With the first half of the Newfoundland Senior Hockey League (NSHL) season in the books, there is no doubt the ‘story’ of the 2012-13 campaign thus far has been the successful re-launch of the Gander Flyers.
The airport town had been without senior hockey for 30 years or so and while many thought the timing was right to re-enter the NSHL, success was far from guaranteed.
Long-time central Newfoundland hockey executive Garry White was aware of the groundswell and a year ago decided to take the proverbial bull by the horns and see if the community was indeed ready to support a NSHL hockey team.
White formed a group of 10 or so volunteers and gained the backing of the mayor and the town’s recreational department. White says it costs approximately $200,000 to run an NSHL club but an expansion entry incurs new equipment costs etc., so the Flyers required a quarter of a million dollars to ice a team this season. Therefore, corporate support was essential and the business community exceeded the executive’s expectations by providing $70,000 to the team’s coffers.
Last spring, media and local scuttlebutt about a return of the Flyers created something of a frenzy and confirmed the belief that Gander was ripe for a return to the NSHL. With fan and corporate support in place, the NSHL welcomed the Flyers into the fold and a surprisingly-competitive team was re-born.
“We’ve exceeded expectations both on and off the ice,” says White, manager of Gander International Flight Service Station and manager of Operational Training for the Gander Flight Information region.
“The team has brought pride to the town. You see kids wearing the purple and gold Flyers jerseys around town. They get autographs from our players. The Flyers are their local hockey heroes.”
Flyer fans have been tailgating outside prior to games at the Gander Community Centre this fall and routinely fill the 1,500-seat stadium.
While some are not surprised by fan and corporate support, the team’s on-ice performance has been nothing short of remarkable.
The Flyers dropped their first seven games to no one’s surprise but then reeled off four wins in their next five contests, shocking many observers.
“When we were accepted into the NSHL we didn’t expect to win many hockey games,” admits White, who serves as General Manager of the Flyers.
“We wanted to build a nucleus for the future. We wanted the community to grow with the team and the team to grow with the community. So the wins this early have been a pleasant surprise.”
White credits the on-ice success of the Flyers to team chemistry.
“If you asked me in September I never would have thought we would be this good but now that I’ve gotten to know this team…the dynamics off and on the ice, I’m not surprised,” says White.
“They’re a close-knit team. It’s the best dressing room I’ve ever seen in my career. The guys are so young they don’t know they’re not supposed to be this good yet.
The Flyers’ blueprint is to build with youth and they have stuck with that plan, icing a team with an average age of 23. White also wanted young, local players who would be around to help the club develop into a contender. Gander stuck to this plan when they chose Tyler Gale in the Mount Pearl Blades dispersal draft in favour of dynamic NSHL veteran Andrew Pearcey to the derision of many league observers. White is aware of the criticism but defends his decision.
“Like most teams we were missing defencemen and when a local defenceman, who wanted to play here, became available we grabbed him,” says White, of Gale.
“I know a lot of people thought we were crazy for not taking Andrew Pearcey but we wanted a guy who would stick around and could be a building block for us. I have the utmost respect for Andrew Pearcey as a player but Gale was the right fit for us.”
White says building an expansion team taught him an important life lesson
“Never underestimate yourself,” says White.
“People thought it would work but no one was sure. I surrounded myself with a lot of good hockey people and it all came together…better than we ever thought it would.”
Dave Salter has nearly 25 years experience as sports writer for publications such as The Telegram and Halifax Daily News. He is currently a reporter for Rogers Television’s St. John’s IceCaps broadcasts, a freelancer for publications such as The Hockey News and is a part-time scout for the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL.