Who Lost The Memorial Cup? Not the Portland Winterhawks. Just WHL Fans In Smaller Cities

It’s pretty clear that Canada’s sports-writing fraternity are mostly the type of people who would never be at risk of committing sociology. So it should be no surprise that none have picked up on what Damien Cox wrote about in the Toronto Star (when the Star wasn’t filled with stories about the mayor’s succession of freakouts). But Cox wrote a reference file when you open the Leader-Post’s sports section in, say, three to five years from now and read something like “Prince Albert Raiders/Swift Current Broncos Franchise Moves to Vancouver, Washington/Eugene, Oregon/Sacramento.”

Of all the words and air time that were devoted to the recent Memorial Cup in Saskatoon, Cox was the only one who talked about the elephant in the major junior hockey room: the widening gap between small and large markets. The Portland Winterhawks got stiffly fined (at least in major junior hockey terms) and sanctioned for bypassing some of the Western Hockey League’s rules regarding recruiting players at the beginning of the season, though the circumstances which led to the fines and sanctions remained murky. The issue was a three day wonder in the sports section, and by the time of the Memorial Cup, nobody seemed to care.

The real problem, for the WHL, is that the Winterhawks are owned by a guy with deep pockets, much deeper than the smaller market teams can compete. And while the Bantam draft is supposed to even out that playing field – giving the weakest teams the ability to draft the better players to stock their clubs – many of the upcoming hockey players – especially if they’re from the United States – are threatening to go the NCAA route where they will (a) have an opportunity to get a full university scholarship, and (b) have some decision as to where they will go, rather than being told where to go. (Cox’s story also notes a couple of junior hockey players who refused to report to the teams that drafted them, instead holding out for trades to the teams they would rather play for and using the NCAA as a bargaining chip).

If the Canadian Hockey Association really did want to make a system where cheaters didn’t prosper, it would have had to devise a system where the Winterhawks would have forfeited the revenue they earned though their playoff run and Memorial Cup appearance. Fining the club $200,000 won’t count for much in a season (and playing at the Rose Garden, which is an NHL-sized arena) where they can make millions in revenue from a long playoff drive. The CHL didn’t, for whatever reason.

This means that the new economics of junior hockey means big bucks are going to be needed in order to keep kids in their programs, for payments made legally as well as under the table. Teams in smaller markets can’t generate that kind of revenue . And there’s little that can be done (at least within the CHA guidelines) that can make P.A. Or Swift Current, or even Moose Jaw, appealing to a kid (and his parents) who has his (their) heart set on playing in a larger community.  And soon, if the kids won’t go to the club, the clubs will have to go to the kids.

Author: Stephen LaRose

2006 winner of the Canadian Association of University Teachers’s Award of Excellence in Journalism for a bunch of prairie dog stuff. Invited into the best homes in Regina. Once.