By: John Cudmore
If the bigwigs in charge of the Ontario Provincial Jr. A Hockey League are upset about a perceived infringement on their turf, yet some of its ownership members seem interested in what the leaders of a breakaway group of owners are up to, you gotta ask: can it really be such a terrible thing?
Faced with its most divisive issue since the debate over electronic scorekeeping threatened to torpedo a few team budgets, the OPJHL seems capable barely to mumble into a telephone its thoughts on what is transpiring in its very own house. But that seems secondary among its issues given that the Ontario Hockey Association clearly approves of the concept of creating a division within the existing divisions of the OPJHL.
So here it is: the OHA has mandated a pilot project to reshape junior hockey, specifically at the OPJHL level, and elevate the area of player development. The target is to create more opportunity for players to pursue education packages in the NCAA, quite likely using the United States Hockey League as a model.
This all references to a proposal approved some time ago by the OHA for a group of teams spearheaded by the St. Michael's Buzzers and Newmarket Hurricanes to compete within their own division as members of the OPJHL. It is a group of teams that also apparently includes the Hamilton Red Wings, Toronto Canadiens, Cobourg Cougars and Wellington Dukes. The connection is a series of deep pockets.
But the focus is to be on enhancing opportunities for players to showcase their talents to the next levels. That's not to say the teams in the group necessarily will be stronger because the usual powers are sure to remain the usual powers because that’s what they do and, in some cases, remain productive for the NCAA.
“This is not something above the OPJHL,” said OHA chairperson Karen Phibbs, who is also chairing the pilot project committee. “This is a group of teams with progressive ideas and did not feel they would get a good hearing at an OPJHL meeting so brought it to the OHA. The OHA feels it is doable and would work well within the OPJHL.”
Details are very much in the formative stage. In fact, nailing down specifics at this early stage is improbable. Phibbs did say, however, the one-year pilot is targeted for the 2008-09 season.
OPJHL chairperson Al Doria, who has played dodge-a-phone for more than a week, declined to comment on the matter when contacted yesterday.
“I’m waiting for more information on the matter before I can comment,” he said.
More information? How does the top dog in the league impacted by the news that a half-dozen of its teams are making the most dramatic move in junior hockey in some time not have information on a situation that has been brewing for months? Holy smokes.
‘This is not something above the OPJHL. This is a group of teams with progressive ideas and did not feel they would get a good hearing at an OPJHL meeting so brought it to the OHA.’
“The rest of the teams are definitely not in favour of the mandate handed down by the OHA,” said Dan Skjodt, owner of the Seguin Bruins. “It’s not a reasonable request. There are a lot of issues attached to make us not understand the OHA’s thinking without consulting us. To reverse that mandate is the number one objective.”
Skjodt confirmed Tuesday afternoon the matter is before legal counsel but that no move had yet been made to sue the partners.
“There are aspects that have not been determined yet,” he said. “It’s all moot at this point because we’re hoping the objections from the other teams will change the OHA’s mind. We told (OHA president) Brent Ladds we’re not happy with the decision that they would mandate the conference.”
Skjodt downplayed suggestions the pilot group has been pushed out of the OPJHL. That’s not going to happen, although one could imagine a move from within to banish the teams in an attempt to make something happen. Trouble is, the remaining 28 or 29 teams do not have the OHA’s ear on this issue.
“They are owners in our league and still are owners in our league,” confirmed Skjodt.
But there is no denying the tense atmosphere.
“It’s two groups that have fallen out of love with each other,” said Ladds. No kidding.
Nevertheless, judging by recent comments from management and ownership sources, including those in Aurora, Stouffville and Markham, who at least have expressed curiosity, there does appear to be a few on the OPJHL side willing to keep an open ear. Owners in those centres seem interested in participating if the opportunity arises.
Never mind the fact that the large majority of teams in the OPJHL could never afford to participate financially or competitively, given the potential increase in operating and travel costs. But no one wants to be left behind in what might be perceived as a second tier league.
Phibbs said the concept was presented as a brief outline and misinformation has since gained legs from outside sources.
“It’s not something above the OPJHL,” she said, reaffirming the division would work within the OPJHL’s structure. “It’s up to the OHA to determine the criteria.”
Certainly one could rightly expect the approach to entail more costs and expenses if it is to attract the premier player, if for no other reason than to account for additional travel teams would encounter in a wider distribution of teams.
For that, and presumably other reasons, a minimum budget of $300,000 has been floated. That alone should disqualify a vast majority of the present members of the bloated 36-teams-and-counting league.
The OPJHL holds its annual general meeting May 21 in Toronto. Should be interesting.