By Dave Leaderhouse
The curtain officially fell on the Canadian Junior Hockey League season on the weekend when the Cobourg Cougars edged the Brooks Bandits in the RBC Cup final, but there is little time to rest as preparations for next season are already under way with the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s annual general meeting scheduled for June 1-3 in Nipawin.
SJHL president Bill Chow says there is nothing earth-shattering on the agenda for the AGM, but he did note that the inter-provincial playoff picture will have a different look next spring.
“The Western Canada Cup is no longer,” stated Chow referring to the five-team event that pitted the four western provincial champions and a host team seeking two spots for the RBC Cup. “There were a number of factors in abandoning the format – personally I prefer it – but in the end if it doesn’t make sense it doesn’t make sense.”
The WCC, which had a life span of five years, was initially set up to generate funds not just for the host community, but also to provide financial assistance to the host league’s other franchises. While Estevan held a very successful event in 2016, the other editions were far below expectations which ultimately led to the dissolution of the championship.
Chow indicated the former format where the Saskatchewan and Manitoba champions vied for the Anavet Cup while British Columbia and Alberta battled for the Doyle Cup, with both winners moving on to the RBC Cup, will likely be reinstated.
While that change affects the schedule after the SJHL champion has been crowned, Chow says everything leading up to that should remain intact and from what happened this past season he says he couldn’t be happier.
“We have to give a lot of credit to the coaches and to all of our organizations,” says Chow. “Night-in and night-out it was a battle and because of that it helped the players become better as well.”
“We’re a very competitive league,” added Chow. “For us it is not written in stone as to who is going to win next year while with the other leagues they have a lot of repeat champions.”
The Battlefords North Stars were the clear-cut winners this past season cruising to a second-straight regular-season crown and after being a perfect 12-0 in the playoffs they captured their first SJHL title in 17 years.
That might seem a bit dominant, but the regular season had meaningful games right to the very end, even if it was delayed by a day due to a major storm that enveloped the province in early March.
Chow said that parity is not the only positive gained from this past season as more players earned post-secondary scholarships, Olympic Buildings came on as a division sponsor (along with Viterra and Sherwood) and two players were named CJHL award winners when Adam Dawe from the Notre Dame Hounds claimed the rookie of the year honour while Kristian Stead of the Nipawin Hawks was picked as the top netminder. Both will be moving on to the NCAA Division 1 level next fall with Dawe committed to the University of Maine while Stead will take his talents to the University of Alaska at Anchorage.
This past season also saw a third of the teams having new coaches cut their teeth at the Junior A level with Nate Bedford taking over the reins in the Battlefords, Devin Windle assuming the responsibilities in Melville, Casey O’Brien moving up in Yorkton and Evan Vossen taking over for Shawn Martin early in the season in La Ronge.
Chow says the increased competitiveness in the league is reflected by the calibre of coaching that is being attracted to the SJHL.
“We are a developmental league not just for the players,” says Chow. “All organizations are doing a great job in finding good coaches and all of the recent hires show exactly that. All coaches in the league are elevating the level of play to the highest level possible.”
The annual AGM will begin once again with the bantam draft and with that process now being in its third year, Chow says the league is beginning to reap some benefits from the annual lottery of bantam-aged talent.
“There is still some work to do (with the draft), but hopefully we are providing an opportunity for some players to play at the Junior A level,” noted Chow.
Other topics to be glossed over are the annual Showcase, which Chow says will once again be held in Warman at the end of September and discussions on discipline, which Chow says is an education process.
The 2017-18 league schedule will be initiated on the final day of the meetings with a final version to be released sometime in June.
The SJHL has moved into the upper strata of Junior A circuits in the league and Chow says that success is largely due to the great organizations, the amazing fan support and the existence of strong volunteer and sponsorship bases.
The break away from the on-ice action is welcomed at this time of the year, but it won’t be long before the first puck drops to start another exciting and entertaining season. If next year matches or surpasses what took place this past season then everyone involved has reason to be excited for what lies ahead.