The Thunder Bay North Stars magical mystery coaching tour on Wednesday night finally hit the ice.
But the question still remains – who will guide the Superior International Junior Hockey League charter franchise?
The players have no idea who new owner Doug Gunsinger intends to install behind the bench. Ron Whitehead, the longtime SIJHL president, doesn’t have a clue.
All Gunsinger will say is that he has a coach in place, he’s from out of town and he’ll be unveiled on Sept. 25, when the Stars make their 2012-13 Fort William Gardens debut, three games into the SIJHL season.
It brings to mind Harold Ballard, the crusty former Toronto Maple Leafs owner, who in 1979 fired Roger Neilson, only to give in to public backlash and bring him back a game later, first asking him to wear a paper bag over his head as he walked behind the bench.
Asked if he might employ the same tactic to unveil the fourth coach in franchise history, Gunsinger laughed, joking he might consider it.
The publicity stunt, designed to sell tickets to the Stars home opener against Sioux Lookout, is being taken in stride by the players, only seven of whom have played with the Stars before.
Goalie Jayme Brattengeier, who last toiled for Thunder Bay in 2010-11, before leaving for Sioux Lookout, said the coaching topic has come up a time or two as the team readied for Wednesday’s training camp start at Fort William First Nation Arena.
“I don’t think it’s affecting anyone now,” the 20-year-old said. “I think everyone knows we’ve got a coach. But they’re just not saying it right now.
“I think everyone will pull together right now this season. A lot of the boys know each other already.”
Matt Kaarela, Mitchell and Marshall Fox, Bradley Cox and Mason Prout are among the few friendly faces returning to the Stars, whose new owner has promised more local players as he tries to cut costs in his first year at the helm.
The Stars in recent weeks have dealt the likes of Brandon Warmington, Brennan Dubchak and Matt Alexander out of the SIJHL, part of their rebuilding movement.
But if Brattengeier knows who the new coach is, he’s not saying.
“I think a couple players know, but aren’t quite sure, not 100 per cent until they see the coach,” he said.
Prout, a second-year player who scored one goal in 42 games with the Stars last season, isn’t sure what to make of the situation just yet.
“It’s so confusing,” he said. “I guess all the guys are just talking about it. I don’t even know. It’s kind of stressful. We’re at tryouts and no one even knows.”
Luckily the Stars ownership has turned to a veteran coach to guide the club in the interim. Doug Colbon has spent time with Lakehead University, the Thunder Bay Flyers and the SIJHL’s Thunder Bay Bearcats, took the last year off after 36 years in the game and said he was only too happy to fill in as the Stars work their way toward their 13th season.
He admitted it’s a unique situation. He’s just looking at this week’s three-day camp as business as usual, with cuts expected by week’s end.
“The secrecy around the team has made the paper a few times anyway. That’s going to continue right down to the first home game. Even with the personnel, you’re not going know a lot of them. There’s a few vets back,” said Colbon, taking on an assistant coaching role with the Stars this year.
“It is different. It’s not a typical North Star entry into the league.”
Being in the dark will make it tougher for the players, but he’s confident they can get past it.
“These kids are here to play and they’re dedicated to the team. They’re going to want to play for the North Stars, so I don’t think it’s going to make that much of a difference not knowing who their coach is right away. But in the same breath, it is entirely different.”
Colbon said the mystery coach will have input on the roster.
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