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Junior hockey league franchise coming to Thief River Falls

Superior International Junior Hockey League logo

THIEF RIVER FALLS—A new set of hockey players are one step closer to hitting the ice in Ralph Engelstad Arena this fall.

A deal nine months in the making progressed this week in a signed contract that paves the way for a Superior International Junior Hockey League franchise in Thief River Falls.

The Thief River Falls City Council gave final approval Tuesday to an agreement inked between the city and Kevin McCallum, who represents the unnamed team's ownership group. McCallum approached the city's Parks and Recreation Department last summer about starting a franchise based out of the city-owned arena.

"On our end, we're essentially turn-key ready," Parks and Recreation Director Joe Amundson said Wednesday. "We're ready for them to start in the fall, and they have a couple of more hoops to go through, but otherwise everything is good to go."

Founded in 2001, SIJHI is one of 10 Junior A leagues overseen by the Canadian Junior Hockey League. SIJHI is based out of Thunder Bay, Ont.

The addition of Thief River Falls brings the number of its participating teams to six, including one other Minnesota team—the Iron Rangers of Hoyt Lakes.

The contract between the city and team is for one year with renegotiation set to take place for a longer termed agreement once that time is up.

The agreement means increased rental and concession revenue for the city, as well as economic impact in the form of visiting fans and players, Amundson said.

Bringing in the franchise won't be on the dime of the taxpayers, a point council member Jerald Brown reiterated during Tuesday's meeting.

"Taxpayers aren't paying anything to have them in our city," he said. "They're paying their own way, and we're just supplying them a building to skate in."

Continued progress

In the coming months, the process will begin for picking a team name. McCallum told the Herald his group will turn to the community for input on the name.

"We're looking to bring it out to the schools and the public and hopefully come up with a name that everyone will enjoy and can agree on," he said Wednesday.

McCallum said the ownership group is in the process of finalizing the coaching staff. Recruitment of players will continue through a hockey camp set for late June.

The team is open to players who are 16 to 20 years old who are not high school eligible.

The team would play 30 home games scheduled at the REA, a facility McCallum said during Tuesday's meeting would be the "jewel of the league." Teams usually play between 54 and 58 games each regular season, which runs from late-September to March.

The REA seats 3,569, but junior hockey league teams play in smaller markets. McCallum estimated some teams draw crowds of 250 while others can attract 800 to 1,000 fans, with attendance climbing in postseason play.

The team would practice during the day, and while weekend games may potentially clash with high school team games at the REA, Amundson said there is plenty of available arena ice in the city to accommodate all teams.

Council members also saw an upside to the team's daytime rental.

"They're coming in here and picking up ice time that no one wants or uses," Brown said. "They actually are paying for ice no one's been using, so that's a benefit to us."

Thief River Falls may not be the last team added in the coming years, with McCallum saying two other cities have been approached to host franchises.

Those interested in following the Thief River Falls team's progress can search for the "Thief River Falls Jr. A Hockey Club" on Facebook.