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Power and Responsibility: The high stakes of major junior hockey

Junior hockey owners aren’t playing with the same kind of dough as the pros, but the stakes are higher for their players.

Earlier this fall, the West Kelowna Warriors of the British Columbia Jr. A League got into the headlines for the worst possible reason: the team’s players walked off the ice after the new owner replaced interim coach Geoff Grimwood 17 days after original bench boss Rylan Ferster (and several others in the organization) had quit on the eve of training camp. The players stuck together, BCHL commissioner Chris Hebb and the league’s board of governors got involved, and Grimwood was rehired. Owner Kim Dobranski was contrite in the aftermath, and the club released a statement that I believe reflects a great truth about junior hockey: “Our BCHL franchises throughout our league provide an important service to all the communities in which they operate. The effect they have is difficult to measure, but when you hear the personal stories of those who participated in our clubs, it reinforces the commitment we all collectively have to help these young men through their own personal journeys.”

Bang on. If you’ll recall, this situation rings bells. In late 2015, the OHL’s Flint Firebirds went through something similar when new owner Rolf Nilsen fired the coaching staff, which prompted the players to rebel. The league got involved, and coach John Gruden and his staff were reinstated only to be fired again by Nilsen a few months later. Commissioner David Branch intervened, suspending Nilsen from making hockey ops decisions for five years and installing league people to run the team. Nilsen was also fined $250,000, and the players were given counselling.

These days, the Firebirds are in better shape, even if the team got off to a rough start to 2018-19. At the very least, they have a promising coach in Ryan Oulahen (Gruden is now an assistant coach with the NHL’s Islanders) and an experienced GM in Barclay Branch, the former GM of the Sudbury Wolves (and David’s son). The younger Branch replaced George Burnett, who was initially installed following the 2015-16 turmoil. The kids are in good hands.

With the situation in West Kelowna seemingly settling down, I hope the same can be said about the Warriors, because junior hockey is different from the pros. In the NHL, you can have an eccentric owner and things will only go so bad. OK, one time the league almost sold the Islanders to a con artist, but that’s why pencils have erasers, right? Besides, these days we have Google to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

In all seriousness, players in the NHL make good money, free agency is the light at the end of the tunnel if their current playing situations are less than ideal, and the roster is made up of men who have a lot of life experience (not to mention, a more reliable class of agents – the bad ones, unfortunately, have more sway in junior than in the pros).

But most of the kids who play junior hockey will never make it to the NHL, and for many of them, authority figures like owners are an intimidating presence – someone who could ruin their dreams through incompetence or malice.

Not only that, but many of these kids are living away from home for the first time. Good billet programs can give them stability which, on the high end, provides something akin to a second family for the teenagers. But I would imagine it’s still pretty scary when your dream of playing in the OHL or BCHL all of a sudden seems very tenuous because the guy who bought the team has a very different plan for how the franchise should be run.

As for the franchise itself, let’s not forget how much these teams mean to the communities themselves. Thanks to junior hockey, smaller towns such as Swift Current, Bathurst and Wenatchee can be represented by teams who rival or even best those from major cities such as Vancouver, Calgary or Quebec City. Civic pride is no trifling matter when it comes to these locales and, again, the business folk who purchase these franchises must be aware of the responsibility they take on in these deals (especially if they’re affecting tax revenue for locals when asking for arena upgrades, but that’s another column…).

As I alluded to earlier, the West Kelowna Warriors seem to have learned that lesson. Junior hockey is a trust, and the stakes are much higher than in the NHL, even if the dollar amounts and television ratings are significantly lower. You can’t guarantee a kid is going to achieve his dream of being an NHL star someday, but you at least have to give the youngster a chance to succeed and spend his teenage years in a fun, safe environment.

This story appears in the Prospects Unlimited 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.

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