Junior hockey growing like nobody's business

Windsor Spitfires winger Ty Bilcke, left, and London Knights winger Adam Restoule, right, drop the...

Windsor Spitfires winger Ty Bilcke, left, and London Knights winger Adam Restoule, right, drop the gloves and trade punches early in the first period of their OHL hockey game at Budweiser Gardens in London on Friday October 5, 2012. (CRAIG GLOVER/QMI Agency)

RYAN PYETTE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:57 PM ET

Sherry Bassin has accomplished a lot during his vast junior hockey career.

Right now, he's just trying to dig himself out of last place.

The venerable Erie Otters owner and general manager knows he needs more than a slingshot to drop the Goliaths roaming the Canadian Hockey League landscape these days, and he's starting with 15-year-old phenom Connor McDavid and a $42-million home rink makeover.

"When we came here (to Pennsylvania) in 1996, this was the third-best rink in the Ontario Hockey League," Bassin said in a chilly Erie Insurance Arena corridor recently, "and right now, it's the second worst, but it won't be that way for much longer."

Nice arena. Exciting team. Strong brand.

That's no longer the finish line for CHL teams. In an era of $2-million-plus budgets and competition against some of Canada's biggest hockey centres, those are simple building blocks that allow the average team to get into the race.

"You want to talk about where junior hockey's going," the 73-year-old Bassin said. "Thirty years ago, if someone could sharpen skates, they were the trainer. Now, you need a physiotherapist and it better not just be some physiotherapist, it better be the best.

"There are no shortcuts anymore. With coaching and video as specialized as it is today, with the game at the level it's at now, if you're not fully prepared and ready to invest everything into this, your program will collapse on itself."

Mom and Pop have boarded up the shop and retired to Florida. Junior hockey is now a business in every sense of the word.

"When I played for the London Knights in the late '70s and early '80s, there might've been three, four employees working for a team," Belleville Bulls GM/coach George Burnett said. "The owner and his wife, they were selling tickets or programs. There was the coach and the trainer. Now, depending on what city you're in, there can be dozens of people involved.

"If you're in a smaller centre, you have to maximize all your resources in order to compete."

But what's big and who's small these days?

It's getting more blurry by the day.

The London Knights, now run like a pro franchise, are operated by the hockey-savvy Hunter clan, who took out mortgages on their farms to purchase the team a dozen years ago. They didn't start in the same tax bracket as former Mississauga owner Eugene Melnyk and current Brampton boss Scott Abbott, tycoons who have dealt with some of major junior hockey's lowest average attendances.


A look at the big and small draws so far in major junior hockey's 2012-13 season

THE BIG DOGS

  • Quebec Remparts, QMJHL (10,166 avg. for six games)
  • London Knights, OHL (8,934 for five games)
  • Halifax Mooseheads, QMJHL (7,791 for five games)
  • Calgary Hitmen, WHL (7,738 for six games)
  • Portland Winterhawks, WHL (6,875 for three games)

SMALLER FISH

  • Mississauga Steelheads, OHL (2,203 for five games)
  • Brampton Battalion, OHL (2,106 for six games)
  • Swift Current, WHL (1,863 for eight games)
  • Prince Edward Island, QMJHL (1,781 for seven games)
  • Acadie-Bathurst, QMJHL (1,602 for five games)

 

Warren Rychel, the Windsor Spitfires co-owner and GM, said his club has been run in the same vein as a "small business," although the OHL recently slapped it with a $250,000 fine (originally $400,000) for illegal recruitment.

Twenty years ago, that was pretty close to a team's annual budget.

Ex-NHL players are investing. NHL clubs, particularly in Calgary and Edmonton, hold stakes in the junior game.

The Patrick Roy-led Quebec Remparts play in front of annual average attendances that would lead the American Hockey League and are hot on the tail of some of the lighter-drawing NHL clubs.

The Kitchener Rangers, in essence owned by their season-ticket holders, just added nearly 1,000 seats to Memorial Auditorium, pushing capacity to more than 7,000, to deal with demand.

"I remember during my draft year a lot of friends were sitting at their computers praying they would get picked by London, Kitchener or Windsor," a former star forward in the OHL's Eastern Conference said. "They were disappointed if they didn't. I don't think it had anything to do with money. They just saw the crowds, the support, and how the cycle worked. Those teams kept getting top players who wanted to be there and, in turn, people keep coming out to watch those teams win."

This remains junior hockey's great juggling act: How to grow the brand without leaving anyone behind.

"To me, the key is always remembering who you are and what your strengths are," CHL president and OHL commissioner David Branch said. "Ninety percent of our markets are in smaller communities (populations under 100,000). We've never said we'd ideally like to have everybody in a 5,000-seat facility. We enjoy the odd market where it's best to be at 9,000 or 10,000. We don't have cookie-cutter markets and so you don't have cookie-cutter facilities, either."

