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Bombers gearing up for Centennial Cup challenge

The Bill Salonen Cup champions are off to Oakville to compete for the national Junior A championship.

SIOUX LOOKOUT – It’s been a season to remember for the Sioux Lookout Bombers.

After earning their first-ever playoff series win by sweeping aside the Fort Frances Lakers in the quarterfinals, the second-year Superior International Junior Hockey League club beat the Thunder Bay North Stars in five games and upset the Kam River Fighting Walleye in four games to win the Bill Salonen Cup.

Now their toughest test awaits.

The Bombers are off to Oakville to compete for the national Junior A championship at the 2024 Centennial Cup, which gets underway Thursday, May 9.

“We got what we wanted in our league, but now we want to turn some heads in the big tournament,” Bombers forward Owen Riffel said.

“We had a couple of days off to celebrate our win but then coach (Carson Johnstone) had us right back at the rink,” forward Alex Lucas added. “We’ve been putting the work in and hopefully we’ll have a successful trip.”

While the Bombers will have to make some adjustments to their game in Oakville – the tournament is being played on an Olympic-sized ice sheet – they aren’t straying too far from what’s made them a successful team.

“We have to keep playing tight defensive hockey, even though we’re going to be on the big ice,” Johnstone said.

“When we forecheck well, we are able to get pucks behind the other team. I think we just need to keep focusing on those things and continue to skate well. If we can do that . . . we’ll see what happens.”

Johnstone also said that the battles the Bombers went through in the SIJHL playoffs should help them at the Centennial Cup.

“If you look at the quality of our league this season, I would put those top three teams (Kam River, Sioux Lookout and Thunder Bay) against anybody in Canada,” Johnston added.

“I think the guys are excited to show what we got and see where we stand.”

The Bombers will be looking to change the narrative that many have around the SIJHL, who haven’t won a game at the Centennial Cup since the event expanded to a 10-team format in 2022.

The Red Lake Miners and Fighting Walleye each went 0-4 at the last two tournaments.

The last team to have any success at the event was the Minnesota Wilderness, who reached the semifinal in 2013 prior to joining the North American Hockey League.

“We obviously know that this league doesn’t really have a great reputation, but our goal is to put the SIJHL and our team on the map,” Lucas said.

“The other teams look down on this league but we want to show these guys that they aren’t that much better than us. Any team can win one game and that’s our mindset.”

This will also mark the first time that the majority of the Bombers have squared off against junior A squads from elsewhere in the country.

Forward Cobe Delaney is the only player on the roster with substantial experience in a league outside of the SIJHL. He played in 51 games in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League for his hometown La Ronge Ice Wolves.

“There’s some differences between the leagues but I think with the team that we have this year and the speed and skill we have, I think we can make a good push,” Delaney said.

“Yeah, those guys are pretty good and pretty fast, but I think we’re right there with them.”

The Bombers begin their Group B slate Thursday at 11 a.m. CDT (noon EDT) against the Winkler Flyers of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.

They then meet the host Oakville Blades of the Ontario Junior Hockey League at 6:30 p.m. CDT (7:30 p.m. EDT) Saturday, with a match up against the Miramichi Timberwolves of the Maritime Hockey League slated for 6:30 p.m. CDT (7:30 p.m. EDT) Sunday.

Sioux Lookout’s last group stage game is at 11 a.m. CDT (noon EDT) on May 14 against the SJHL’s Melfort Mustangs.

The other group features the Calgary Canucks of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, the Collingwood Blues of the OJHL, the Greater Sudbury Cubs of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League, Longueuil Collège Français of the Quebec Junior Hockey League and the Navan Grads of the Central Canada Hockey League.

The top three teams in each group advance to the playoffs. The group winners earn a bye to the semifinals, with the other teams squaring off in the quarterfinals.

The championship game is slated for 2 p.m. CDT (3 p.m. EDT) on May 19 and will air nationally on TSN.

ICINGS: Brothers Mason and Hudson Chitaroni of Marathon are both playing for the Greater Sudbury Cubs. Mason, a 19-year-old defenceman, played in the Quebec Maritimes Junior Hockey League last year with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan. Hudson, a 16-year-old forward, is a signed prospect of the Ontario Hockey League’s Sudbury Wolves . . . Marty Abrams, who is the general manager and head coach of the Navan Grads, was a goaltender for the Thunder Bay Twins during the 1991 Allan Cup . . . There will be a new champion at this year’s Centennial Cup. The Brooks Bandits, who had won the last three tournaments, left the AJHL in February and are now members of the British Columbia Hockey League, which operates as an independent circuit outside of Hockey Canada’s jurisdiction.