Northwestern Ontario’s top junior hockey league plans to delay the start of its season by nearly two months.
On Tuesday, the Superior International Junior Hockey League announced the 2020-2021 season will begin on Nov. 14 due to COVID-19 restrictions and concerns.
Newly-hired league commissioner Darrin Nicholas said in a news release the continued closing of the border between the U.S. and Canada is a major reason for the move. Out of the seven SIJHL teams, two are based in the U.S. — the Thief River Falls Norskies and the Wisconsin Lumberjacks.
The season has traditionally started during the third or fourth week of September.
“We’ve been actively monitoring the developments in our region and with the U.S.-Canadian border and working closely with authorities in amateur hockey and public health,” Nicholas said. “On the Canadian side, we are seeing positive indications as our region has now entered Phase III of reopening. However, the restrictions that remain in place are clearly a barrier to a traditional start time to our season.”
The schedule will be announced at a later date. SIJHL venues are also preparing for protocols to be enforced once the buildings are open to fans again.
Since the spring, the border has been closed to thwart the spread of COVID-19. The pandemic cancelled junior hockey leagues across the world in March, including the SIJHL which had just entered the final weekend of the regular season when closures hit on March 12.
Hockey Canada has already started guidelines for the sport to return at the amateur level. Changes revolve around personal hygiene, rink and dressing room cleanliness and general social distancing between games. Spectators will also need to follow indoor limits — whatever they may be in the fall.
“The safety of our communities, fans, players and team staff is of paramount importance,” Nicholas added. “Beyond that, we’d like to have our fans both north and south of the border experience the SIJHL brand of hockey they’ve come to expect and all indications are that a mid-November puck drop gives us the best chance for this to be achieved.”
This fall will mark the SIJHL’s 20th season of existence.
Later Tuesday, the Kam River Fighting Walleye — the SIJHL’s latest expansion team — announced they have moved their evaluation camp to Sept. 17-19 to coincide with the new season’s start. Normally an evaluation camp is held in the summer. Walleye GM Kevin McCallum said this past spring that the team plans to invite as many as 80 players to the camp.
Thunder Bay North Stars head coach Rob DeGagne said his team will announce new dates for their camps in the near future. DeGagne’s North Stars were the 2019 SIJHL Bill Salonen Cup champions, a title they will hold into the new season.
In other SIJHL news, sources say longtime Fort Frances Lakers general manager and head coach Wayne Strachan has stepped down from his position to take another job in the town.
The 47-year-old Strachan, a former star player with Lake Superior State, the Thunder Bay Flyers and Thunder Cats, had led the Lakers for the past 10 seasons. Prior to that, Strachan coached other Fort Frances-based SIJHL teams — the Borderland Thunder and Fort Frances Jr. Sabres.