When Hockey Newfoundland and Labrador mandated this year’s Herder Memorial Trophy final would return to a showdown between the province’s two senior hockey circuits, many fans and pundits were skeptical.
Most predicted a quick sweep by any team from the Central West Senior Hockey League over their Avalon East Senior Hockey League counterparts.
On Friday night at the Jack Byrne Arena, those predictions proved entirely accurate when the CWSHL champion Grand Falls-Windsor Cataracts completed a sweep of the AESHL champion St. John’s Toyota Plaza Caps with a 10-1 drubbing in Game 3 of the best-of-five series.
The Cataracts outscored the Caps 23-4 en route to their third straight Herder championship.
But despite the sometimes glaring disparity on the ice throughout this year’s Herder series, Hockey Newfoundland and Labrador remains committed to an East vs. West showdown again next season and for the foreseeable future.
“We know the Herder is going to work again, and it’s our view that we had a successful Herder this year and we’re looking forward to next year,” contends Gary Gale, chairman of HNL’s senior council.
“I think it’s fair to say we looked at the skill level in the Central West and (in the Avalon East) and we knew it was higher out there (in the CWSHL). I suppose, in terms of the outcome, most expected the Cataracts would win, but the Caps showed a lot of grit and played well.”
And it’s clear the AESHL is intent on sticking around in the hunt for the Herder.
“The Avalon East has a long, proud history and I think its rightful place is to compete for the Herder every year,” says league president Paddy Daly. “Our league and their league are incomparable on many levels, but to truly recognize the best team in the province, you have to include all the committed 150-plus senior players who are willing to play.
“As long as I’m involved, we’re always going to have the Avalon East involved,” he insists, adding, “and we’re going to win the Herder within five years.”
Daly says AESHL teams need the Herder as a motivating factor when it comes to recruiting and retaining players.
“If they’re living in town, going to school in town, or have a job in an around the northeast Avalon and we can dangle the carrot at the end of the stick for Avalon East hockey players, that we will get you a competitive league and the champion gets to play for the Herder, that’s a real lure.”
Gale says given the difference in how each league operates — the CWSHL teams run on significantly larger budgets than their AESHL counterparts — HNL understands there will be growing pains in making the provincial senior hockey championship series competitive.
One of those challenges came with the decision to allow the AESHL representative to add six strengthening players to help provide a more competitive roster in the Herder final. However, that essentially also meant the Caps would have to cut six players who had been with them all season, leaving the team with some difficult decisions. In the end, they went with five pick-ups.
As well, Gale suggests the Caps learned they could have better-implemented the strengthening option.
“In hindsight, I think there were a few holes they could have plugged and probably didn’t,” he says.
“It was a great learning experience for the Caps. I think they know now where they need to get in order to be competitive with the top team out West.”
As for the CWSHL, their challenge will involve getting used to fewer import players. Gale says following a reduction of one import across the board for all four teams last year — which was done largely in an effort to bring parity to the two circuits come Herder time — a further reduction is coming this off-season.
“Teams have built it into their marketing and promotional strategies, so we’re going to take our time and it’s going to be a gradual thing, but we’ll stay on the same path,” he says.
“The focus will be bringing in local players, the players in the junior system, the ones who played in the (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League). We think they should have the opportunity to play in Newfoundland.”
A decision on import restrictions for the 2016-17 season will come following HNL’s annual general meeting in June.
The only guaranteed change to next year’s Herder final will be the series returning to a best-of-seven format.
“The only reason we did it this year was because of the Allan Cup playdowns,” says Gale, referring to the Cataracts’ best-of-three qualifier against New Brunswick’s Lamèque Au P'tit Mousse next weekend at the Joe Byrne Memorial Stadium in Grand Falls-Windsor.
“We want to get it back to four out of seven, so we’ve got to make some adjustments.”