Senior hockey on thin ice

Paying players have caused Newfoundland senior hockey to crash into the boards.

Matthew Hagerty
Kicker

Tyler Hennessey, son of Randy Hennessey, warms up before a game.
Tyler Hennessey warms up before a East Coast Senior Hockey League game. The Conception Bay Blues went down to defeat at the hands of the St. John’s Caps 5-4.  Matthew Hagerty/Kicker

Senior hockey is a huge part of Newfoundland’s culture. Its history is rich with great moments, but its future is uncertain.

Randy Hennessey has fond memories of the Newfoundland Senior Hockey League. His cousin Ford Metcalfe and his brother Rod both played in the league.

“I used to listen to it on the radio and imagine it in my mind and then when I got older, I got to go see the games,” Hennessey said. “I don’t know if it was better listening to the radio and then trying to create the atmosphere in my head.”

Barry Manuel played for the Badger Bombers and Grand Falls-Windsor Cataracts in the 90s and then moved on to different front office and coaching roles with the Cataracts from 2001 to 2012.

“I think the biggest difference is the roughness,” said Manuel. “In the 70s, 80s especially, if you were going to the game you were definitely gonna see a fight or two and that has changed. Some purists would say that has had a negative impact on fan attendance. I would be one of them.”

The senior league is made up of the three teams from the western league, one team from central and six from the east coast hockey league.

“You can’t expect a person to come from St. John’s for a weekend, leave their family, risk their health and come and play hockey, and not get something for doing it.”

Arguments over whether to pay players have caused a rift between the leagues, with the western and east coast leagues opting not to pay players and the central continuing to do so.

This conflict led to the Herder Memorial Trophy, the senior men’s provincial championship, being cancelled this year. The Gander Flyers recently decided to suspend operations because they couldn’t guarantee a full bench for game day. Gander was one of only two teams in the central league.

The Grand Falls-Windsor Cataracts, defending champions of the Herder and the other central squad, are now left out in the cold.

In the senior league, imports as well as local players have been paid for years. Yet, not every team can afford to pay for talent, making for uneven competition.

“I think that model didn’t work,” said Jonathan Kavanagh, coach and president of the Conception Bay Blues of the east coast league.

Not paying players, Kavanagh says, is proving to work as teams now only have local players who receive limited benefits such as basic registration fees, some equipment and team parties.

With half the population of the province on the Avalon, teams here have a larger player base. St. John’s, being a metropolitan city, has ways to attract players that smaller towns with less amenities don’t.

Manuel is adamant the non-payment model wouldn’t work in the central league.

“You can’t expect a person to come from St. John’s for a weekend, leave their family, risk their health and come and play hockey, and not get something for doing it,” said Manuel.

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