Caribous Hold the Balance?

Updated: February 12, 2014

While Newfoundland Hockey Talk has taken some heat with respect to some of the articles that have been published indicating that some items are rumour, speculation and conjecture, based on the opinions of one individual.  It should be noted that the articles are written with many different things in mind, a combination of research, analysis and yes, at times opinion.  It’s what makes this game great in that people can draw their own conclusions, analyze the play and formulate an opinion on what they see happening.

Continuing along those lines, the Clarenville Caribous have been subject to many opinions and comments about how they have destroyed the Newfoundland and Labrador Senior Hockey League.  However, it may now become ironic as we take a look at the state of hockey and what has lead us to 2014.  Hockey is at a pinnacle here, a fragile game that may hinge on the success of the Caribous organization.  Yes, this article is opinion based but it does take a critical look at the league as a whole, drawing upon many discussions had with people around hockey circles.

When Art Barry resigned as president of the now defunct West Coast Senior Hockey League (WCSHL) in June 2007, there were many within the senior hockey world that breathed a sigh of relief.  Barry had made several controversial decisions that the teams at the time did not agree with.  This resulted in team executives taking to the media and appealing the decisions to Hockey NL.  When Hockey NL ruled with Barry, the public spectacle that followed became unbearable and he quit.

The backroom politics in senior hockey especially surrounding the WCSHL and now the Newfoundland and Labrador Senior Hockey League (NLSHL) is the dark side of the game that many avoid discussing.  Things just seem to happen that defy logic at times, trades are made that leave you shaking your head and certain topics you raise bring jeers and criticisms because of the “fragile state of senior hockey”.

When the dust of Barry’s resignation settled and the controversy that sparked a lot of debate (Morgan Warren / Darren Schmidt) was resolved, he spoke out in October 2007 about the future of senior hockey in the province.  He fired a few shots across the bow of the league and some of the teams.
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  He questioned if the decision to allow the Clarenville Caribous into the league was a hasty one.

At the heart of Barry’s argument was the frail state of the Deer Lake Red Wings at that particular time.  Deer Lake was struggling financially and as someone with such a long hockey history, the former president knew that a league without Deer Lake would probably not be feasible.  He knew that the increased travel costs and the financial burden of paid players would be the end of the league.

Fast forward to the present and the winds have blown a different direction.  The Deer Lake Red Wings did eventually fold and the Corner Brook Royals signed some of their players.  The CeeBee Stars and Mount Pearl Blades came knocking and the West Coast Senior Hockey League became Newfoundland and Labrador Senior Hockey League.  The Corner Brook Royals packed up shop and moved to Deer Lake to become the Western Royals.  The league expanded again with the entrance of the Gander Flyers.

There’s no denying that the current league is still in its infancy and is still very fragile.  This was evident last season when the Blades withdrew and even this season when the defending Herder Memorial Champions – the Eastlink CeeBee Stars were having difficulty selling season passes.  It was also evident when the economics of the game dictated and forced the Royals to relocate from Corner Brook to Deer Lake.  It’s also evident given that organizations such as the Caribous are becoming fiscally conscious and have eliminated game time programs and reduced (some say eliminated) Friday practices.

What is ironic now is that the Clarenville Caribous may very well hold the survival of the league in its hands.  Even though Art Barry had concerns about admitting this team into the league there is no denying what this team has done for Newfoundland hockey.  In fact, if the league is to survive, the Clarenville Caribous are a vital piece that connects the East and the West.  Without the Caribous you would need another team either in Central or in eastern Newfoundland (maybe the Avalon) to the league work.

First off, if Clarenville were to pull from the league, it will not be an easy task to replace them.  Adding another team in the St. John’s or surrounding area will dramatically increase costs for the Cataracts, Flyers and Royals.  Adding another team in Corner Brook, Stephenville or Port Aux Basques, would dramatically increase costs for the teams in the eastern division.  Would the league have east, west and central divisions each with two teams?
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  Would the CeeBees and the Blades move back to the Avalon East Senior Hockey League (AESHL) because given the lack of fan support in these respective locations that could be a very high possibility right?  If that were to happen, happen would a three team league consisting of the Cataracts, Flyers and Royals be feasible and even marketable to the fans?

To anyone who has truly sat down and examined the entire senior hockey scene here in Newfoundland and Labrador, they should understand the situation that does exist right now.  They may choose to ignore it or not want to believe it but the cold hard truth to it is that the Clarenville Caribous are in a position that could either save or kill the league.

The interesting dynamic to this entire situation is something that Art Barry talked about in his October 2007 interview with the Western Star.  He said that the teams that existed then in the WCSHL were placing too much emphasis on the Herder Championship and forgetting their own leagues.  Now we are in 2014 and we have the Clarenville Caribous poised to make another run at the Allan Cup and they will in turn host the Allan Cup in 2015.

This added pressure both financially and on the volunteers of that organization has the potential to create a backlash that will be felt throughout the NLSHL.  As much as the fans may not want to hear it or the Clarenville organization may deny it, the added pressure of going to the Allan Cup and more so hosting the event is having ripples throughout the organization.  Some fans (not all) are questioning if setting the sites on winning the Allan Cup is a good thing.  Some volunteers are expressing concerns over burnout and loss of interest and have indicated that once the responsibilities associated with hosting the Allan Cup in 2015, they are done with hockey for a while.  The harsh reality is that if there is not a new injection of volunteer support and continued support for the Clarenville Caribous organization, 2015 becomes a very pivotal period for Newfoundland senior hockey.

Don’t get the wrong impression of what’s being said in this article.  The success of the Clarenville Caribous is great for Newfoundland hockey and great for the NLSHL.  This club has transformed the senior hockey landscape in this province and have single-handedly raised the profile for Hockey given their enormous successes both within the province and across Canada.

However, what Art Barry has said in 2007 may have even more significance right now.  Is the league being hurt by having a team looking forward to the Allan Cup or is it simply the next evolution of hockey?

Time will tell

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