Byron Katapaytuk has garnered some individual accolades. And now the 20-year-old Cree, who stars for the Fort Frances Lakers, a Junior A squad that competes in the Superior International Junior Hockey League (SIJHL) is hoping to cap off his season with a team championship.
Katapaytuk, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound centre, was selected as the Player of the Year in the seven-team SIJHL for his efforts during the regular season.
The Lakers are one of four Ontario-based franchises in the SIJHL. The circuit also includes two clubs from Minnesota as well as the defending league champion Wisconsin Wilderness.
“It’s obviously a big honor being knighted the top player in the league,” said Katapaytuk, adding he had set a goal of winning this award prior to beginning his final junior season.
Katapaytuk, who is from Moose Factory (a First Nations community in northern Ontario) had been a finalist for the same award last year.
Katapaytuk also ended up winning the SIJHL scoring title. He racked up an astounding 85 points (32 goals, 53 assists) in 52 games.
“I kind of challenged him around November to be the player he could be,” said Lakers’ coach/general manager Wayne Strachan said. “I always felt he could lead this league in points.”
For Katapaytuk, this marked his third season in the league. During his rookie season with the Lakers he had 34 points in 43 games. And then last season he averaged just more than a point per outing, picking up 56 points in 54 contests.” Strachan said his November chat with Katapaytuk seemed to inspire the power forward.
“Ever since then he’s kicked into high gear and he’s a big reason of where we are today,” Strachan said.
The Lakers placed second in the SIJHL’s regular season standings. Fort Frances ended up with 81 points, thanks to its 37-12-7 record. The Lakers were 18 points behind front-running Wisconsin.
By being the top two finishers in regular season action, both Wisconsin and Fort Frances will automatically advance to the league semi-finals. But before that they will play four games between themselves (while other league playoff series are going on). The winner of this mini-series, which starts today, gets to decide which remaining opponent it will face in its semi-final round.
Katapaytuk said he thinks Wisconsin and his team will end up squaring off in the SIJHL finals. Katapaytuk believes a 5-0 home victory over the Wilderness on Feb. 11 gives the Lakers plenty of confidence.
“It brings our confidence up knowing we can beat them,” he said. “It could go either way (if the two teams meet in the final). It’s going to depend on who wants it more.”
Besides a desire to win the league title, Katapaytuk has another reason why he wants to fare well in the post-season. So far he has a half dozen NCAA Division III schools that are interested in his services for next season.
“I’m not making a decision until after my season is done,” he said. “But I know I’m going to go to school. I want to get my education. I want to get a degree and play hockey.”
Katapaytuk is also hoping to attract some attention from a higher calibre Division 1 school.
“Anything is possible if you have a good playoff run,” he said.
Strachan believes there’s a good reason why Katapaytuk hasn’t been generating interest from Division 1 teams thus far. And that’s the team’s location – in remote northwestern Ontario.
“We don’t always get the D one scouts coming out to look at us, unless we’re playing one of the U.S. teams,” he said. Strachan believes his sniper would be a welcome addition for some Division 1 squads.
“I think he could help a lower-ranked D one team,” he said.
As for Katapaytuk’s hometown of Moose Factory, it’s already well known in hockey circles as it is also the birthplace of pro player Jonathan Cheechoo. The former National Hockey League star (he played with the San Jose Sharks and Ottawa Senators) is in his 12th pro season and is now toiling for the American Hockey League’s Peoria Rivermen.
“He’s a big part of that community and everybody looks up to him,” said Katapaytuk, adding his brother Mikey and Cheechoo played on various teams together while they were growing up.
As for Katapaytuk, he’s making a name for himself these days.