A little while ago, I found myself trying to explain the senior hockey set-up in Newfoundland to someone from outside the province and the effort ended with a “Just forget about it.”
It’s a bit too tangly.
What we have is a hockey league, the Newfoundland Senior Hockey League, that consists of two leagues, the East Coast Senior Hockey League and the Central West Senior Hockey League.
The latter has no western representation, despite the name, and the “league” descriptor is as loose as it can be since the CWSHL consists of two just clubs, the Gander Flyers and Grand Falls-Windsor Cataracts.
There are even three different operational websites: ecshl.com for five teams — Conception Bay Blues, Southern Shore Breakers, Northeast Eagles, St. John’s Caps and Clarenville Caribous; centralwesthockey.ca for the Cataracts and Flyers and nshl.ca for the full group of seven.
To be fair, in early November when the NSHL website was launched, there was a posting stating that integrating “all the moving parts” was more technically complicated than you might imagine.
It also appears there is some phase-out happening with the CWSHL site.
And at least the umbrella website represents an obvious attempt — web-wise — to bring everything together under just one heading, even though the process hasn’t yet been completed.
It’s what should have been done with the leagues.
Rationalization was something desperately required in provincial senior hockey league. Just months ago, there was some suggestion there could be as many as four senior hockey circuits in Newfoundland: the two mentioned above; the West Coast Senior Hockey League, operational for its second season, but which will not participate in playdowns for the Herder Memorial Trophy/provincial senior championship; and a proposed new league that would have included the outcast Harbour Grace CeeBees, an entry from Mount Pearl and a third team based out of Torbay.
The latter idea was quashed by Hockey Newfoundland and Labrador, but if it had gone ahead, we would have had four senior leagues involving 13 or 14 teams within the province.
That’s a province of half a million people.
(Using that math, it would mean Ontario, with a population of just over 14 million, could have 350 or more senior hockey teams.)
There are not a dozen teams’ worth of bona fide senior hockey players in the whole of Newfoundland and Labrador, especially since the day of the import has passed. It might even be a stretch to say there are six teams’ worth, although the quality of the top players skating in the NSHL can’t be understated (more on that in a bit).
But however you perceive the calibre of the senior game here, it’s difficult to understand why there wasn’t a move to completely amalgamate the CWSHL and ECSHL standings-wise for this season.
Yes, the Cataracts and Flyers have regular-season schedules that see them playing 50 per cent of their games between themselves. Yes, the ECSHL holds its own drafts of players. But there is no good reason to have two separate entities when it comes to ranking the teams.
What there is now simply doesn’t look good, on paper or in practice.
Even if you just relabelled the two leagues as two divisions, the 2/5 split looks nonsensical.
Other leagues have dealt with similar anomalies.
The ECHL's Newfoundland Growlers, for example, have a schedule that has them playing a couple of teams — the Reading Royals and Brampton Beast (this weekend's opponent's at Mile One) — more than others within their division.
The American Hockey League has one division (Pacific), whose teams play fewer games than the rest of the league’s entries, but the AHL gets around this by ranking teams overall by winning/points percentage.
Because of unbalanced schedules, Atlantic University Sport basketball conferences have a levelling mechanism that makes some games worth four points as opposed to the regular two.
The NSHL should be able to make an adjustment as well, just to demonstrate fully who sits where among the body of seven teams, four of which will advance to a new-look Herder Memorial Championship competition which will involve a round-robin tournament over the Easter weekend.
But for now, we have this two leagues-within-one setup, resulting in so-called interlocking games, the first of which will be played this weekend.
Originally, the Cataracts were to have come east to play the St. John’s in the first interlocking contest and the first regular-seaon east coast appearance by the a Grand Falls-Windsor team in a long time, but there was a change, leading to a good-looking matchup tonight (8 p.m.) at Conception Bay South Arena between the Cats, who were Allan Cup national senior champs just a year-and-a-half ago, and the Blues, who have used a young, revamped roster to put together an unbeaten record (5-0), scoring 37 goals in the process, for an average of more than seven tallies per game.
Conception Bay’s Lucas Lush (5G, 9A) leads the league with 14 points, followed by Blues teammates Kris Hodge and Kyle Tibbo, each with 13 points.
Hodge, who played extensively in both the major junior (QMJHL) and university (AUS) ranks, and Tibbo, the one-time MVP of the Maritime junior A league, are representative of the top-notch talent in the provincial senior ranks. It’s an assessment that can be made easily by counting the dozens of senior league players — like Tibbo and Hodge — who once helped populate The Telegram’s Newfoundlanders Away feature, which tracks those from this province playing in high-level professional, collegiate and junior leagues elsewhere.
And they, in turn, help reflect on the abilities of those who didn't go away, such as Lush, who came through the provincial major midget and St. John's junior league ranks.
The Cataracts haven’t had a great start, going 1-3 in their first four games (all against Gander), but still bring lots of talent to C.B.S., with a roster that includes veteran Andre Gill, leading scorer Brandon Bussey, defenceman Rodi Short and goaltender A.J. Whiffen, all former Newfoundlanders Away entries.
In fact, Short will make the NLers Away list this year, having appeared in a game with the ECHL’s Newfoundland Growlers earlier this fall. (Whiffen also dressed for a Growlers contest as a backup netminder.)
And yes, Newfoundlanders Away will be back again this season, with the first edition planned for early December.