The prestigious Herder Memorial Trophy was hardly in the hands of the Grand Falls Cataracts this past April when the foundation that is senior hockey started to crumble.
Well, maybe foundation is the wrong word. A foundation indicates strength, something that's been missing in senior hockey for, oh, the last 30 years!
The Newfoundland Senior Hockey League as we’ve known it for the past couple of years is no more – or at least it won’t be once the Hockey Newfoundland and Labrador meetings are over this weekend coming. Four teams in the league from central and western Newfoundland (I’m gonna lump Clarenville into the central group for now, even though it’s eastern) want to depart and form their own league again, leaving two eastern teams out in the cold.
The rationale, at least as was told to CBC by Western Royals coach Ross Coates, is to reduce costs and provide the fans a better product.
“We just couldn't afford to stay into a provincial-style setup. It's just too expensive,” Coates told CBC recently. “We had to try and do something else to change it up and make it a little more interesting for the fans.”
Coates says that by eliminating the east coast teams, his team and the others in this new/old Central-West Senior Hockey League will save travel costs.
He also claims that fans were becoming uninterested.
The apathy? Yep, it's real
I’ll get to the travel costs in a minute, but on that last part – the apathy being shown – he’s speaking the truth. The current version of the Royals – a Corner Brook staple ever since winning the very first Herder in 1935 – now call, wait for it…. Deer Lake home! Imagine that!
The club left Corner Brook because it couldn’t afford to remain at the Pepsi Centre in Corner Brook with the number of fans the team had been attracting.
Fans in Clarenville had become a little less fervent than previous seasons, too, even though the Caribous were in the Herder final this year, have played in a couple of national senior Allan Cup tournaments and are even hosting the 2015 Allan Cup tournament.
Gander is new, so there’s still that new-car smell in that town, along with the hope that this year will mean a more competitive team for the airport town.
As for the assertion that transportation costs are forcing this move, I have one question: Does it really cost that much extra to get a bus from Corner Brook or Grand Falls to Harbour Grace or Mount Pearl than it does to Gander and Clarenville? I would suggest it’s cheaper, because many of the players already live on the Avalon, thus saving on transportation. Getting players to home games on the west coast and central would be more of an expense, and that’s a set of payments not going anywhere.
Come on. That’s not the real reason.
Survived in spite of itself
I’m not even going to touch on the distrust amongst teams here, or the fact these general managers or team presidents think they’re Brian Burke or Scotty Bowman!
For the past three decades, senior hockey has been in terrible shape, and to be honest, has survived in spite of itself. Year after year teams spend hundreds of thousands of dollars chasing that not-so-elusive Herder and then complain afterwards they have no money left.
For the past three decades, senior hockey has been in terrible shape, and to be honest, has survived in spite of itself.
A team is on the verge of collapse, and a new executive swoops in to save the day. The team is reborn! A new life. Fundraising starts anew, money is raised and the season proceeds as per normal.
The problem is that each executive passes on one thing to the new executive – the gun they use to shoot themselves in the foot each year.
Senior hockey in this province has nobody to blame but itself for the mess it’s in. Back in the late 1980s, the St. John’s Capitals spent a ton of money to get not only the Herder, but the Allan Cup, coming close in 1987 against Brantford.
But all that did was cause the Newfoundland Senior Hockey League to fold. Gradually, the senior league returned in various forms, such as the West Coast League and Avalon West. (The Avalon East was in on the Herder dash in the 1990s, but with smaller budgets and its own set of rules than exhibited elsewhere.)
The not-so-large money pie
Several years ago, senior hockey’s Herder final was a cash cow, playing out of Mile One and the Pepsi Centre. Full buildings in both cities meant the teams were pulling in dough. But once pro hockey returned, that fizzled out, and senior teams wanted the Herder in their own rinks, to appease the fans who supported them all year.
OK, done. But suddenly, instead of 6,380 people watching (and paying, and drinking every beer in the building), you had 1,500. Now the money pie is not so large.
But teams still spend money like it regenerates itself.
So now these teams want Mount Pearl and the Cee Bees out. Four teams mean better rivalries, they say.
It also means an easier trip to the Herder final.
And it also means more disaster for senior hockey. But that’s not news. You’ve known that for decades.