By Dave Leaderhouse
As the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League gets ready to commemorate its 50th anniversary it is hard to put into words how the first half century unfolded.
With the exception of the last two months it was business as usual: junior-aged players from across the country and parts of the United States formed the rosters of franchises at various locations in the province and for the most part put on a dynamic show for the die-hard fans, volunteers, sponsors and hard-working staff.
The last season was no exception – until April 6.
“We have to look at the positives, but we can’t forget what happened,” says SJHL president Bill Chow as the league begins the process of moving forward with its annual league meetings this weekend in Nipawin. “We had one of the smallest markets in the Canadian Junior Hockey League (Nipawin Hawks) compete at the Anavet Cup and they came very close to going on to the RBC Cup.”
“Our league has become so competitive,” added Chow in trying to encapsulate the most recent season. “We have some teams at the lower end of the standings, but on any given night anyone can beat anyone. There is an increased competitiveness.”
The season certainly had some highlights led by Nipawin, which captured its first league title in 28 years. The Hawks went one stretch during the season where they recorded at least one point in 30 straight games and as a result captured both the Sherwood Division and regular-season titles.
The league also had its first 100-point man in seven years as the Battlefords’ Layne Young ran away with the individual scoring title. Young had an impressive 107-point campaign to finish his three-year run with the North Stars with 253 points.
Several players were recruited for NCAA Division 1 teams next year and another large group committed to post-secondary opportunities at Canadian universities and colleges. The league is getting noticed, but unfortunately the spotlight glared brightest following the tragic bus crash of the Humboldt Broncos on April 6.
“It was a horrific, tragic event that occurred,” says Chow. “The devastation and loss, I hope in time, the families will recover. They say that time heals and in this case you aren’t sure if it is possible. I hope it does.”
The league moved forward following the tragedy when the playoffs resumed with Nipawin getting past the Estevan Bruins in a thrilling Canalta Cup final. The Hawks then narrowly missed winning the Anavet Cup, losing in six games to the Steinbach Pistons, so now it is time to take that next step and get ready for next year.
“We will have to talk about it (the tragedy),” notes Chow about what to expect at the league meetings. “We have to learn from it. It wasn’t long after the tragedy when I was asked ‘do you have a plan for something like this?’ and all I could say was every time teams travel during winter weather you hope everything goes alright. But, this was a clear, blue-skied day so you certainly don’t expect this to happen.”
“There will have to be an emergency plan going forward,” added Chow.
The meetings begin on Thursday with a marketing session and one thing that Chow wants to clarify is the recent news of the league applying for trademarks associated from the tragedy.
“To get a trademark it takes 18 months to two years to get approved,” explains Chow. “We saw that nothing was being done for the ‘sticks on the porch’, ‘Humboldt Strong’, ‘Healing is in the game’ and ‘SJHL Strong’ and their associated hashtags. All we did was put in the application. Everything has since been turned over to the Humboldt Broncos. We just didn’t want someone else to get those trademarks.”
The annual bantam draft will take place on Friday with board of director and coaches meetings to follow. The 2018-19 schedule will then be pieced together before the group breaks for a short summer off.
One thing that has emerged from the tragedy is a large fund has been established for the SJHL Assistance Program, steps are being taken to have the Assistance Program be a registered charity. Chow says the league is directly involved with that effort, which is to be used for mental health and concussion awareness in addition to education opportunities, so there will likely be some discussion on that topic as well.
“We wish nobody will need help, but we will be there to assist them,” says Chow.
This weekend will be the first opportunity for everyone to get together since the April 6 tragedy occurred. The Broncos will be represented as they continue to move forward and as the saying goes, “from the ashes rises a bright light.” The SJHL will be doing everything possible to make sure that light gets even brighter.