Tyler Miller is motivated by those who feel the Fort Frances Lakers will be an easy two points in the Superior International Junior Hockey League standings.
Miller, who turns 35 in November, will enter his first full season as the head coach of his hometown Junior A team after taking over last December.
When Miller took over, the team held a 5-19-0 record and were outscored 137-53.
“From January to March, our locker room was great, everyone understood the job of competing. Our discipline got better and all of our stats were better,” said Miller. “Obviously on the scoresheet a win is a win and a loss is a loss but we had a lot more tighter games. There are probably five games that I would like to have back from when I took over, where we weren’t in it physically or mentally. When you’re 18-years-old you have to learn, you can’t give up and you have to compete until the end.”
The Lakers finished the regular season with four wins in twenty-seven games (4-22-1) and were outscored 164-81 before losing their league quarterfinal to the Dryden GM Ice Dogs in five games.
The Lakers have 16 players from this past season that are eligible to return next season.
Along with on-ice success, Miller is also looking for the team to increase its presence in the Fort Frances community.
These efforts include players reading in schools and participating in a walk organized by the Rainy River First Nations to mark the National Day of Awareness for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
“Coming off of (the COVID-19 pandemic), when you’re a community-owned team, it’s pretty tough to get back to what made the organization successful,” Miller said.
“The (Thunder Bay) North Stars and (Kam River) Fighting Walleye have private owners, so they are in a different boat than us. When the Lakers won three (Bill Salonen) cups between 2014 and 2016, we were really involved in the Fort Frances community and you see that support. Obviously we have to get back to being a winning team. When you win, people come to watch no matter what and when you lose, small town talk happens and it’s not the best but you still have support from fans which is nice.”
Miller played four years of NCAA Division III hockey with the College of St. Scholastica in Minnesota while earning his teaching degree.
“When I came home from college, I definitely wanted to help out in the community and I still had passion for the game, but in a way that was going to help kids build up their experience for the next level," Miller said. "There’s a lot of good hockey talent in Fort Frances, and I was able to coach those kids at the AA and AAA level and hopefully we can have some of those kids on our roster next year and for years to come.”
Miller points to the COVID-19 pandemic as a moment in time where he nearly gave up on coaching altogether.
“I decided I was done with coaching because I was away from the game, nothing else was going. It was actually the former (Lakers) Head Coach Dave Allison who contacted me in the fall of 2021 and asked me to come out to a practice and see if you like it. I was using Dave as a reference for opportunities at a higher level, so I took him up on his offer to watch a skate, and I fell in love with the game and the chance to help younger players develop and move onto bigger and better things.”
As a player, Miller played with the Port Hope Predators of the Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League (now known as Ontario Junior Hockey League), where he was a league all-star.
“I asked for a trade around Christmastime and Thunder Bay was the only team that made an offer to pick me up," Miller said. "I had a great coach in Jeff Riccardi, they treated us very well in Thunder Bay, and I only wish that we were able to win the championship and advance to the Dudley Hewitt Cup.”
He finished the season with 61 points in 27 games with the Bearcats, and collected 10 points in nine post-season contests. The team defeated the Fort Frances Junior Sabres four games to one before falling in five games to the Fort William North Stars in the league final.
The Bearcats franchise disbanded after that season.
Miller would like to see the seven team SIJHL expand into Kenora sooner rather than later.
“More teams will mean a better schedule. The great thing about Fort Frances is we are central in terms of travel times and distances to other parts of Northwestern Ontario or across the border to Wisconsin or Minnesota. More teams will also mean better competition in terms of recruiting players.”