Once again, the ice is cracking under senior hockey

Robin Short
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We don't really know if Nero indeed fiddled as Rome blazed, and nor are we certain the doomed souls of the White Star Line's orchestra serenaded frantic passengers with violins as the RMS Titanic was plunging to the bottom of the Atlantic 100 years ago come April.

It could be, for all we know, pure legend, accentuating the point that as disaster reigned around them, some folks chose to close their eyes, plug their ears and whistle Dixie, hoping it would all go away.

Now, to suggest the folding of the first version of the Newfoundland Senior Hockey League in 1990 can be somehow compared, literally, to a sinking ship is, of course, preposterous.

Figurately speaking, well ...

In the mid-to-late 1980s, things were just swell within the old senior loop. Most rinks had a healthy fan base. Parity ruled, save for a couple of fly-by-nights in the hapless Mount Pearl Blades and Gander Internationals, who had no business in senior hockey.

But everybody, from the general managers to the Zamboni drivers, knew spending was out of whack and sooner or later, the jig would be up.

That jig came about following the 1989 season after the Port aux Basques Mariners, with a stack of bills approaching Botswana's debt, won their first Herder Memorial Trophy, a grand old time not seen in Fraggle Rock before or since.

After the trophy was presented, the beer was drunk and the revellers stumbled home, the lights went out on provincial senior hockey.

And some within Hockey Newfoundland and Labrador were going, "Huh?"

You see, the folks who ran the senior council for the hockey's governing body dilly-dallied as hockey's cash cow eventually drowned in a sea of red ink.

So pardon me if I'm just a bit skeptical of hockey's ability to govern itself.

Just over 20 years later, the Newfoundland Senior Hockey League has re-emerged with five teams, and in places like Clarenville and Grand Falls-Windsor, it's the best thing since high-def TV.

But just as money was the common denominator with the old senior circuit, it's part and parcel with the new league, as many wags wonder by how much teams are skirting the league-imposed salary cap.

Couple that with sagging attendance in Harbour Grace and Mount Pearl, especially, and some organizations are fretting there might not be a provincial senior league next season.

So we can understand, to a degree, why HNL is demanding the Herder Memorial Trophy final be played this spring in the larger venues within St. John's and Corner Brook.

Larger buildings mean larger gates, and larger cuts in profit for the other three NSHL teams.

However, the Grand Falls-Windsor Cataracts aren't keen on playing their "home" games - should they reach the Herder final - in either St. John's or Corner Brook. The prospect would, in effect, piss off their fans and sponsors to a point where they wouldn't return for the 2012-13 season, effectively killing the organization.

HNL contends the decision was made in the fall, and the teams - including the Cataracts - knew about it. Somebody knew about something, as dates for Mile One were booked in September, October at the latest.

But there are no minutes, apparently, from that semi-annual meeting supporting any claims all hands were in for the Mile One/Pepsi Centre plan.

Grand Falls delegates say they let it be known they wanted no part of the new plan, which came part and parcel with the new provincial senior league. HNL says all five teams were on board.

So now it's down to a we said/they said thing.

Hockey tries to spin the argument that this is about showcasing the game, getting more people out to see the sport's pre-eminent event.

Problem is, if Grand Falls and, say, Corner Brook are this year's finalists, who in St. John's will even care for the Herder?

In fact, I will go so far as to suggest with fans on the east coast now having their hockey, and otherwise social, thirst quenched with the American Hockey League, the Herder will draw no more than 2,500 to downtown St. John's this spring, regardless who plays.

Herder teams should stay at home (or close to home)

That, for no other reason, is why the provincial senior hockey final should be played in the team's home rinks (keeping in mind if the Blades or C.B.N. CeeBee Stars or Clarenville, for example, wish to play at Mile One, well, fill your boots, as they say).

But it appears that's not about to happen. HNL has its heels dug in, and not even the suggestion of Grand Falls fans paying more for Herder tickets to offset potential moneys lost in little Joe Byrne Memorial Stadium can sway their decision.

The Herder is a big money-maker, cash senior hockey teams rely on to pay a few bills at the end of the year, which isn't exactly a brilliant business model.

Hockey Newfoundland and Labrador receives 10 per cent of the net gate receipts from Herder play, and that's the reason, argue the folks in Grand Falls, why it wants the Herder in Mile One and the Pepsi Centre.

It's all about the cash, in other words.

We don't know for sure, but we are fairly comfortable in saying hockey is Newfoundland and Labrador's most affluent sports governing body, with somewhere around a half-million bucks in the bank, and more on the way.

The recent world junior hockey championship in Alberta made over $20 million for Hockey Canada, money which will be filtered down to the various branches within the organization.

Consider this: since 2003, Hockey Newfoundland and Labrador has received through Hockey Canada, from the four world junior hockey championships held in Canada:

$42,514 (2003, Halifax/Sydney)

$58,818 (2006, Vancouver)

$116,603 (2009, Ottawa)

$133,222 (2010, Saskatoon)

Given the success of this month's world juniors, a cheque in excess of $150,000 for HNL is likely in the mail.

Big money indeed.

They say much wants more, and we can't help but wonder if this is the case surrounding the Herder.

But at what cost?

Does this all sound familiar? Players are getting a small fortune to play hockey, teams are running up bills, and others are folding (see Red Wings, Deer Lake).

Remember that big wave senior hockey rode in the '80s? It crashed.

Hockey's near the shoreline again. And still, they may too stunned to know it.

