Once again, the ice is cracking under senior hockey

Robin Short rshort@thetelegram.com
Published on January 14, 2012

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