By Mike Baker
The Huskies are coming home to Haliburton County.
Rumours of a Jr. A hockey franchise finding a home in the Highlands was confirmed last week, when the Ontario Junior Hockey League [OJHL] announced one of its 22 franchises would be relocating to Haliburton County for the 2021/22 season.
The rebranded Haliburton County Huskies will play their home games out of the recently redeveloped S.G. Nesbitt Memorial Arena in Minden. An agreement with Minden Hills council was finalized on April 29, which will see the Huskies use the facility as a home-base for the next seven years, through to the 2027/28 season.
Haliburton contractor and developer Paul Wilson is the man responsible for bringing Jr. A hockey to the Highlands. Having purchased the old Whitby Fury three years ago, Wilson jumped at the chance to relocate a franchise that was struggling in an oversaturated GTA market.
“It’s a little bit of a gamble, because not many small towns like this have a Jr. A hockey team, but this is something that’s really important to me. I grew up in Haliburton County. I’ve lived here all my life. I just wanted to give something back to the community,” Wilson said.
The OJHL is the largest Jr. A hockey league in Canada, with a footprint that stretches east to Wellington, south to Buffalo and north to Collingwood. The team has a heavy GTA presence, with 15 franchises located within a 60km radius of Toronto.
The league has been a springboard for many talented players over the years, including Haliburton’s own Bernie Nicholls, who played for the North York Rangers of the OJHL ahead of his 17-year career in the NHL. Former Haliburton Huskies minor hockey player and future NHLer Cody Hodgson also played at the OJHL level, as did current NHLers Zach Hyman, Travis Dermott, Reilly Smith, Brendan Smith and Devin Shore.
It’s expected that the Huskies will join the league’s East Divison, alongside the Lindsay Muskies, Cobourg Cougars, Trenton Golden Hawks and Wellington Dukes.
Hockey operations will be handled by Ryan Ramsay, Wilson’s son-in-law, who will serve as head coach and general manager. Ramsay played in the OJHL as a teenager before going on to play in the Ontario Hockey League [OHL]. He signed a contract with the St. Louis Blues in 2004, forging an 11-year pro career in the American Hockey League [AHL] and the Deutsche Eishockey Liga in Germany.
“We think the knowledgeable hockey fans of this area will really enjoy this brand of junior hockey,” Ramsay said. “Our players are shooting for college scholarships and opportunities to play in the OHL and eventually professionally. This emphasis is on skill, speed and character.”
Wilson said he expects to welcome back the majority of the team that was set to represent the Fury this season, before the COVID-19 pandemic saw play shutdown.
There will be lots of talent on the team, Wilson said. County residents may even re cognize a name or two, with local players Joe Boice and Ryan Hall already confirmed as Huskies for the 2021/22 season.
“It’s very important to me that we have a competitive team in our first year. We’re asking the community to support us, so I think we owe that to them to try and have a good team,” Wilson said. “We’ll have most of the guys back that we want back from last year, and we’ll have a couple of Haliburton County boys on the team too. It’s definitely nice to get a bit of a local element to the team. We have a couple of others trying out, so there could be a third member [from Haliburton County].
“These aren’t just token spots. These kids are good enough to make the team,” Wilson noted.
The Huskies are set to host their inaugural rookie camp from Aug. 13 to 15 at the S.G. Nesbitt Memorial Arena. The OJHL season is slated to begin in September.
“We’re definitely relying on the community to sponsor the team, and the fans to come to games and support the team. This is something that, I think, can be a real positive, especially right now with everything that’s going on in the world,” Wilson said. “I’m really proud to be able to do this, bringing the Huskies back to Haliburton County.”