A new league executive, new location for the Thunder Bay Northern Hawks and Season 2 for the Current River Storm.
Just some of the challenges heading into the 2023/2024 campaign for the five-team Lakehead Junior Hockey League.
LJHL President Josh Gribben gives full credit to everyone on and off the ice who is involved with the Storm franchise.
“That was definitely one of the positives [of last season] was seeing the Storm get their first season under their belt, and hopefully they'll be even better going forward,” Gribben said.
Gribben also pointed to the turnaround of the Schreiber Falcons, as well as the success of the Thunder Bay Northern Hawks, who won their 12th league championship. Both clubs played in the Central Canada Cup at the Tournament Centre alongside the Peguis Juniors and OCN Storm from Manitoba.
One franchise that the president would like to see rebound this year would be the Thunder Bay Bandits, who lost a lot of players from their championship squad in 2022.
“There's been a coaching change, I believe that Rick Baraniuk is going to be taking over,” said Gribben. “We're hoping that with a coaching change, they might find some stability. That was one of the biggest changes for them last year, the coach Kris Reginato, had other commitments that he needed to attend to. Anytime at the junior level, when you're in a state of flux at the head coaching position, it can often drive that down to the rest of your organization.”
Baraniuk is a former coach with the Thunder Bay Kings and Queens programs, and last coached in 2019-2020 with the Under-18 AA Fort William Hurricanes.
The Nipigon Elks will also have a new bench boss with John Coppock taking over from Malcolm Sutherland.
The Tournament Centre will have one less tenant this season as the Thunder Bay Northern Hawks will make the Fort William Gardens their home.
In early May, the Thunder Bay North Stars of the Superior International Junior Hockey League announced that they had purchased the franchise from Frank Filice.
“I think that there's some positives [with the purchase] because they have their own stability with the Junior A franchise,” Gribben mentioned. “Ultimately Frank spent a lot of time in this league and has done a lot of good things with the Northern Hawks organization. So, for him to [be able to] find ownership to help maybe push this team in a different direction [while still] maintaining the quality of the program, I think it's good.”
Gribben added that having a franchise in the downtown Intercity area playing out of the Gardens could potentially drive a new fan base to the league.
The league executive has new faces as Gary Nistico has been elected as the first vice-president with Adam Templeman stepping down. Pat McDonald moves into the role as the second vice-president while Dave Reginato will serve as the league’s secretary.
With the instant success of the Storm, Gribben admits that expansion talks are ongoing but his focus is the health of the five existing franchises.
“With any expansion, there's always the unknowns, and those will always be in the back of your mind going into the season,” Gribben said. “We have been focused on creating the teams, helping them be stable and competitive, [while] driving parity into the league. [If there] any other groups that might be interested in coming into the league will never take it lightly. But right now, the focus is on our five groups moving forward.”
The league is focused on maintaining the 24-game schedule for the upcoming season, but have discussed the possibility of a showcase event, which could expand the number of games to 28.
It’s an idea that Gribben first made public in June 2022 with the hopes of holding it in the following December.
“It's definitely something we're entertaining [as a way] for us to help beef up the schedule,” answered Gribben. “We would like to add a few more games, and to do that often times, [you] need to compress the schedule a little bit, find weekends that work. That’s one of the things that the Showcase could potentially do.”
Gribben went on to say that conversations are ongoing with a few different hockey associations about perhaps doing the event in a remote market or a smaller town, with the potential to do it in Thunder Bay.
Gribben is aiming to have the 2023-2024 schedule out for the middle of August.