They have the highest-ranked team participating in the first round of the Newfoundland Senior Hockey League playoffs, but given the happenings of the past week, the Western Royals could very well be the team with the most to prove as the circuit's post-season begins this weekend.
Their captain was cut after allegations by the team president of "unprofessional conduct in the dressing room," and the coach quit after disagreeing with that decision and finding he was unable to get it reversed.
Gander Flyers winger Sean Wadden (97) is pursued by the Western Royals’ Mathieu Berube during a regular season meeting in Gander. The Royals and Flyers meet for Games 1 and 2 of their best-of-five Newfoundland Senior Hockey League quarter-final series this weekend in Deer Lake. — Photo by Matt Molloy/TC Media Gander — The Beacon
The Royals players might just be happy for the distraction of a game after the turmoil of the last few days.
They'll hit the ice Saturday night in Deer Lake as they take on the Gander Flyers in Game 1 of their best-of-five Western Division semifinal. The Eastern Division semifinal between the Mount Pearl H.J. Bartlett Electric Blades and defending provincial senior champion Conception Bay North Eastlink CeeBee Stars opens tonight (7:30 p.m.) at The Glacier in Mount Pearl.
According to Royals president Ross Coates, the team had no choice but to release captain Nathan Saunders on Monday.
"There was unprofessional conduct in the dressing room that we couldn't tolerate. We couldn't handle what was going on there," Coates told Chris Quigley of The Western Star. "It was against our code of ethics in our dressing room and around our organization.
"It doesn't matter if it was the first game of the year or the last game of the year or the middle of the playoffs. The decision was made that it was not something we were going to tolerate from anybody."
Eddie Kearsey, who had been the Royals' head coach until this week, apparently didn't go along with the assessment. He resigned and Coates admits it was over the cutting of Saunders, an import defenceman from Charlottetown. P.E.I.
"That was mainly the issue, I would say yes," Coates said. "I guess (Kearsey) probably didn't agree with how we dealt with the situation. He probably thought we could have been a bit more lenient. But from our point of view, absolutely not.
"I still respect Eddie. Eddie did a good job for us, but he took a strong stance on this one, as did we as an organization."
Coates didn't give any details about the alleged transgression of Saunders, only saying he saw the incident in question occur once, which was enough to force his hand. He was unaware if it was something that was happening habitually.
Saunders, who had first played with the Royals last season, was named the team captain in January, replacing an injured Steve North. And now North, a longtime Royals player, will be back on the bench, but this time as coach, taking over for Kearsey just as the playoffs begin.
Defenceman Stephen Simms, who's from Reidville, just outside the Royals' home in Deer Lake, has been named the new captain.
The Royals (11-10-3) finished 10 points ahead of the Flyers (7-14-3), but the teams split their six-game regular-season series, with Western outscoring Gander 20-18 overall.
Game 2 is Sunday afternoon in Deer Lake.
The season series in the Eastern Divisional semifinal wasn't nearly as close, with Mount Pearl (12-12-0) winning five of the six meetings, although three of the Blades' victories were by just one goal.
The last match-up between the two clubs came Saturday in Harbour Grace, where the Blades clinched home-ice advantage in the first-round playoff series with a 7-3 decision over a CeeBees (10-13-1) team that featured only 13 skaters.
Mount Pearl will be led by forward Chris Mooney (9-17-26), the top point-getter on the team and winger Ryan Graham, who topped the team with 14 goals.
Graham and Blades' import forward Blake Gallagher have also been two of the hottest players in the league over the last few weeks. Graham has 10 points (5-4) in his last four games, while Gallagher has nine points (5-4) over the same stretch.
The CeeBees' offensive star is forward Jordan Escott (11-25-36), the league's fifth-leading scorer and second among non-imports. Mike Dyke (4-16-20) anchors the defence and the club will be looking for a playoff payoff from goalie (and Mount Pearl native) Roger Kennedy, acquired in a mid-season trade with the Clarenville Caribous.
Game 2 of the series is 8 p.m. Saturday at The Glacier.
The Grand Falls-Windsor Cataracts and Caribous finished 1-2 in the NLSHL standings to earn byes through the first round of the playoffs.