Malcolm Sutherland received an offer from the Nipigon Elks he couldn’t pass up.
“I got a real nice call from a former player of mine, Zach Prenger, who is a goaltender with the Nipigon Elks,” said Sutherland via phone interview. “He said, ‘Hey the league’s starting up. We’re struggling. We’ve lost our coach (Jean-Marc Fortier), we’re not sure what’s going to happen day-to-day. Can you step in?’
“I like to step up to big challenges. I couldn’t say no,” said Sutherland of that December phone call. “It’s really a nice thing that a young man would reach out to me. Zach’s top shelf when it comes to players and people.
“In just two weeks we put together the skeleton of a hockey team, and we’re literally that,” Sutherland added. “Our last game we had 12 players. These young men are coming from all over the North Shore. Players from Marathon who have traveled three-plus hours to Thunder Bay to just get a chance to skate on the rink and get an opportunity to play. It’s been inspiring from that standpoint. We’re working hard. But we’re facing teams with 28 guys. It’s been a challenge, but a lot of fun so far.”
And so the Lakehead Junior Hockey League retained their fourth franchise, and Prenger has a new nickname — Reg Dunlop of Slapshot fame — courtesy of Sutherland.
Sutherland is heavily involved in the Safe for Sports initiative out of Toronto in conjunction with ex-Thunder Bay Twin Kerry Goulet that encompasses ‘serious injury and the game of ice hockey’. A number of ex-athletes including Keith Primeau, Darryl Sittler and Tiger Williams are in tow.
COVID-19 restrictions cut Sutherland’s worldly travels with that organization, opening up the chance to coach with Nipigon.
LJHL president Josh Gribben was happy to see the Nipigon franchise get an 11th hour reprieve.
“Jean-Marc Fortier had been involved for so many years, he was really the catalyst pushing that group for so long,” said Gribben. “When he needed to step away there was some real risk of how that team would continue to operate. Malcolm stepped in which was huge for us as a league and Nipigon. Three teams, I don’t see that working. We were exploring other options, the Kings program and other options locally. But our priority was on how do we find a way to get Nipigon and every other team going. Our four teams were our main focus.
“We’ve had several challenges to try to get off the ground this year — whether it was Schreiber’s arena not being available, Nipigon arena not being available to have the dressing rooms for our teams,” Gribben added. “Everyone’s playing out of the Tournament Centre because they are a little bit more flexible regarding the dressing room situation.”
The third-year president also had to grapple with the ongoing pandemic.
“At the onset of this season we looked at what our options were to keep going,” said Gribben. “We were waiting on the 14-day quarantine period between changing cohorts. Once that happened we were able to action a season and it’s based on 14 days of playing, two teams competing against one another with a 14-day break after that.”
The newest 14-day Northern Ontario lockdown comes an opportune time with the league essentially shutting down for the Christmas break anyway. There is no schedule yet for January.
“Getting all four teams going was the priority,” said Gribben. “Luckily enough, Malcolm worked alongside Irwin Nichol, a long-time Nipigon force, and got it off the ground. Hopefully that’s a good sign for us to develop into the new year. Through this whole process our ownership groups have told us that the ‘want to play’ is based on what their players are telling them. These young guys are looking for something to do to remain active and to have these experiences in any form we can give them.”
The LJHL hopes to complete a 20- to 24-game season with a best-of-three playoff series to crown a champion.
To date, the Northern Hawks are once again dominant, winning all four games against the Thunder Bay Bandits. The Schreiber Filane’s Falcons swept Nipigon over the weekend for their first-ever 2-0-0 start.
“It is definitely challenging. Obviously it changes the normal way of doing things,” said Schreiber coach Mario Filane-Figliomeni.
“I’m really proud of the boys, too. They been committed for two, three months. They’ve come to practice, they haven’t missed,” he said. “They’ve been willing to be on board with whatever we have to do to follow the rules. I’m proud of the league for the effort they’ve put forward, but also really proud of the group for whatever hockey we can get this year.”