By Dave Leaderhouse
Depending on how one looks at things, the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s annual meetings held in Nipawin last weekend either put the final stamp on the 2018-19 season or officially signalled the start of the 2019-20 campaign.
The 12 teams, with their respective coaching and scouting staffs, along with the governor’s from each club, gathered in the north-east community to deal with a number of issues and according to league president Bill Chow it was a very productive weekend.
“I think they (meetings) were very positive; there was a lot of good conversation,” says Chow, who emerged from the weekend armed with a two-year contract extension to continue leading the league as he has for the last eight years. “We are continuing to find every which way to become better, but it takes time to evolve to that.”
The first order of business was the annual bantam draft and Chow says the fifth go-around for this lottery of talent continues to be a positive move to attract the best talent possible to the league.
“What I see is a level playing field for recruiting players from Saskatchewan for all teams,” notes Chow. “Some players are coming, not all, but it is certainly noticeable.”
A coach’s meeting followed and with two-thirds of the franchises having new faces behind the bench in the last two seasons it was an opportunity for everyone to get to know each other in addition to getting on the same page with possible changes.
Referee-in-chief Brad Howard began the session with a recap of the season and while he was pleased with the overall product shown by his officials he did agree with the league that there are areas that need improvement.
“There are some concerns with linesmen,” said Howard. “They are going to make mistakes, but we are working hard to resolve them.”
“Referees are disciplined if they call the rules wrong,” added Howard who noted a couple of instances where officials were removed from the schedule when clear violations were apparent.
Howard then dove into a couple of items that will be different beginning next season.
The first is the adoption of the hybrid icing rule.
Up to now icing was called when the puck was shot down the ice and it was touched by the defending team after it crossed the goal line. There are times when it could be a fierce race for the puck to avoid the icing call resulting in player injuries. The hybrid rule is an attempt to avoid those instances as the play is called if the defending player is ahead in the race to the puck by the face-off circles. It also adds an opportunity for offensive plays to be designed around this format.
Also being implemented next season is the introduction of a discipline committee. Previously, when a prescribed suspension was given, such as a two-game ban for a blow-to-the-head major, an appeal would heard by Chow and he would be required to make a decision himself. With a committee there will be three people making a ruling as to whether the initial suspension should be increased or decreased.
“I think what we are looking for is more transparency,” says Chow. “It isn’t putting the onus on just one person.”
There was some discussion on lowering the number of overage players from eight to seven and eventually even further, but, for now, each team will be permitted to carry eight 20-year-olds on their roster.
One final change for next season involves the playoff format.
Going forward there will no longer be a Survivor Series to open the post-season as the top eight teams after the regular season will be seeded according to their point totals. For the last number of years the top six teams got a bye with each division winner getting the top three seeds for the quarter-finals. The seventh through tenth-place teams then met in a best-of-three Survivor Series with the two winners moving on to face the two highest seeds from the regular season.
There will still be three divisions, but finishing first no longer guarantees a spot in the post-season as the top eight overall will move on. There is the outside chance that one division could totally be eliminated from the playoff round, but with league parity being at an all-time high that is highly unlikely – possible, but unlikely.
“We’ve been talking about the Wild Card (Survivor Series) for a number of years,” says Chow. “It’s time to move on. I don’t think anybody ever believed in the Wild Card although La Ronge might disagree with that (the Ice Wolves won the 2010 championship after qualifying through the Wild Card format, but would still have qualified under the new format.)
Scheduling and some sponsorship discussions completed the meetings and as Chow summarized: “We’re just waiting for the schedules to be finalized and away we go.”
It was a milestone season as the league celebrated its 50th anniversary and saw the Humboldt Broncos’ franchise return from the tragic events of April, 2018. Playoff jockeying went right down to the wire as parity continues to grow each and every season. The Battlefords emerged as league champions for the second time in three years, but any one of the 10 qualifiers had a chance to rise to the top as was evidenced by the Yorkton Terriers knocking off the regular-season champion Nipawin Hawks in a seventh and deciding game in the quarter-finals.
In just over two months it will be time for the next edition to unfold. Fans, players, coaches and volunteers can’t wait.