Uncertainty surrounding two teams has left the entire West Coast Senior Hockey League on thin ice.
During the league's recent annual general meeting in Stephenville, representatives of the Deer Lake Red Wings expressed interest in making a return to the league after sitting out this past season.
The Stephenville Jets, meanwhile, indicated there is no appetite for them playing in a setup that saw them tied to the proverbial whipping post. They finished last in the three-team league with just two wins and two overtime losses in their 12 regular season games.
Both teams have cited a shortage of devoted local players as their Achilles heel.
While Deer Lake will try to recruit enough committed players to ice a team, club officials say the Red Wings will not play if Stephenville pulls out.
“The league is still well up in the air because Deer Lake itself has no interest in competing in a three-team league,” said Perry Compton, who was part of the Red Wings organization that won the inaugural league title in 2016.
“It just doesn’t work for us. So, if Stephenville doesn’t have a team, I guess there won’t be a league.”
Compton estimated operating a team requires a budget of $50,000 to $75,000 and that the Red Wings' costs, along with those of the Port aux Basques Mariners, are among the highest. That’s because most of the team’s roster comes from outside of Deer Lake and those players are reimbursed for travel, accommodations and some equipment costs.
The Red Wings are sound, management-wise, said Compton. The team still has money in the bank from when it last played, he said, and has a coaching staff set to go and volunteers ready to operate the team. However, he noted the most they had come out to any pre-season tryout was 12 players.
Stephenville, entering the league last year, also found it difficult to get solid commitments from enough players. Art Barry, who has been involved in running Jets hockey teams for decades, said something needs to be done to bring more parity to the league.
“When Deer Lake hauled out last year, we had a meeting and decided to go with a balanced three-team league,” said Barry. “If someone can tell me that was a balanced league last year, I’ll eat my shorts.”
He noted his team had a full roster for one home playoff game this past season but didn't have two lines for a crucial road game in Port aux Basques the following night.
He said local players would rather go snowmobiling or do something other than play for the Jets.
“I had one guy who told me he had to go to his grandfather’s birthday party on three different weekends,” said Barry.
He doesn’t begrudge a larger centre like Corner Brook having the population base to attract more dedicated players. He has no explanation as to how Port aux Basques, which finished just one point behind Corner Brook in the regular season this year, has been able to ice a strong team made up of players who don’t live in the town.
Barry fears the league is headed down the slippery slope towards having to pay players imported from outside the western region in order to make teams more even.
“I’m not saying right now we’re pulling out, but I can’t see it working,” said Barry. “We have to get more players, but where do I get players I don’t have to pay? And, if Deer Lake is back this year, it’s going to be even harder to get players to come play with us.”
He said he was in that same cash-draining situation about 20 years ago when he pulled the Jets from the senior hockey league day before costs got too out of hand.
Under the league’s rules, no players are to be paid for their services, other than being reimbursed for their costs, and teams can only select players from western Newfoundland.
That geographical restriction extends from Burgeo and southwestern Newfoundland to the entire Northern Peninsula and as far east as the Springdale area.
Each team is also assigned a specific territory in the vicinity of its centre to choose players from. Each team must submit a list of protected players from within their respective territories and any players left unprotected then become available to other teams.
“If I start paying a player to come from Bishop’s Falls or Grand Falls, the rest of your players will say they want to get paid too,” said Barry.
Compton isn’t sure where Deer Lake will find enough players either.
“We’re going to be pursuing players this summer to see if we can find enough, but it’s going to be dependent on them if we can ice a team,” he said.
The last version of the Red Wings had only seven Deer Lake area players on its 24-player roster. Ten came from Corner Brook, but eight of those have since moved out of the western region.
Of the dozen who came out to practice last year, four have since moved away.
Compton remains optimistic, but said they need a core of good quality players to get some team-building momentum going.
“If we can get 10 quality players to commit, others will follow naturally,” he said.
At AGM, Deer Lake did try to make changes to help them ice a team. They wanted the requirement of 16 skaters and two goaltenders signed prior to the start of the season reduced to 10 skaters and one goalie.
That didn’t pass, but the league did agree to drop the required numbers to 13 skaters and two netminders.
Dave Bruce, the league’s public relations director, said the league hopes Stephenville can get an earlier start on its recruitment efforts this year than it did last year.
The Royals, noted Bruce, have also informed Stephenville that it will work with the Jets organization to try and help them access more of the player base within Corner Brook’s territory.