Tag Archives: junior hockey

Knights to Remember

By Jason Menard

While London, Ontario has received a black eye thanks to a thrown banana, it’s important to not let the negative obscure the positive that this city – and its hockey fans – have to offer.

Nothing’s ever perfect and beyond the moronic actions of one banana-throwing idiot, there are certain negative things that London is known for. The market is somewhat fair weather, failing to sell out the John Labatt Centre unless the team is amongst the upper echelon. There’s always at least one moron who disrespects the national anthem to shout “Go Knights Go!” before the song is finished. Games are filled with, uhm, “plentiful and opportunistic” advertising. And let’s not even talk about the music – I’m all in favour of a permanent ban of “Cotton-Eyed Joe” in any arena.  Continue reading

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Taking Exception to John Tavares’ Agents

By Jason Menard

John Tavares is an exceptional player, but he shouldn’t be made an exception to the rule.

The 16-year-old Oshawa General has proven wise beyond his years on the ice. He’s approaching – and in some cases surpassing – Gretzkyesque proportions in many ways. And in trying to get the NHL to allow Tavares an exception into next year’s draft they’re doing the wrong thing, albeit for some of the right reasons.

Agents are around to look out for the best interests of their clients, but sometimes the financial best interests run counter to what may be the right thing socially and developmentally.

And this idea that this is a matter of principle and that a Sept. 15 th cut-off date – with Tavares’ birthday falling on the 20 th – is antiquated is duplicitous at best. What this is about is long-term money, free agency, and trying to squeeze an extra contract out of this player’s future.

The NHL has some odd rules about player rights. If a team takes a player out of the U.S. high school or minor league ranks, who then attends college, the NHL club has their rights for up to five years – or until their collegiate eligibility runs out. However, CHLers, like Tavares, have to be signed within two years of being drafted – if not, it’s back into the pool they go.

So by having Tavares drafted as a 17-year-old, his agents are ensuring that their client will have to have an entry-level contract signed by 19 at the latest. That is unless he’s called up to the NHL ranks – à la Sidney Crosby – at 18. Which means that the NHL club has six years before their player is eligible for free agency. Even if he says until 19, he’ll still potentially be a free agent by 25 – which means a shot at at least two, if not three big-time paydays.

That’s great financially, but is it right developmentally? The line has to be drawn somewhere, and Sept. 15 th seems to work.

It can be argued that Tavares is a superlative talent who is above and beyond the rest of his OHL class. However, he’s not the first wunderkind to come through the OHL, nor will he be the last. For every Gretzky, there’s a handful of Brian Fogertys, Eric Lindroses, and Corey Lockes who have torn up the junior ranks only to find a place on the failure spectrum ranging from disappointment to spectacular flame out. A superlative junior career is no absolute promise of long-term greatness.

There’s enough pressure on these athletes to perform as is, so why not give them the time to mature, develop, and refine their abilities so that they can maximize their long-term opportunities in the professional ranks, not just capitalize on the white-hot potential of their junior days? Why accelerate his development and force teams to make decisions earlier than otherwise needed? Sure, it’s only five days, but over the long term, an extra year of junior, an extra year at the World Championships, an extra year of playing in all situations could serve to improve all aspects of his game and cement the foundation upon which an outstanding career can be built.

Or maybe there’s a hint of fear here. Last year at this time Quebec’s Angelo Esposito and Ottawa’s Logan Couture were one-two on most people’s list as to whom would go number-one overall. In the end, both players dropped in the rankings due to illness and inconsistency respectively. At-the-time unheralded players like London’s own Pat Kane and Sam Gagner rocketed up the charts, and millions of potential dollars were lost in one season.

So maybe that’s why there’s such a rush to get Tavares drafted next year. After all, the longer a player is in the spotlight, the harsher the glare gets to be. Once the bloom is off the rose, the thorns start getting scrutinized and scouts and general managers have a horrible habit of talking themselves out of a player.

We saw that with Couture, Esposito, and Cherepanov this season – after so much time in the limelight, scouts got tired of writing raves and minor deficiencies in their games were magnified. It’s not that they weren’t there, but eventually they were blown out of proportion and overshadowed the positives. Is Tavares’ representation afraid of the same scenario playing out for their prize prospect?

