Twelve months after an involuntary leave of absence, the Conception Bay CeeBees are back in business, one of four teams slated to enter play in the Central West Senior Hockey League this season.
But while they’re satisfied to be back in the ice, the CeeBees aren’t exactly jumping for joy.
“We’ve been working very hard to get hockey back into our community,” said CeeBees team president Mark Reynolds, “but we wanted to play in the East Coast league. We like the dynamic of that league.
“But the Central West league was our only opportunity.”
Reynolds is on the record as saying his players had no desire to travel over the road every other weekend to play the other three Central West teams — defending champion Clarenville Caribous, Gander Flyers and Grand Falls-Windsor Cataracts.
Two years ago, the CeeBees were part of what was then known as the Avalon East Senior Hockey League. The Harbour Grace-based club won the league championship, and then proceeded to win the Herder Memorial Trophy.
But the celebration was short-lived as the CeeBees were ousted from the Avalon East circuit in the summer of 2017 as the other four teams in the league — Northeast, Southern Shore, St. John's and Conception Bay/Bell Island — were convinced Harbour Grace, which steamrolled through the league in 2016-17 with an 18-2-1 record, were paying players, which is against league bylaws.
The majority of the Avalon East executive resigned, and the four remaining teams formed a new circuit, the East Coast Senior Hockey League.
The story didn’t end there. The move effectively left the CeeBees as the only team in the Avalon East loop, but Harbour Grace found potential new partners in Mount Pearl and Paradise.
However, Hockey Newfoundland and Labrador ruled the new-look AESHL a senior B operation, and thus unable to compete for the Herder.
Which put the kibosh to that potential circuit.
Given that recent history, the chances of the CeeBees joining the East Coast league this year were slim and none, leaving the Central-West operation as their only option.
As it stands now, there will be three senior leagues in the province in 2018-19. The West Coast circuit features Port aux Basques, Stephenville, Corner Brook and Deer Lake, Grand Falls-Windsor, Gander, Clarenville and the CeeBees in Central-West and Northeast, the Shore, St. John’s and Conception Bay in the East Coast loop.
Teams from the west will not compete for the Herder. Just as it was last season, when Clarenville tangled with St. John’s for the provincial championship, the Central West and East Coast champions will clash for the Herder.
Interlocking play was scheduled between the East Coast and Central West teams last season, and will occur again this winter. But unlike last season when the East Coast teams headed over the TCH, Central West teams will travel into metro St. John’s for games this year.
Which all sounds good, except the CeeBees still have some reservations.
“Certainly the framework is in place that we can move forward (joining the CWSHL),” said Reynolds. “It’s a 90 per cent done deal, but there are still some issues.”
First and foremost, he said, is player availability.
The CeeBees’ starting goaltender two years ago, A.J. Whiffen, returned to Grand Falls-Windsor last season, and Brett Shute laced ’em up with Gander last year. Sam Roberts and Colin Feehan, Reynolds said, are done playing.
“We do not have any rights to players in the Central-West league,” he said. “(former team captain) Matt Thomey didn’t play last season, so he’s still our property.
“Each team is supposed to give us two players from their rosters. If we don’t get help in that regard, we are not able to play. We’ll have a real struggle with players otherwise.”
Reynolds describes his team’s return to the CWSHL as a, “one-year trial run.” Changes within the league, he says, are a must.
“From a dollars and cents perspective, it cannot be sustainable as it is now,” he said.
The Central-West league has traditionally paid its players, although teams are no longer permitted to fly in import players (with the exception of a goalie).
“In the past, the Central-West league attracted the best of the best, and imports,” Reynolds said, “and that resulted in a lot of younger players not getting a game. You don’t see a lot of graduating players from the St. John’s junior league moving on to the Central-West league.
“I’m not saying you get rid of the older players, but the Central West league does need to adapt and get younger. Yes, these young guys may want $100 a game or maybe some kind of bursary for school. But there are players still getting a hell of a lot more than $100 per game now.
“It isn’t sustainable.”
Speaking of money, the CeeBees don’t figure to have any problems in that regard, not after running a highly-successful Chase the Ace fundraiser last summer, before they knew the team would be put on ice last winter.
“If we didn’t have that (pot of money), we would not have even gone to the table (looking to get back into senior hockey),” Reynolds said. “Running a team requires a six-figure budget.”
No word yet on when the senior hockey gets under way, but it’s likely late October or early November.