Kam River Fighting Walleye 2023-24 Season Preview

By Gary Moskalyk

Record: 40-11-2 PTS 83 .769% 1st GF 225 GA 143 +82 PP 20.9% PK 86.1% Playoff Result: Champions

Key Players Lost 2002: F Ethan Lang 18-36-54, F Anthony Oviedo 15-17-32, F Carson Gorst 8-12-20, F Mackenzie Sedgwick 6-13-19, D Josh Pufahl 5-14-19, D Kyle Lamoureux 3-16-19, F Noah Kramps 7-9-16, F Logan Gallaher 6-5-11 112 PIMs, G Eric Vanska 27-6-2 2.70 .919 

Returning players: D Brydon Bell, D Simon Bienvenue, D Isiah Kinnavanthong, F Kobe Braham, F Ryan Doucette, F Braeden Duchesne, F Jeremy Dunmore, F Nicolas Fagnilli, F Daxton Lang, F Matteo Salvatore.

Notable Departures: D Jack Cook, defenceman-of-the-year, playoff MVP, G Jack Orchard.

Goalies: Ashton Sadauskas 21-2-0 2.25 .907 Oceanside Generals (VIJHL), Travis Vanderzwaag 8-8-2 2.70 .895 AAA Kings (GTHL U16AAA).

New Walleye head coach Jesse Messier has a daunting task ahead: bring home a second consecutive Bill Salonen Cup home to the organization and the fans in Oliver-Paipoonge. Kam River will have seven exhibition games under their belt before the 2023-24 SIJHL season begins.

The first three against Hearst at Norwest was a getting-to-know-you type session with lots of players in game scenarios. In Manitoba, in a higher paced atmosphere, the Walleye started “to see guys picking up details of what we’ve been teaching.” (They finished 1-1).

This week, leading up to a weekend doubleheader against Thunder Bay with a pared down roster, Messier and staff had a chance to implement systems and game style play. (Kam lost 5-3, won 5-1).

“I’m really excited to see what guys have been able to pick up and what areas we need to spend more time on,” said Messier.

There’s been large roster turnover from last year to this.

“It’s just next man up. Me being new here I came with an open mind on everyone,” said Messier. “We’ve got a solid set of returners as it is. I know there’s a lot of turnover with every team in this league. I really do like the returners we do have and the pace from the get go. There’s been no talk about the guys who aren’t back. We’re worried about the team in this locker room that’s going to be forging our own path forward.

“The group of returning veterans, even some guys that saw a little bit of playing time last year, they came in with great mindsets,” continued Messier. “Guys are ready to take that little bit of ice time that may be available. The new guys have been pushing the pace right from the get go.”

Last year’s captain Anthony Oviedo aged out. The selection of lettered players continues.

“Even if guys don’t wear a letter I still want there to be other leaders. . . I kind of lean one way or the other multiple times,” said Messier, still deciding. “Again, coming in with a fresh pair of eyes, I don’t owe anyone anything. I Lean on guys in that room, seeing what they’re seeing.”

The Walleye traded goalie Jack Orchard to the Soo Eagles of the NOJHL. The Fort Frances Lakers then acquired Orchard. Eric Vanska is 21.

“We had seven or eight quality goalies at camp,” said Messier. The Walleye chose Ashton Sadauskas and Travis Vanderzwaag. “We had to let some good goalies go. We carried three up until the other day. I think any of those guys could be a starter in our league.”

Sadauskas will turn 19 in October. He forged a 21-2-0 record last year with the Oceanside Generals of the VIJHL adding a 6-1-0 playoff record and .931 save percentage. 

Vanderzwaag, 16, is a Thunder Bay native who spent last year with the AAA Kings organization.  

“Neither goalie is promised anything, but Vanderzwaag’s going to get his minutes for sure. Since he’s been back he’s been nothing but solid,” said Messier.

Coming in fresh to coach a league champion is unusual. Messier feels no pressure.

“I don’t feel any pressure. I know there’s high standards here as an organization as a whole,” he said. “It’s one of the reasons I wanted to be here. A lot of times coaches are coming in with a rebuilding team that’s at the bottom . . .

“I’m really looking to seize the opportunity and the challenge of repeating back-to-back. The standard that’s been set. With Kevin (GM McCallum) we expect to fighting for that championship each and every year no matter what the roster looks like. I’m up to that challenge.”

Kam River opens the season at home September 22-23 against Red Lake, who were champions two years ago. They hit the road next weekend with a lone Friday night game in Fort Frances, before heading back to Fort October 6 and 7.