Former Thistles Making Mark In SIJHL

The U18 'AAA' Kenora Thistles have strong representation across the Superior International Junior Hockey League.

A total of 19 players currently on SIJHL rosters, spread across five teams, wore a Thistles jersey for at least one season. The Fort Frances Lakers lead the way with eight former Thistles, followed by the Kenora Devil's Gap Islanders with six, two each on the Kam River Fighting Walleye and Sioux Lookout Bombers, and one on the Thunder Bay North Stars.

Fort Frances Lakers

Left to right: Teagan Wrolstad, Emerson Evans, Landon Lowes, Brandon Gustafson, Darnell Kempf, Evan Kabel, Kale Nelson, Gunner Paradis (photos courtesy of Clint Bruyere and from Kenora Thistles files)

The 2023/2024 Fort Frances Lakers roster features a total of eight players who wore a Thistles uniform for at least one season*.

A 2006-born forward, Teagan Wrolstad spent the 2021/2022 season with the Kenora Thistles. The Fort Frances product suited up for 30 games, picking up eight points (one goal, seven assists). The following season, Wrolstad suited up for the Fort Frances Muskies (NorWOSSA high school hockey).

Emerson Evans served as a captain of the Thistles last year, his second with the team. The now 18-year-old played in 74 games for the Thistles, recording 60 points (23 goals, 37 assists). The 2022/2023 season was a breakout year for Evans where he put up 46 of those points; that was good enough for second on the team and among the leaders in the Manitoba U18 'AAA' Hockey League. So far this season, his first year of junior hockey, the Fort Frances product has three assists in seven games.

A key cog in the 2022/2023 Kenora Thistles offence, Landon Lowes put up 43 points (18 goals, 25 assists) in 40 games. Lowes, from Fort Frances, often played with on a line with Evans as the two have often done for most of their hockey careers. The 18-year-old did play six games for Kenora in 2021/2022 as an AP, recording one goal and one assist. In seven games so far this season, Lowes has one goal and one assist.

A two-year player for the Thistes, Brandon Gustafson made his presence known every time he was on the ice. Originally from Dryden, he played 55 regular season games for Kenora between 2021/2022 and 2022/2023. An alternate captain in his second U18 'AAA' season, Gustafson suited up for his hometown Dryden GM Ice Dogs six times last year in the regular season, and twice in the playoffs.

Darnell Kempf only got to play five games for Kenora, as he made the team ahead of a five-game 2020/2021 season. Over those five games against SIJHL opponents, Kempf recorded an assist while collecting four penalty minutes.

Like Wrolstad, Evan Kabel only suited up for Kenora during the 2021/2022 season. During his 26 games in red and white, Kabel posted four points (one goal, three assists) while patrolling the blue line. Last year, Kabel went south of the border and played for the Minnesota Wilderness (U18 'AAA').

Another home-town product for the Lakers, Kale Nelson was a force to be reckoned with in Kenora during the 2022/2023 season. The smooth-skating 17-year-old was never shy to jump up and join the play offensively, or throw a big hit in the direction of whatever opposition player was near him.

Another player who only spent one season with the U18 'AAA' Kenora Thistles, Gunner Paradis is now looking to make his mark in junior hockey with the Fort Frances Lakers. After suffering a non-hockey injury, Paradis was only between the pipes for parts of ten games. Originally from Thunder Bay, the 19-year-old finished that year with a record of 0-7, a GAA of 6.29 and a save percentage of .870. He followed that up with two games in a Lakers jersey as an AP.

While he only suited up for a handful of games as an AP, Noah McPherson did also don a Thistles jersey. In six games (2021/2022), he put up a goal and an assist. He spent last year with the Fort Frances Muskies alongside Wrolstad and Kabel before joining the Lakers.

* Kempf made the team for the 2020/2021 season, which was only five games due to COVID-19.

Kam River Fighting Walleye

Left to right: Nickolas Fagnilli, Jett Mintenko (photos courtesy of the Kam River Fighting Walleye)

There are two former Kenora Thistles playing for the defending SIJHL champions this season in Oliver Paipoonge.

One of those two players is Thunder Bay's Jett Mintenko, who played for Kenora during the 2021/2022 season.

The now 19-year-old had 38 points (16 goals, 22 assists) in 30 games for the Thistles, which he followed up with ten points (two goals, eight assists) in 14 games for the Fort Frances Lakers. Before being acquired by the Fighting Walleye, Mintenko spent the 2022/2023 season with the Hearst Lumberjacks of the NOJHL. So far this year, he has nine points (seven goals, two assists) in seven games.

