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This article was published 22/12/2016 (1686 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Manitoba Junior Hockey League will try everything in its power to save the Opaskwayak Cree Nation Blizzard team from folding after the 2016-17 season.
MJHL commissioner Kim Davis told the Free Press Thursday the league will work with the team and the OCN First Nation to do whatever it can to keep the franchise viable after the First Nation announced Wednesday it will cease funding the 20-year-old team next spring.
The decision was made after the administration and finance departments at OCN presented recommendations to the band’s leadership following "careful deliberations."
"Based on the information presented, the decision was made to proceed with winding down on the operations of the OCN Blizzard, announced on Dec. 20, 2016," OCN stated in a press release.
Calls to OCN weren’t immediately returned Thursday, but Davis said he spoke with Chief Christian Sinclair Wednesday about the possibility of new ownership and offered to help facilitate any talks that may come through the MJHL offices with interest in purchasing the club.
"He was very receptive," Davis said. "As days go on, there may be some interest that comes forward. That may also include some revised form of local ownership in the community."
Davis said he is hopeful and committed.
"We want to maintain the current number of franchise and/or grow, so that’s where our focus will be over the next while," Davis said.
A public meeting is scheduled for Jan. 5 in OCN to give community members a chance to voice their concerns.
Blizzard general manager and head coach Doug Hedley said the impact the team has had on the community over the past 20 years is immeasurable. OCN is one of two First Nations teams in the MJHL — the other is the Waywayseecappo Wolverines.
"The (team) crest is kind of a flagship for a lot of First Nations communities, and not only that, a lot of non-aboriginal players have gone through here to NCAA scholarships, professional hockey," Hedley said Thursday.
"You can’t put a price on this. It’s like the MasterCard commercial, it’s priceless. It’s known world-wide."
Hedley said American sports broadcasting juggernaut ESPN has expressed interest in doing a documentary on the Blizzard, chronicling the life on the road for the team.
Still, Hedley said he understands the situation in which the band finds itself.
"It makes financial sense for the band members," he said. "Let’s face it, when businesses are bleeding, they’ve got to stop the wounds. If you’re looking at basic needs, you have to respect their decision. At the same time, I think there are options to be self-sustainable. Right now, the Blizzard board of directors are doing everything they can to present options by March 31 (the date the league requires teams to announce their intentions for the following season). From what we understand, we will be given an opportunity to put a plan forward."
OCN, with a 22-11-3 record in 36 games, is the MJHL’s third-best team and features one of the league’s top players in defencman and captain, Brady Keeper, who has 17 goals and 31 points in the 24 games he’s played. Keeper has committed to play for the University of Maine in NCAA Division I for next season.
OCN’s short history in the league has come with great success. The Blizzard won five straight MJHL championships from 1999 to 2003, including the ANAVET Cup in 2002. The Blizzard won 56 regular season games during the 2001-02 season and accumulated 115 points, both MJHL records. During the 2002-03 regular season, the Blizzard set another league record with 28 consecutive wins.
Their alumni includes forward Jordin Tootoo, who is currently a member of the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks, and former NHLer Steve MacIntyre, who played for the Edmonton Oilers, Florida Panthers and Pittsburgh Penguins.
"The OCN Blizzard will always have a special place in my heart, especially because it provided me with the only opportunity I had to play competitively with my brother Terence (whose No. 22 is retired by the Blizzard)," Tootoo said in a tweet Thursday. "That season, we were able to experience winning a championship together, which is something I’ll never forget. The organization also served as a support system for the Aboriginal people and contributed to their lives in such a positive way. While I’m disappointed with the news, I’ll always look back on my time there fondly."