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Clinging to life

The Fort William North Stars are in desperate need of cash to stay afloat.
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The Fort William North Stars are in desperate need of cash to stay afloat.

The Superior International Junior Hockey League franchise has found $70,000 of $100,000 coach Todd Howarth said the team needs to survive, having already cancelled one game this week because of financial insolvency.

The Stars, a model of consistent excellence on the ice, with seven straight trips to the SIJHL final, have struggled with attendance and was awash in red ink, forcing owner Gerald Bannon, who took over the team on his own in its third year, to throw in the towel.

A new ownership group, led by Marvin Pelletier, is working around the clock to save the Stars. Howarth, who estimated it costs between $200,000 and $250,000 to operate the team, said a group of eight investors are already on board, some from out of town, but more are needed to prop up the ailing team.

“We’re still looking for to make this work. We’ve got 22 kids who we have to worry about. That’s all that matters right now. This franchise has been a great franchise since the league started. The past owner, Gerald Bannon, was a great owner, but times have changed for him and a new ownership had to come in this year,” Howarth said.

The Stars (9-4-0), losers of three straight, are scheduled to host the Dryden Ice Dogs on Friday night at Fort William Gardens.

It’s frustrating to have the off-ice issues threaten to derail the team’s on-ice success, said Howarth, designated by Pelletier to speak for the team.

“We’re right on the verge of disappearing. We were very close last night at 11:30 p.m. that the team was going to fold, to totally disappear. We had a meeting with the league and things have started again, but we’re still right on the verge of going. We don’t have enough yet. We’re still waiting to hear back from a few other people,” Howarth said, making a public plea for investors.

“If there are people who want to step up and help a junior team survive in Thunder Bay we’re here. It’s this close to not having a junior team in Thunder Bay. And I don’t think you want that.”

Howarth promised a better marketing strategy should the team – which may see its name changed mid-season – aimed at drawing between 500 and 1,000 fans a night to the Gardens. The team is lucky these days if 100 people show up.

“We need help with that. It’s a fact of life. For it to survive, we just want to put a good product on there. We want to do some more promotions, but it doesn’t happen overnight. You can’t just run a team with one person.”

The news comes at a time of growth for the SIJHL. The league added a pair of American teams in 2010-11. With other U.S. cities expressing interest, officials thought the circuit might take off, after watching teams come and go in communities like Schreiber, Marathon and Fort Frances, where the Borderland Thunder were eventually replaced by the current Lakers franchise.

SIJHL president Ron Whitehead said the situation has been fermenting for months, but there’s been little he can do to solve the problem.

The last thing he wants, however, is a league void of a team in its flagship city.

“Physically there’s nothing stopping the league from continuing on without a team in Thunder Bay. I just don’t see that as a good situation,” he said.

When the SIJHL began in 2001, there were three teams based in Thunder Bay. The Bulldogs and Bearcats had varying degrees of success on the ice, with the former team folding first and the Bearcats, who morphed into the K&A Wolverines last season, disappearing over the summer.

Whitehead said from the little he knows about the situation, he’s not as worried as he was when other teams pulled up stakes.

“It’s not like some of the other disappearances we’ve had,” he said.