Back in Iroquois Falls

Kevin Walker, former captain of the Abitibi Eskimos (2011-2015), has been named Head Coach of the Iroquois Falls Storm

This has the makings of a classic, vintage, feel good, small town hockey story.

By Randy Russon
Hockey News North
May 11, 2023

This has the makings of a classic, vintage, feel good, small town hockey story. After a six year absence that tugged at the heartstrings of so many local denizens, the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League is returning to the trusted town of Iroquois Falls effective the 2023-2024 season.

The NOJHL’s board of governors just recently approved the transfer request to Iroquois Falls by Cochrane Crunch owner and president Tom Nickolau. Nickolau bought the Cochrane franchise during the Covid year of 2020 and despite the determined efforts of him and his wife Gina, attendance and sponsorship revenue steadily declined through three seasons.

Nickolau became convinced that the only way for the franchise to survive was to ask permission of the league to move the Crunch out of Cochrane 30 miles down Highway 11 to Iroquois Falls. A neutral site Crunch home game in Iroquois Falls during the recent 2022-2023 season convinced Nickolau that a move to the nearby town of 4,000 or so residents would be in the best interests of the franchise.

The Crunch averaged less than 170 fans per game at the Tim Horton Event Centre in Cochrane during the ’22-23 NOJHL regular season. Its biggest crowd — by far — came when the Crunch hosted the neutral site game in Iroquois Falls that drew more than 1,200 fans to venerable Jus Jordan Arena, aka the Igloo.

“I had goose bumps throughout the entire game with all of the noise that the fans were making … all of the cheering that was going on had me thinking that I had to try to move my team to Iroquois Falls,” Nickolau relayed to Hockey News North.

Nickolau quickly found out that an Iroquois Falls group headed by long-time local business owner Rick Charlebois had established a “Boost Our Igloo Club” that was formed to try to get a junior hockey team back to the town.

It wasn’t long before Nickolau was in touch with the Town of Iroquois Falls and some of the faithful hockey followers who assured him there would be volunteer help aplenty if he would move the Crunch to their community.

“Before I applied to the league to move the franchise from Cochrane to Iroquois Falls I made a list of requirements that I thought we would need to make the franchise operational and sustainable,” said Nickolau. “And Iroquois Falls checked every box from having people who would help out in every way from a season ticket drive to game day staff to billet co-ordinator to director of corporate sponsorship. While we were waiting for approval from the league Rick (Charlebois) and his group filled every off-ice position that we would need to get going and remain operational in Iroquois Falls.

“I am here for the long haul … we are not going anywhere,” said the 57-year old Nickolau, who is a positive, upbeat individual. “Iroquois Falls is the perfect spot for a junior hockey franchise, complete with an iconic rink.”

Iroquois Falls was previously home to NOJHL teams from 1999 to 2017 with different monikers, namely the Abitibi Eskimos and Iroquois Falls Eskis. Abitibi won the NOJHL championship in 2009-2010 with legendary coach Paul Gagne at the helm.

In 2017, the owner at that time, Allan Donnan, sold the franchise to the current operators of the Hearst Lumberjacks. During its last season as members of the NOJHL, Iroquois Falls had the third-best attendance in the NOJHL, trailing only the Timmins Rock and Soo Eagles.

Back to now, Nickolau noted that more than 100 season tickets have already been purchased by Iroquois Falls and area residents ahead of the 2023-2024 season. And he expects many more to be sold when the next season ticket drive begins. As well, a number of corporate sponsors have already come on board.

A respectful person who endured his share of criticism for the lack of success that the Crunch had over the shortened Covid season and the two full seasons since, Nickolau did not have a negative word to say about any one relative to his time in Cochrane.

“We tried … we tried hard and it didn’t work. We gave away hundreds of free tickets and no one showed up. We did our best and worked hard to try to make it Cochrane. And now we have this opportunity in Iroquois Falls and I cannot believe the support that we have already received. The people in Iroquois Falls do not want to lose their team again and it is obvious already that they will do their part to keep it here. And like I said to you, we are not going anywhere. We are committed for the long term,” said Nickolau.

While Nickolau — who as a player won the 1986 Memorial Cup championship as a member of the Guelph Platers of the Ontario Hockey League and became a National Hockey League draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings — will stay on as president (and owner) of the Iroquois Falls franchise, he will not coach the team next season.

In fact, Nickolau has already hired one-time Igloo fan favourite Kevin Walker as his new head coach. The 28-year old Walker played four full NOJHL seasons as a top defenseman who eventually became team captain of the aforementioned Abitibi Eskimos. He has since garnered two years of high level experience as a head coach with both his hometown Timmins Majors of the Great North Under 18 Hockey League and the Red Lake Miners of the Superior International Jr. Hockey League.

A likeable individual with a passion for the game, Walker is beyond excited about the return of hockey to Iroquois Falls and to be coaching in the town where he played his entire NOJHL career.

“Obviously this is an extremely exciting time for the hockey town of Iroquois Falls,” Walker relayed to Hockey News North. “Having experienced first hand how great it is to play here, between the passionate fans and the amazing facility, it is amazing to have the opportunity to come full circle and help build a strong culture of excellence and success both on and off the ice. You can expect us to be a hard working, well structured, detail oriented team that will compete every night.”

And Nickolau feels fortunate to have landed Walker as the head coach of the yet to be named Iroquois Falls franchise.

“It is like the right place at the right time for Kevin as a coach and for us a franchise,” said Nickolau. “Kevin is in the right situation. He is a local guy and he has the tools to be a good coach. One door closed when Red Lake let him go and now another door has opened.”

Nickolau added that Walker is expected to add a couple of assistant coaches who, like him, have ties to the glory days of the old Abitibi Eskimos.