scoring — forward Keighan Gerrie and record-setting defenceman Kyle Auger. Captain Ryan Mignault and goaltender Brock Aiken are also gone. Subtract Brendan Gillis, who played in every game in every situation, rugged defenceman Cole Turbide, and forward Josh Bryant and you’re looking at a different team.
“I think our biggest loss will be the style that we were able to play last year, the offence. We could do anything we wanted to do when we wanted to do it,” said Stars head coach Rob DeGagne, who saw his club accumulate 100 points (49-5-1-1) in 56 regular season games, and score 363 against 122 allowed. “We scored a lot of beautiful goals. One player, you can always replace a guy. It’s going to be hard to replace any of those guys.”
DeGagne often joined the press scrum after games at the Gardens last year smiling, shaking his head, resigned to the fact that his club had so much talent he best not get too much in the way of it. This year he’ll be on a different tack.
“We’re not going to score the same number of goals we did last year,” DeGagne said. “We’re going to win games differently. It’s not that it’s not going to be as exciting, it’ll be a little different style to start. We had a lot of freelance guys out there last year, do what they want. This year’s going to be a little more structured. We had a special year.”
Indeed, the squad was a goal allowed shy of a 3:1 ratio of goals for to goals against. In fairness, much of it was built against the hapless Minnesota Iron Rangers, who are on a one-year sabbatical. The expansion Wisconsin Lumberjacks are the sixth team in the SIJHL this year.
Thunder Bay’s first two games are in Spooner, Wis., on Sept. 20-21 against the Lumberjacks to open the regular season.
DeGagne, who lost out to Derek Sweet-Coulter of the Red Lake Miners for coach of the year, is looking forward to digging in with his new charges.
“Our biggest loss might be our biggest benefit in lots of ways. It’ll get us down to playing hockey the way we were supposed to play,” he said. We have a lot of talent coming back. It’s going to be hard to replace all those goals.”
DeGagne feels last year’s was club was indeed a Special Edition.
“We can’t think about last year. Last year is done. It was one of those years that only come around in a while. Our team is going to have a different identity. We have a lot of talent coming back, we don’t have the talent maybe that we lost, but we have a lot of kids with a good work ethic. Hopefully, with that work ethic it’ll make up for some of the skill we lost.”
A total of 15 players are signed so far.
“We’ve got a good nucleus coming back, especially forwards. We’re a little light on defence,” said DeGagne.
Joel Willan finished fifth in league scoring with 87 points, and Jacob Brown was fourth in points-per-game notching 61 points in 35 games. Ben and Alex Erwin were point-a-game players last year. Jacob Anttonen had 41 points.
Defenceman Logan Mihalcin is looking forward to full season.
Goalie Dougie Newhouse led the league in wins with 26, and his numbers (2.16 GAA, .923 save percentage) are virtually identical to Aiken’s, who is slated to join the Lakehead Thunderwolves.
“They’re going to get their opportunity now,” DeGagne said of his returning crew. “It’s time for them to step it up. I like the guys we have coming back. We just need a little size now. We still have to add our five or six guys, but we’ll take our time and see where it goes.”
Thunder Bay captured the Bill Salonen Cup in the SIJHL, but performed poorly in the Dudley-Hewitt Cup played in Cochrane. That’s a point of unfinished business with the Stars.
Logistical issues prevented the North Stars from hosting the DH Cup in 2020. The Folklore Festival occupies the Gardens on the prime date, and pushing the national junior A qualifier back would incur about $40,000 in extra expenses.
Conservatively, Thunder Bay lost a cool half a million dollars of economic impact.
That turn of events is unfortunate since the North Stars drew 1,000 in attendance five straight home games in the playoffs last year, culminating in a crowd of 2,120 in the series-clinching win against the Red Lake Miners in final round.
The Gardens will unavailable until mid-September while undergoing improvements.
The North Stars hit the ice again today at Port Arthur Arena, and resume training camp Sept. 3 at Current River Arena.