When the Queen’s basketball teams open their seasons at the ARC tonight, their visitors will have travelled over 1,600 kilometres to get here.
On Thursday, the Lakehead Thunderwolves boarded a plane in Thunder Bay and flew to Toronto, where they rented vans to get to Kingston. After playing the Gaels tonight and the Royal Military College Paladins tomorrow, they will travel home on Sunday.
Next road trip, they’ll do it all over again.
Lakehead University is the OUA’s only participant in Northern Ontario. With its closest competitor almost 700 kilometres away, its teams have to fly to every away game.
“You don’t have much room to work with between getting on the plane, getting to the hotel and getting fed,” Thunderwolves Sports Information Officer Hugh Mullally said. “It’s really life on the road.”
Thunder Bay is closer to Winnipeg than it is to any major Ontario city — and Winnipeg is still an eight-hour drive away. But Mullally said the city’s remote location fosters a close-knit environment.
“You don’t have much of a choice of who you’re going to be hanging out with,” he said. “Being so far from any major city, there’s no quick shots home for mom’s cooking.”
Mullally is used to living in isolation — he was born and raised in Prince Edward Island. He said Thunder Bay reminds him of an island culture.
“There’s a real community here,” he said. “It’s devoid of a lot of outside influences and changes don’t sweep into town with great speed.”
The school’s Athletics program has benefitted from that community feel. Mullally said being a varsity athlete in Thunder Bay is special because Thunderwolves games “are the biggest show in town.”
Last week, the men’s hockey team played their home opener in front of 3,500 people. The men’s and women’s basketball teams routinely play in front of 1,000 fans. Men’s basketball head coach Scott Morrison said Thunderwolves teams have the greatest playing environment in the country.
“Being the main show in town, the kids here essentially get a Division 1 experience while staying in Canada,” he said.
Last season, the men’s basketball team won the OUA Championship. Considering the city’s northern location and climate, it’s an unusual spot for a basketball power.
Thunder Bay’s size means its talent pool is relatively small and its remote location makes it difficult to compete with southern Ontario schools for top prospects.
“My first few years, we really tried to battle Southern Ontario schools,” Morrison said. “We lost more kids than we got.”
But Morrison has found ways to overcome these challenges, using Thunder Bay’s proximity to the Manitoba and Minnesota borders to assemble an unconventional OUA roster. This season, the Thunderwolves have three local Thunder Bay players, three players from Winnipeg and three more from the U.S.
Morrison said he attracts players to Lakehead Athletics by promising a unique varsity experience.
“We emphasize our differences from the other schools,” he said. “We get the chance to travel more and we’ve got the best home atmosphere in Canada.
“The American guys maybe didn’t get an opportunity to play top level at home. This is an opportunity for them to get their degree and still play at a high level.”
Morrison said travel limitations mean his coaching staff starts the recruiting process earlier than their competitors.
“We usually try to target a kid at the beginning of Grade 11,” he said. “By the time he reaches his senior year, we have a pretty good idea of whether or not he’s interested in leaving home.”
The hard part is convincing players to consider moving so far north. But according to women’s basketball coach Jon Kreiner, visiting recruits are usually impressed once they come to visit.
“Our greatest recruiting strength is bringing a recruit up to see the playing environment,” he said. “The community support we get for our student-athletes is fantastic.”
The city’s remote location also translates into a major home advantage when other schools come to play. Thunderwolves are used to travelling south every two weeks, but other teams only make the trip to Thunder Bay once in two years.
“We fly all the time, we’re used to that,” he said. “But it hurts other teams when they have to travel up and get hit with snowstorms.”
On any given road trip, Thunderwolves student-athletes will miss a day and a half of classes. But Kreiner says Lakehead Athletics is well-equipped to deal with these challenges through its Academic Assistance Program.
“We have the greatest hands-on support,” he said. “We have an actual academic advisor with an office at our athletics facility to work with our student-athletes.”
According to Kreiner, that kind of support system extends throughout the local community.
“The community support is second-to-none. It’s a tight-knit family,” he said. “We’re all in the same situation of being isolated from Southern Ontario and that’s become a strength.”