Robin Short is The Telegram's Sports Editor. He can be reached by email rshort@thetelegram.com


Organizations: Newfoundland Senior Hockey League, RMS Titanic, Pepsi Centre Hockey Canada American Hockey League Red Wings

Geographic location: Grand Falls, Rome, St. John's Corner Brook Clarenville Port aux Basques Botswana Fraggle Rock Mount Pearl Joe Byrne Memorial Stadium Newfoundland and Labrador Alberta Canada Sydney Vancouver Ottawa Saskatoon Deer Lake

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Recent comments

  • McLovin
    January 16, 2012 - 13:17

    The teams obviously aren't making enough money from ticket sales in their own arenas to afford their expenses (see Red Wings, Deer Lake). They need the money from games in bigger venues to stay afloat. How are Grand Falls and the other teams doing financially? It's easy to say that the games should be played on the home rinks but when teams depend and rely on the extra revune from gates at Mile One just to stay afloat, what does that say about the league? What sense does it make to let GFW or any other teams have their own homes games if the league is just going fold (or lose teams) in three or four years? That's what happened in the 80's. Newfoundland Senior hockey is a business and sometimes the people in charge have to make tough economic decisions that not everyone agrees with. I think if the general public knew exactly what was going on behind the scenes with these teams and how much EVERYONE involved is getting paid, they'd be appaled. And then you have some councils who are giving TAXPAYER MONEY to these teams on top of it. I think the teams should be forced to open up their books but they never will. This league cant fold fast enough. What's taking so long?

  • Political watcher
    January 16, 2012 - 11:14

    A major decision made that will have the impact as this decision will and no one at the meeting saw it fit to take minutes? Sounds fishy to me. Keep the Herder in the home rinks of the teams involved; if a team should choose to play in a larger venue then it should be their choice. I bet that the ececutive of HNL will attend all games with free tickets, hotel expenses and per diems included. Very short-sighted decision andone that needs to be reversed. Besides, what happens if the Ice Caps make it to the post-season? Are the Herder teams expcted to wai until they are done? In closing, considering that the curent Chair of HNL also runs private hockey scools I would ask him to hold all his camps in St. John's and tell any interested people to make the drive to participate. Wonder how many he will get?

  • McLovin
    January 15, 2012 - 19:12

    People need to grow up. All other playoff series will be at the home rinks. I personally dont care where the games are because I wont go regardless of the location. I just have serious issues justifying paying inflated ticket prices so these teams can justify paying these hockey bums to play what's supposed to be Amateur Hockey but in reality has turned into Pro Hockey. THe fans care more for the teams than the players do, as most are not even from the towns the teams play in anyway. Before I go I want to leave you with one little tid bit. There's a sporting event coming up in a few weeks, it's called the Superbowl, you might have heard of it. 99.9% of the time the Superbowl is played at a neutral site, season ticket holders and fans of teams in the game dont get the luxury of watching their teams in their own stadiums and last I checked, both the Superbowl and NFL are doing pretty well. 6000 fans at Mile One versus 2000 in GFW? Its a no brainer, have it at Mile One.

    • David
      January 16, 2012 - 12:08

      This post is on topic...that's the good part. The content? 100% garbage. But I guess being so beyond help as to make Superbowl comparisoons is now part of life in outer space for the Avalon crowd. Surely St. John's will get on the list to host one of those soon, yeah?

  • BR
    January 15, 2012 - 10:02

    GFW and MP playing at M1 will not showcase the game any more than it is. The place is full for the Herder and I think it will even with the Icecaps here. Imagine the Icecaps playing the playoffs in Toronto because of a bigger rink. I don't think so, even if they got a big cut of the gate

  • David
    January 14, 2012 - 12:58

    Don't worry, Robin .....your beloved Ice Caps will provide you with the same story eventually, so don't enjoy the petty schadenfreude too much there, pal. The only difference between their plights is the frequency and the financial repurcussions..... less and more, respectively. Oh, plus of course that Newfoundland taxpayers will still be pouring money into that fabulous Mile One warehouse. Herder? Not much doubt you'd like to kill 'er.

    • Roger Pike
      January 14, 2012 - 15:55

      So I purchase a ticket to all regular season games, buy a holding seat for $75, buy the 50/50 tickets at each game, help the executive fundraise to put the Cataracts in the game, watch them lose for close to ten seasons and now that we have the talent to make it to the prize Bill Nosewothy tells me on CBC radio that I have to drive to St. John's to watch ALL Herder final games and that its not open for negotiation. Now thats a fine way to build senioer hockey in this province. The fans make the game and if the fans in Mt. Pearl /CBC can't support senior hockey both on or off the ice why should the fams in Grand Falls be punished.Sounds to me like someone just wants to have an east coast league with no travel and the big bucks from mile one. The town of GFW just completed a million plus makeover of the Joe Byrne stadium to help create entertainment here on a Saturday night. Now HNL wants to fill Mile One with our half of the show. How would Buchans, Gander or even Badger have ever competed if this was the game plan in the past. If Mt. Pearl wants to play at Mile One thein fill your booths. I've paid enough to have the right to support my team in my own back yard. Kraft Hockeyville was designed to promote hockey in small town Newfoundland. The powers to be need to refocus. My going to the Herder will take three weekends in St. John's, hotels, means and gas. You do the math Robin. I agree its all about money.

    • skipper
      January 15, 2012 - 12:37

      kill the senior league if it dont help st.johns it is not going to happen in nfld.wake up people and fight for something out of st.johns area.all your are like puppets and only care about one area like there leader ms.blunderdale.