The Superior International Junior Hockey League officially lost two key faces behind the scenes on Thursday.
The board of governors announced that commissioner Bryan Graham will not return next season. A vote from the owners from each of the seven league teams was made, said Doug Lein, the chairman of the SIJHL board of governors.
Graham served in the role since 2014. Meanwhile, media relations officer Tom Annelin stepped down from his position with the SIJHL, citing a heavy workload.
“This wasn’t a singular decision on one person’s part. This wasn’t just a board decision of governors. This was a mutual separation between the league and Bryan,” Lein said Thursday in a phone interview from Spooner, Wis., where he and his family operate the Wisconsin Lumberjacks.
“At the end of the day what this comes down to all the parties involved, including Bryan, were looking to maybe a new direction in life and business.”
When reached by The Chronicle-Journal, Graham offered “no comment” on why the decision was made, but did say all parties knew last month and things were just made official on Thursday.
Graham had been wearing two major sports hats in town over the last two seasons as the SIJHL commissioner and a key member of the ownership group of the Thunder Bay Border Cats baseball team.
Lein said Graham’s other business venture played no role in the decision.
“There were no concerns. Bryan has brought a lot of stability to our league,” Lein said. “Bryan has brought calm and consistency through our league. He’s had a lot of accomplishments leading our league. Three new franchises. He’s seen our league out of a time . . . that was maybe a tad disorganized. Bryan has brought organization to our league.
“I can’t speak to what led to his 50 per cent of this,” Lein added. “I do know he’s extremely busy and extremely proud of the Border Cats and what they’ve done there. . . . Bryan keeps himself busy and has a lot of irons in the fire.”
Lein also praised Graham for helping the league foster young, up-and-coming coaches such as himself, Wilson Housley (Thief River Falls) and Geoff Walker (Red Lake) in recent years as well as developing strong working relationships with the U.S.-based franchises.
Annelin, who was named the Gary Cook Memorial Award recipient in 2019 for his service to the league, had been associated with the SIJHL since its inception.
The Thunder Bay native has also penned the popular hockey column, Net Shots, for The Chronicle-Journal since 1997 and is developing a local project on the sport. Annelin will keep his job as head of media relations for the Canadian Junior Hockey League that oversees all 10 leagues in the country.
Graham, 53, has been affiliated with hockey since the 1980s when he was a sports radio broadcaster. He served as a referee and followed by a stint as vice-president and director of officiating for the ECHL. He was a member of the ECHLfrom 1998 to 2005.
Whoever fills Graham’s shoes will be the fifth person to lead the junior A league. Jerry Blazino, J.P. Heino, Harvey Fedell and Ron Whitehead were Graham’s predecessors, holding a variety of titles that ranged from president to commissioner.
One thing all five men had in common was that they were from Thunder Bay. Lein said the search for a new commissioner will be wide open. The job is one of the few paid positions with the league.
“This position is open to anyone. We are looking for the right person,” Lein said.
“We’re looking to a deep candidate pool. It’s not just localized to Thunder Bay. This position will be open to anyone, American or Canadian, that feels they can fill the role and do a good job of what’s being asked of them.”
The 2020-21 season will mark the 20th in SIJHL history. The Lumberjacks, Thief River Falls Norskies, Dryden GM Ice Dogs, Fort Frances Lakers, Red Lake Miners, Kam River Fighting Walleye and Thunder Bay North Stars make up the league.