KENORA – Do the Kenora Thistles have a future in the Manitoba U18 AAA Hockey League?
That question is on the minds of many as word spreads that the team could soon find itself removed from the league.
The Thistles aren’t the only club that might be on the chopping block. The 12-team league is also reportedly pondering the removal of the Norman Northstars, based in Thompson, Man.
The league’s president told CBC News this week that trimming to 10 teams is just one option being considered.
He also made it clear, though, that the league’s one Ontario club would be cut if the Thompson club is cut.
“The plan would be Kenora would be out,” he told CBC News. “Obviously you can’t have a reduction in Norman and keep Kenora.”
A statement issued Wednesday by Thistles Council said the Manitoba league’s competition committee has been “looking at strategies to enhance the competitiveness of the league,” and one option involved removing teams.
Such an action would have “devastating impacts” on burgeoning Northwestern Ontario hockey talents, the council said.
An open letter posted on social media by the Thistles organization a day earlier expressed hope that the league “will consider all options” and remain “inclusive.”
A link to league officials’ contact information was included with the Facebook post for anyone who “would like to voice their opinion and show your support” for the U18 squad.
“We have concerns,” Thistles co-director Doug Novak said this week.
“They have a league meeting with all the directors at the end of the month, and we’ll discuss it then with all the directors of every team.”
Novak would not speculate on what the club would do if the Thistles are chopped from the Manitoba league. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” he said.
The Thistles are one of only two AAA-level Under-18 teams in Northwestern Ontario; the other is the Thunder Bay Kings, who compete in the Greater Toronto Hockey League.
Besides the U18 team, the Thistles organization has Under-11 AA, U13 AAA, and U15 AA programs.
Thistles alumni have made waves in international competition and made it to the top ranks of professional hockey.
Mike Richards, for example, was a first-round draft pick for the Philadelphia Flyers in 2003 and played 749 games for the Flyers, Los Angeles Kings and Washington Capitals between 2005 and 2016.
He was also Canada’s team captain in the 2005 World Junior Championships and a member of Team Canada at the 2010 Winter Olympics, winning gold each time.
When reached by NWO Newswatch, league president Don McIntosh said "The league has no comment at this time."