There is a greater presence of junior hockey on TV. That, and the financial spinoffs that come with it, have stirred up attention, primarily from the fledging CHL players union.

Michael Mazzuca, now a lawyer at the Toronto-based Gibson and Barnes firm representing the CHLPA, noticed a vast spotlight shift since his four seasons with London and Kitchener during the late 1990s.

"The biggest change in junior hockey from when I played is in television and branding opportunities," he said. "Nearly every game is on TV now and then you add in the special national events -- the Canada-Russia challenge, Top Prospects, Friday Night Hockey on (Rogers) Sportsnet.

"There's a lot of money being divided and, with it, an opportunity to direct more of it to the only reason it's being generated -- the players."

There's a tightrope to walk there, too. A strong union, if this one happens, can't afford to lose any of its membership.

Owen Sound, one of the CHL's tiniest population bases, is in the middle of the 20-team pack in OHL attendance. The Attack, in a massive victory for the underdog community, won the 2011 league title and might have hoisted the Memorial Cup, too, if 25-minute-a-game forwards Joey Hishon and Garrett Wilson hadn't gone down to injury during the tournament.

Every second Wednesday, the ownership group -- a doctor, an agricultural supplier, a Tim Hortons franchisee and a campground-owning pair of brothers -- meet to discuss the state of their small-market club, a contender once again.

"We don't have the luxury in our situation to make any huge blunders," Dr. Bob Severs said. "With our operations budget where it is and 3,000 people in the seats, you can't be in this to make money. If you are, you're just (peeing) up a rope. We know who we are, we have a good relationship with our arena, we make it a priority to hire the best people (GM Dale DeGray has made some magical moves), we stay the hell out of head coach Greg Ireland's way and we're happy."

New Oshawa Generals GM Jeff Twohey spent three decades working for the Petes in Peterborough, another smaller centre. He never thought once he couldn't compete.

"To me, it's wasted breath (to make excuses)," he said. "We beat London four straight in the 2006 (OHL) final. Shawinigan isn't the biggest place and they had to make trades, but they're Memorial Cup champions. If you're a small-market team and try to act like a big-market one, you're going to fail.

"It starts with good hockey sense. If you took Mark and Dale Hunter out of London and put them in the smallest market in the CHL, I believe they would still find a way to win."

If you can't adjust to the dynamics of this growing market, you risk being left in the dust by the bigger fish -- and ultimately, out of the game for good.

COACHES KEEN TO MAKE CAREER

As the old chestnut goes, a handful of Canadian Hockey League operators have to think long and hard before moving up to the NHL ranks these days.

It could mean a pay cut.

"Junior hockey used to be primarily used as a springboard to a pro job but people have come to realize there's a great career opportunity at this level," Belleville Bulls general manager/coach George Burnett said. "The CHL has become a destination for a lot of coaches."

It's no longer just a pit stop, especially for those who have a financial stake in their teams.

Dale Hunter ran the Washington Capitals bench for most of last season, cajoled the team to a Game 7 in the second round, then bid adieu. He's back with his London Knights, a team he bought with his brother, Mark. in 2000.

Two-time Memorial Cup champion Bob Boughner dabbled as an assistant coach with the Columbus Blue Jackets for a year, then promptly returned to Windsor, the team he co-owns. Patrick Roy, despite being a much-discussed potential coach of the Montreal Canadiens, looks quite comfortable in Quebec with his Remparts.

"You look at guys like George and Bobby and they really enjoy teaching the game," Hunter said. "That's what it's mostly about at this level. The NHL isn't that way. If you love teaching and preparing players to take that next step, then this is a great place to coach."

Maybe the Brian Kilrea experience in Ottawa -- winning an unfathomable 1,193 games in 30-plus years behind a junior hockey bench -- will become more common. Hunter could notch his 500th win later this season.

Burnett, an OHL coach with Niagara Falls at age 27, was running the Edmonton Oilers bench by the time he was 32. He later returned to junior, took the Guelph Storm to the Memorial Cup final, then jumped back into the NHL again.

He has spent the past dozen years in the OHL, the past nine in Belleville.

"The most important person in the organization has always been the coach," Oshawa Generals GM Jeff Twohey said. "I can assemble all the talent in the world but if the players can't play for that coach and he can't bring them together, then I'm a bad GM.

"You need a great coach to win in junior hockey. That's the bottom line. If you don't have one, then nothing else matters."

And today for many of them, the ice isn't necessarily thicker -- or grass greener -- in the big leagues.

-- with files from Dave Pollard

ryan.pyette@sunmedia.ca

Twitter.com/RyanAtLFPress


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