There’s enough time to milk that cash cow – and as any steak aficionado knows, aged beef tastes so much better.

2007© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Peddling Naming Rights Wrong Answer

By Jason Menard

And now, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the NAPA Auto Parts Centre the Avis Rent-a-Car “We’re Number Two, We Try Harder” second-place team in the Rogers Mobility Division of the Wal-Mart National Hockey League, the Teacher’s Pension Fund of Ontario Toronto Maple Leafs. This pre-team announcement was brought to you by your friends at Canadian Tire.

Sound outrageous? Maybe. Is this day that far off? Probably not – especially in light of the fact that the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Western Division has now been officially named the Telus Division, as part of an agreement with the league’s major sponsor.

Historians please note: this is officially the day that your job just got immeasurably harder.

Remember the hue and cry when, back in 1993, the National Hockey League decided to scrap years of history in an attempt to dumb down the divisional and conference breakdown for our yet-to-be-found American fans? Gary Bettman, newly minted as NHL commissioner, decided to make his new league emulate the league from whence he came – the NBA.

So instead of the more colourful Prince of Wales Conference and the Clarence Campbell Conference, both of which are names dripping with historical significance to a league steeped in tradition, we have the yawn-inducing Eastern and Western Conference. And instead of divisional names that pay the appropriate honour and respect to the league’s founding fathers: (Charles) Adams, (Conn) Smythe, (James) Norris, and (Lester) Patrick, we have divisional names that sort-of let you know where your teams are.

Hockey, along with baseball, are probably the two sports that can best trade on their pasts. These games were built upon solid names – whether they be storied franchises, influential families, or key players, and the old divisional and conference nomenclature was a way of not just playing respect for those that came before, but also enticing newer fans to discover the history of the game.

Now, if the Quebec League’s sponsored nomenclature catches on, the only enticement that conference and divisional names will create is the desire to find out what the latest unlimited minutes plan is.

But what happens if Telus hits a down period in its business? What happens when a company decides that the investment in sponsoring a sporting division is no longer providing an adequate return? Well, it’s going to mean a constant shifting of divisional titles that will make it harder and harder to appreciate a league’s history.

Much in the same way that most fans have given up trying to remember what a team’s stadium or arena is called, so too will they stop caring about the divisional name. And when that happens, doesn’t that mean that the value of the sponsor’s investment has diminished completely?

Take a look at Montreal. The Bell Centre sign shines brightly into the night informing all who purchased the facility’s naming rights. However, how many people still refer to the building as the Molson Centre? Even more, how many people will continue to call the building the Forum, even if it never carries that name? That being said, maybe Telus has made the smart decision in being first in. After all, there’s a good chance that no matter who sponsors the division in 10 years, there will be those who continue to refer to it as the Telus division.

And look at the U.S. college football bowl system. There are so many bowls, with so many ludicrous sponsors (the Chick-a-Fill Bowl anyone?) that corporate oversponsorship has completely robbed the bowls of any cachet that they may have once had.

How ridiculous will it be for people interested in a league’s history 20 years from now to look back at the fortunes of a team and follow its progression spanning a number of different divisional corporate sponsors? Yes, Telus could give way to Rona, which could give way to Saputo, which in turn will pass the rights on to Provigo, who will then pass it on to Bell. And yet the teams remain the same, the composition of the division remains the same, only the sponsor changes.

Everybody’s in search of the quick buck. But there is a coin that carries an immense amount of weight which sport leagues refuse to trade upon – history. Tradition, honour, memories, and an attachment to things past are easier when there’s a common thread holding them together. Stories are only compelling when there’s sufficient context. Instead of peddling off the league’s tradition for a here-and-now cash grab, why not get creative with the marketing of tradition?

Nothing says stability and value for a league than consistency. But by peddling off tradition for a quick marketing buck, sporting leagues are running the risk of diminishing the value of the sport for the most important consumers of all – the fans.

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Stunting Our Juniors’ Development

By Jason Menard

As fans and supporters of the game of hockey, we’re all interested in protecting the game at all levels. But are we doing so at the expense of the players? And is it now time to recognize special players as such – and not hold back their development?

Currently, players with junior eligibility who don’t stick on a National Hockey League roster must be returned to their junior-level hockey club, as opposed to being sent down to a team’s minor-league affiliate. But is this really the best option for all of these players – and is it finally time for one of hockey’s sacred cows to be put on ice?

