The Norman Northstars, northern Manitoba’s only U18 AAA hockey team, may soon be in danger of losing their spot in their league, leading to an outcry from local and regional hockey figures.
Sources familiar with the matter shared with The Reminder that the team, along with the Dauphin-based Parkland Rangers and potentially others, could be excluded from the league for the 2024-25 season.
The Northstars are the only northern team in the 12-team Manitoba Under-18 AAA Hockey League (MBU18AAAHL) and one of eight teams outside Manitoba’s two largest cities. Each minor hockey region in the province operates one team, while three are based in Winnipeg and another team, the Kenora Thistles, are based out of Ontario.
The league itself has not publicly announced any changes in teams for next season, including whether or not the Northstars would be cut from the league. The Reminder reached out to both league commissioner Levi Taylor and league president Don McIntosh for clarification - neither responded to requests for comment.
A statement released online Feb. 3 by the league does not confirm or deny that either the Northstars, Rangers or any other team would be removed.
“In Dec. 2022, our league formed a committee to evaluate (a) competitiveness and (b) equity in team formation. We have worked diligently to review historical data, regional registration numbers and AAA models across Canada. At this time, no decisions have been made,” reads the statement, issued through the league’s official Twitter account.
Players in each region can try out with the team in their home region - if the Northstars are eliminated from the league, it is unclear how northern hockey players would be able to try out for AAA teams or where they would have to go.
Both the Northstars and Rangers have received extensive local fan support this year - the Rangers recently brought in a crowd of nearly 1,500 people to Dauphin’s Credit Union Place for the team’s Ukrainian night, while the Northstars topped 1,500 fans for the team’s Vale night earlier this season.
News of the possible contraction has moved through northern Manitoba hockey circles even without official confirmation, with several community groups and teams in the north issuing statements in favour of the Northstars and against removing them from the league. A Change.org petition demanding information on the Northstars’ fate has over 800 signatures as of The Reminder’s press time.
Some northern communities and hockey groups, including the Flin Flon Minor Hockey Association, Thompson Minor Hockey Association and The Pas Minor Hockey have each issued statements in favour of the Northstars. So have the MJHL’s Blizzard, the KJHL’s OCN Storm and Norway House North Stars, Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation and the Terence Tootoo Memorial Tournament in Nunavut, among others - Tootoo, a former junior hockey star with the OCN Blizzard from Nunavut, played a season with the Northstars in the late 1990s. NHLer Brady Keeper also played with the Northstars, as did former NHL first round pick Stefan Cherneski.
“Word is spreading of the potential reduction of teams within the provincial U18 AAA hockey league, with the Norman Northstars being mentioned. On behalf of our local minor hockey association in Flin Flon, I would like to express my extreme disappointment in hearing this story. Our region has enough struggles based on our location compared to larger, populated centres,” reads the Flin Flon Minor Hockey Association statement, signed off by president Tanner Brough.
“The Northstars provide an opportunity to players in our region that may not have other options. This team brings the entire Norman region together and gives players, families and fans a sense of team and community. Encourage, promote and foster are words mentioned in the description of your league. I cannot understand how removing a team could do any of that for the U18 AAA league or the game of hockey. The Northstars team is extremely important to youth hockey players in our region and Flin Flon Minor Hockey does not support the potential removal.”
Over the past decade of play, the Northstars have consistently finished near the bottom of the MBU18AAAHL standings, finishing in the bottom three spots in the standings in each of the last 10 seasons. This year, the team has bucked that trend, sitting seventh in the 12-team league with a 18-17-1-0 record and 38 points. If the season continues on that track, it will be the Northstars’ first winning season since 2008, when Flin Flonner and former Bomber Tanner Korchinski captained the club.
The Northstars played a three-games-in-three-days southern road trip last weekend, facing off against the Winnipeg Bruins, Eastman Selects and Winnipeg Thrashers. The Northstars went 2-1 on the trip, beating the Bruins 6-5, losing 4-2 to the Selects and beating the Thrashers 4-1.
According to the team’s website, this year’s Northstars feature players from nine different northern communities in Manitoba and Nunavut - 11 players from Thompson, four from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, two players each from Coral Harbour, Nunavut, Flin Flon and Opaskwayak Cree Nation and one each from Arviat, Nunavut, Cross Lake, The Pas and Wanless. The team also features an all-northern coaching staff, with head coach Justin Valentino originally from Thompson and a former Northstar player who went on to play four years of junior hockey, five seasons of Canadian USports hockey and professionally in Europe.