By Dan Plouffe, published Sept. 29 in Ottawa This Week
It’s seven years and counting since the last time a team from within Ottawa city limits won a Central Canada Jr. A Hockey League championship.
Cornwall, Pembroke, and Brockville have all been a step ahead of the pack in recent years, and it’s not entirely a coincidence that those franchises have excelled, say the general managers from Ottawa clubs, who face a set of inherent challenges compared to their counterparts in the smaller towns.
Lower revenue is the first item that jumps to mind for the city GMs.
“They’re the only show in town,” notes Peter Goulet of the Nepean Raiders, whose club was the last to buck the trend with its 2004 league title. “All the city teams, we’ve got NHL teams here, the 67’s, six or seven (CCHL) teams with about 40 or 50 kilometers between each other, and we have so many minor hockey league teams.”
That makes it difficult to recruit sponsors and build a large following and atmosphere at games, he explains.
“Nobody’s paying players, but a team like Pembroke that gets 1,000 fans a game is probably carrying 18 or 19 billets,” Goulet adds. “When you don’t have gate revenue coming in, it’s hard to justify having that many billets because that’s expensive.”
The luxury of hand-picked talent from across the country, paying transfer fees to other clubs, and covering expenses to host out-of-towners is not something that occurs as easily for Ottawa teams with lower budgets.
“You have to build your team a different way,” says Cumberland Grads GM Paul Flindall. “We have to have strong scouting staff to bring guys in. We don’t have the privilege to just go out and buy a guy, (and then send the player back home if he’s not good enough). If I’m bringing in a guy from Newfoundland, they’re staying. We’re pretty sold on keeping them.”
The three dominant clubs from the towns also have coaching or management staff that do their hockey jobs full-time, notes Paul Jennings. Maintaining a day job on top of hockey responsibilities is a demand that often proves to be too much to handle – three of the five clubs inside the city (Kanata, Gloucester, and Ottawa) had coaches resign for family-related reasons in recent months.
“You put your 40-60 hours into your day job, and then you’re looking at another 40-60 hours to be a head coach and general manager in this league,” echoes Jr. Senators interim general manager Darren Graff, who was handed that role unexpectedly when Peter Ambroziak left before the start of the season. “You have to be really prepared to put in that kind of time to put a winning product on the ice. It is hard.”
Jennings adds that his club also struggles to get daily ice time – a contrast to the towns where clubs can jump on essentially whenever they please.
“All the Jr. A teams, I think, have been pushing the city to get more and more ice to compete with those guys,” says Jennings, noting that the team gathers at the Thurston Road Family Physio center for dryland training on Tuesdays instead of practicing because previous Rangers owners gave up the ice time. “Once it gets scooped up, the city has a policy that you don’t it get it back until it’s empty. It’s been a constant battle to pick up the scraps and get them back into our program.”
That can hurt in developing consistency over the course of a season, Jennings highlights. However, there are some advantages the city clubs enjoy, such as having universities and colleges available locally for older players that aren’t in the smaller towns.
And no matter the hurdles off the ice, the GMs note that city clubs usually still manage to hold their own in any given game on the ice.
“At the end of the day, building a good hockey team is about building relationships – the more people you know in the game, the more tips you get and the more players you’ll find out about,” Goulet adds. “I put 93,000 km on my car last year scouting and recruiting and I hope it pays off. There are definitely some challenges, but it’s just a matter of getting out there and putting the work in.”
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