The other former Thistle on the roster is Nickolas Fagnilli, who spent just over two full seasons wearing the red and white. A Kenora native, Fagnilli was able to tally 75 points (42 goals, 33 assists) in 73 Manitoba U18 'AAA' Hockey League games. After falling to the Thunder Bay Kings in the Hockey Northwestern Ontario Branch Playdown this spring, Fagnilli joined the Walleye for their playoff run. He suited up in four playoff games en route to lifting the trophy, as well as two games in the Centennial Cup. This year, he has six points (two goals, four assists) in seven games.

Kenora Devil's Gap Islanders

Left to right: Hunter McLean, Hudson Favreau, Reid Zurkan, Branden Boress, Nolan Rawn, Kaden King (photos from Kenora Thistles files)

The expansion Kenora Devil's Gap Islanders certainly have a local flavour to them, with six players either hailing originally from the Kenora area or having spent some time playing for the U18 'AAA' Kenora Thistles.

Hunter McLean only played one year for the Thistles, but certainly made an impact at the U18 level in Kenora. McLean, playing a more defensive role, only managed to tally four points (one goal, three assists) in 44 games during the 2022/2023 season. The 16-year-old has suited up in seven games in the SIJHL this year.

Joining the team half-way through the 2022/2023 season, Hudson Favreau logged nine points (five goals, four assists) in 22 games. He got off to a hot start as an AP call-up with eight points in his first five games, but cooled off after that. Favreau has only played in two games so far this year for the Islanders.

Reid Zurkan is a former captain of the U18 'AAA' Kenora Thistles who suited up in 80 games over three seasons. The 2004-born defender recorded 18 points (four goals, 14 assists) over his Thistles career, which included a goal at the SIJHL level during the COVID-shortened 2020/2021 campaign. Zurkan spent last year with the Fort Frances Lakers before being acquired by the expansion side. This year, he has two assists in seven games.

Hailing from Red Rock, Ontario, Branden Boress played for the Kenora Thistles during the 2020/2021 and 2021/2022 season. In 22 games in the Manitoba U18 'AAA' Hockey League, Boress added 11 points (three goals, eight assists). Now in his second year playing junior hockey, the defender has one point in seven games played.

Nolan Rawn spent two years with the U18 Thistles, suiting up in 72 regular season games. Rawn was a strong presence on the blue line for Kenora over those two years, and would probably still be there if the opprotunity to play in the SIJHL had not come around. The 16-year-old from Kenora is still looking for his first junior hockey point after playing in five games.

A mainstay between the pipes for the Kenora Thistles during the 2021/2022 season, Kaden King spent parts of thee seasons with the U18 team. The Thistles struggled over his years in Kenora, which resulted in sub-par numbers for the netminder. Despite his recorded stats, King was a solid goaltender who kept his side in every game he played in as much as he could.

Sioux Lookout Bombers

Left to right: Kalin Roy, Peter Zilkalns (photos courtesy of the Sioux Lookout Bombers)

The roster for the Sioux Lookout Bombers, currently ranked 15th in the country, features two former Kenora Thistles.

One of those two players is Sioux Lookout product Kalin Roy, who played for the Thistles during the 2019/2020 Manitoba U18 'AAA' Hockey League season.

Roy only recorded one point in 33 games that year, missing time due to injury. 2023/2024 marks his second year with the Bombers, having played in 33 games last year.

The other former Thistle on the Bombers, Peter Zilkalns, spent three seasons wearing a Thistles jersey. The defender from Dryden played a total of 82 games for Kenora between 2019 and 2022, recording ten points (three goals, seven assists) and 114 penalty minutes. Like Roy, Zilkalns is in his second season with Sioux Lookout.

The roster for the Bombers may also include a current Kenora Thistle at some point this season. Sioux Lookout has signed Cohl Elliott to their roster as an affiliate player.

Thunder Bay North Stars

Jarod Lemieux in action against the Yellowhead Chiefs at the Kenora Recreation Centre (now Moncrief Construction Sports Centre) (Photo from Kenora Thistles files)

Jarord Lemieux only spent one season in Kenora, and now plays for the Thunder Bay North Stars.

The now 18-year-old suited up for Kenora in 24 games (2021/2022) where he put up three points (two goals, one assist).

The following year, Lemieux played for the U18 'AAA' Thunder Bay Kings. He played a total of 55 regular season games with 15 points, highlighted by a Hockey Northwestern Ontario Branch Championship celebration in Kenora in the spring.

So far this year, Lemieux has suited up in four games for the North Stars. He is still waiting to record his first point at the Junior 'A' level.