THUNDER BAY, Ont. – As the Superior International Junior Hockey League is less than a week away from its All-Star Game in Fort Frances, the event will feature its top players, coaches and support staff showcasing their skills and talents in a best-on-best Canada vs. USA scenario.
Much like in years past, those involved are looking to use their success to help springboard themselves up to the next level, be it in the collegiate and university ranks or even perhaps a future professional career right up to the National Hockey League.
The history of the SIJHL itself boasts a number of league connections to the NHL with former league standout netminder Carter Hutton on a solid run as a goaltender with the Buffalo Sabres while defenceman Robert Burtuzzo patrols the blueline for the St. Louis Blues.
There is also a tie in to the league’s coaching ranks as first-year Thief River Falls Norskies bench boss Wilson Housley is the son of Hockey Hall of Fame Honoured Member and current Buffalo NHL head coach Phil Housley.
Hutton backstopped the then Fort William North Stars to both a Bill Salonen Cup league championship along with a Dudley-Hewitt Cup Central Canadian Jr. A crown back in the 2005-06 campaign.
That season Hutton set a SIJHL record for shutouts in a season with 10, that still stands today, while registering an impressive 33-1-0 regular season record along with a stingy goals-against average of 1.84 and a .926 save percentage.
In 2017-18 the 32-year-old Thunder Bay product led all NHL goalkeepers in both average and save mark at 2.09 and .931 respectively with St. Louis.
Signing a new three-year deal with the Sabres in the off-season, Hutton has been hot for Buffalo heading into a Friday matchup vs. Montreal.
Overall Hutton is 6-0-0 with a .933 save percentage and a 1.99 goals-against average in his last six appearances.
The six-game winning streak tops his previous high of five set back in 2014.
It’s the longest winning streak by a Sabres goaltender since Ryan Miller’s eight-game run in October 2009 while his 10 victories are the second-most in the NHL.
Last season though he set single season personal marks for games played, goals, points and minutes logged.
Like Hutton, Bortuzzo was also a member of that 2005-06 North Stars squad that won the SIJHL and Dudley-Hewitt titles and went on to advance to the Canadian Jr. A Championship where they fell in overtime to the eventual winners, the Burnaby Express (BCHL).
In his second season behind the bench for the Sabres, Phil Housley has guided Buffalo into a tie for third overall in the 31-team NHL standings entering the home encounter with Montreal having won seven games in succession and boasting a 14-6-2 record.
Despite maintaining his focus on the Sabres, he’s also made sure to keep an eye on his son’s progress in the league, who is the first former player to become a head coach in the SIJHL.
When asked about his son’s entrance into coaching, the elder Housley beamed with pride on discussing this despite being in the midst of the everyday grind of a NHL season.
“It’s been a great experience for him,” stated Housley. “The team is doing well right now. Day-to-day brings a new challenge, but it’s great,” offered the proud father on his son’s early success that has seen the Norskies play over .500 hockey to date.
Asked about any coaching advice he had for his son, Housley offered these thoughts.
“He was looking for an opportunity and was able to interview for the job in Thief River. I just tried to help him get organized as far as how systems work; as far a creating a culture. But he’s a pretty smart man. He’s been around the game from a young age right up to now.”
Delving further, he had this to say.
“I think the biggest thing is creating a culture and getting a belief in what they are doing. Because there is a lot of turnover in junior, because of new players coming in, I think you just try and create that tightness with the group. I think that was his first step and I think the guys really enjoy him.”
Hutton too is no stranger to the younger Housley, having got to know him when he was with the Nashville Predators where Phil served as an assistant coach during his time there.
“I got to know Wilson a little bit in Nashville when I was there and Phil was an assistant coach.”
With his local connection as well as with the Housley’s, Hutton can’t help but keep tabs on Thief River Falls’ progress as well as how things are progressing in the league during his downtime in the NHL.
“I see they have been doing well. Obviously, it’s great for him. Wilson is a great kid and hopefully he has lots of success in the SIJHL like Borts (Bortuzzo) and I did a few years ago back in Thunder Bay with the North Stars.”
It’s that development that Hutton looks back on fondly and hopes to see others follow in his successful footsteps.
“That’s sort of where I started so it’s nice to see other guys starting there and hopefully Wilson and some of the other guys can move on.”
The SIJHL All-Star Game and Skills Competition goes Wednesday, Nov. 28 at Ice for Kids Arena in Fort Frances.
Tickets for both events are $12 for adults, $8 for students and $5 for children.
They are available at all Fort Frances Lakers home games or by contacting Milt Strachan at (807) 275-5255 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credits: Ethan Miller/NHL/Getty Images