BY SCOTT HUNTER HADDOW
It may be a small town, but Rayside Balfour has a big heart and in that heart there?s a place for junior ?A? hockey.
At a press conference Wednesday in the Bonaventure Mall a group of dedicated townsfolk announced, contrary to some rumours, there will be junior ?A? hockey in Rayside Balfour come September and they will maintain the Sabrecats name and tradition.
?This means a great deal to the town,? said Jerry Young, president of the owner not-for-profit ownership group. ?Over the last eight years the Sabrecats have been the flagship team in the NOJHL and they are a huge part of this community.?
Turning the Sabrecats into a non-profit club will have its benefits and drawbacks, said Young.
?We believe we can put a very competitive team on the ice that can compete in this very competitive league,? said Young, whose son Jason was a star with the Sudbury Wolves 10 years ago.
The new team will be starting from scratch and there will be no shortage of hard work for all involved in keeping junior hockey in the town.
?To cover costs we will have to do unbelievable fundraising campaigns,? said Young. ?We don?t expect to have a mega-budget to start with, but we feel with the group involved we?ll be able to make this happen.?
The new Sabrecats also introduced their new head coach and assistant coach Wednesday.
Bryan Verreault will be head man behind the bench, while Steve Williamson will be the assistant. Both bring a wealth of hockey knowledge and passion to the upstart club.
Verreault replaces Ken MacKenzie, who had an incredible run leading the Sabrecats to several consecutive league championships.
?It?s certainly an honour to be named head coach,? said Verreault. ?I?m grateful to my family for letting me get involved because it will take up a lot of time.?
Verreault plans to ice a team that will show up to play hard every game.
?They?ve had great coaches here in the past that brought lots of championships and banners to the Chelmsford Arena,? said Verreault. ?Our plan is to bring another championship banner to the arena.?
Verreault has been coaching in Rayside-Balfour minor hockey for 20 years and won championships at every level.
Williamson sees a rewarding opportunity to coach at this level.
?I grew up playing hockey in Rayside-Balfour and the thought of a junior team not existing here would be a very sad day,? said Williamson. ?A lot of hard work has been put in here to see this new team become a reality.?
The team will have to be well organized to be successful, he said.
?I think it?s great to keep them in the league because the rivalry with other teams has been established for years,? said Art Yeo, new NOJHL commissioner. ?I came into the league five years ago with the Sault junior Greyhounds and all I heard was Rayside, Rayside, Rayside so the tradition has been set and we want to keep that going.?
Many things will have to fall in place for the new Sabrecats.
?They will have to get more corporate sponsorship, more local involvement and keep local kids here,? said Yeo. ?I think there is enough talent here that they will have a competitive team right off the bat.?
Keeping a team in Rayside-Balfour means the world to local players as well. Kyle Doherty, 19, played last year for the Sabrecats and will be back to play again this coming season.
?The town is well-known across the province and the country,? said Doherty. ?Everybody wants to play for Rayside-Balfour because they?ve had a long winning tradition and you know you?re playing for a great team when you put on that uniform.?
Former Rayside-Balfour mayor and Ward II Councillor Lionel Lalonde is thrilled junior hockey will remain in the community.
?This is good news because the Sabrecats have been a part of this community?s tradition, culture and heritage.?