By sending a player back to junior, an NHL club is able to avoid having a year count against the player’s rookie contract. And, in consideration of the new collective bargaining agreement which sees players eligible for unrestricted free agency far sooner than before, that extra year can mean one more year that a player will suit up for the squad in the prime of his career. Essentially, they get a year’s development on a junior team that essentially provides them an extra roster spot for their minor league franchise. Think of it as the hockey equivalent of a tax shelter – you get all the benefits of the player’s development, without the necessity of losing a contract year.

For the junior squad, it’s a no-brainer. Generally, the players that are on the NHL bubble are the ones who will find their way on to the team’s top lines, turning what may be a moribund franchise into a Memorial Cup contender. The fans benefit by seeing their elite athletes and favourite skaters back in their local uniforms, up close and personal.

But what about the players themselves? Once all the business and financial interests have been met, where does the player’s development fit in? And who’s to say that sending a player down to the junior level isn’t simply wasting a year of development in a sport that offers notoriously short careers. Is it not time to admit that age ain’t nothin’ but a number when it comes to certain special hockey players and a one-size-fits-all approach to eligibility may, in fact, be hindering these players’ development?

At the end of this year’s NHL’s training camp, we’ve seen two players come agonizingly close to sticking with the big club, only to be among the very final cuts back to junior: Edmonton Oilers’ prospect Rob Schremp who was returned to the London Knights, and Montreal Canadiens’ highly-touted rookie Guillaume Latendresse who was sent down to the Drummondville Voltigeurs – both despite having outstanding training camps that almost found them on an NHL roster.

In the end, for both players, the numbers game had much to do with their demotion – unfortunately, it wasn’t the numbers they were putting up on the ice, it was the numbers on theirs and other players’ contracts. Whether there were other players on the cusp with guaranteed contracts, one-way deals, or simply the realization that these players would benefit from more ice time than what they would get on an NHL roster, both players found themselves back in the junior ranks — back in familiar haunts with markedly different results.

Latendresse, visibly disheartened by his demotion, struggled a bit at first but has picked up the pace to record nine goals and eight assists in 11 games. Conversely, Schremp has been toying with the opposition, registering 14 goals and 41 total points in his 10 games back in the green and gold. Which begs the question that if these players are either bored or dominating in the junior ranks, is their respective development being best served by playing with other 17-20 year olds? Will the Colorado Avalanche’s Wojtek Wolski progress as rapidly in Brampton following an impressive NHL stint that saw him rack up two goals and four assists in just nine games?

Or should these players be allowed to ply their trade in the American Hockey League – the NHL’s primary development league – against older and more talented players? Should they receive the benefit of developing their skills against a consistently higher level of competition, comprised primarily of other NHL wannabes and used-to-bes?

Yes, the fans in London, Drummondville, Brampton, and other junior cities would lose out on seeing some of these special players for another year. But junior hockey will survive. The loss of Rick Nash, despite remaining eligibility, didn’t hurt the Knights’ chances during last year’s Memorial Cup run – organizational depth, solid coaching, and astute management were as important to the team’s victories as any particular player.

The fans support the logo on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back. Junior hockey fans, who are remarkably devoted to these players who spend three years – maybe four tops – with their club, should want the best for these young players. And the best isn’t always a return to junior.

Obviously, we don’t want NHL clubs decimating the junior ranks, populating the professional leagues with junior-aged players, but perhaps it’s time to offer clubs a special designation that can be applied to one prospect a year – should they so choose. This designation would allow NHL clubs to apply the tag to one borderline player and have him play in the AHL (or whatever minor-league affiliate).

That way, the truly special players who have learned all they can from junior, will be able to progress against more skill-appropriate competition. The junior ranks wouldn’t be devoid of all talent – and even the NHL teams may not choose to use the designation each year.

In the end, the NHL teams that have drafted these players have only one interest – to make sure that the player maximizes his development to become a functioning member of the NHL squad. They’re not going to take a kid who’s not ready for prime time and put him in a league where he’s over his head – but they should also be allowed to move him to a level where he’s not skating rings around the competition.

And that’s truly in the players’ best interests.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved