After Exceptional Debut Season, Fighting Walleye Still Want More

September 24, 2022

By: Gary Moskalyk

The Kam River Fighting Walleye had a season for the ages. The expansion team led the SIJHL in points with 72, wins, 35, and winning percentage .818. They were seventh in the CJHL rankings, nipping the eventual Bill Salonen SIJHL league champion Red Lake Miners by a slot.

And there’s the rub.

The Miners roared out to a 3-0 lead in the SIJHL finals last year, and eventually won the SIJHL championship four games to two over the upstarts from Oliver-Paipoonge.

“We had a really strong regular season,” said Fighting Walleye head  Matt Valley. “The playoff portion of our year didn’t end the way we wanted to. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t positive. We had some pretty good showings against the North Stars. I thought it was a good series. Maybe the sweep wasn’t indicative of the play.”

The Walleye deposed the reigning champion North Stars in four straight, including a pair of 2-1 overtime victories.

The 2022-23 season brings a seismic shift in the roster. Graduating players include goaltender-of-the-year Austin Madge, whose 20 wins and .931 save percentage led the league. Defenceman-of-the-year Zach Fortin (12G, 32A, 44PTS) takes his skill set to Lakehead University. Alex Enegren tallied 50 points in 44 games. Defenceman Kersey Reich had 30 points in 31 contests. Christian Veneruzzo had 25 points and a gritty 139 minutes in the bin.

“I think losing Zach Fortin and Kersey Reich, what they provided last year just doesn’t grow on trees. Their loss might have to be done in the aggregate. You have to find a group of players (to replace them) which I think we’ve done. We have a group of talented players that we’ll piecemeal together for a very solid d-corps, much like Red Lake had had last year.”

Veteran rearguard Kyle Lamoureux will be a centre piece on the blue line.

Valley himself won SIJHL coach-of-the-year, a “team award” as he called it. The organization has set a high standard.

“Raising the bar around here started two months ago,” said Valley. “The standard is set. We know what where we were last year. This is a big year for us. There’s a lot of pressure internally and externally. The bar is already raised.”

“I love all the guys we lost from last year. Losing Madge will be tough. But we have Eric (Vanska) who was our other guy last year. We need to find another Eric, to push Vanska this year. Eric was so good last year, that’s what helped Madge get to where he was.”

Vanska’s in his age-20 year.

“I think there’s a lot of pressure being 20. We’ve got a lot of good guys for that,” said the 6-foot, 170 lb. Thunder Bay AAA Kings alumnus. Speaking to his relationship with Madge Vanska agreed with Valley’s assessment.

“I talked to Madger, too. We had a really good relationship last year. We pushed each other. He gave me a pretty big compliment saying he got pushed a lot more than he expected from me. I guess this year the goal with my other goalie is to keep pushing each other. We’ve found a goalie who can push me pretty well. I’m just going to keep doing my thing.”

In game three of the finals against Red Lake, Vanska took over from Madge after a period. From there it was his net.

“I’m really excited about it. Looking forward to it,” said Vanska of his new challenge in net.

That other goalie could be Jack Orchard. Orchard saw action against the North Stars last week end. The Emo, ON native was 19-1-1 with a 1.89 GAA and .932 SV% with the Gillette Wild of the NA3HL.

The Fighting Walleye played an 8-game exhibition slate, culminating with two against the North Stars on September 16 and 17. Valley called it a “mini-season.”

The Walleye split with their cross-town rivals.

Dax Lang joins his brother Ethan Lang on the forward list. Jeremy Dunmore, Colton Crysler, Braeden Duchesne, Max LeDuc, Cooper Fink, Holden Woodcroft, Euan Morrison, Calvin Morrow, Carson Gorst and Logan Gallagher all saw action against action against Thunder Bay.

The regular season schedule begins in earnest with a pair of away games against Dryden on Sep. 23 and 24. Their first home game will Friday Sep. 30 against Thunder Bay.