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OJHL shrinking during off-season

By: Evan Cooke

The Ontario Junior Hockey League has continued to shrink this off-season, but both local Junior A teams have remained intact.

Both the Trenton Golden Hawks and Wellington Dukes, who finished first and third respectively in the East division this year, will be operating next year after the league has cut down the final four teams as part of its three-year plan to shrink the league.

The plan implemented over the past three seasons has seen the OJHL shrink from 37 teams to the current 23.

After this past season, the Huntsville Otters, Vaughan Vipers, and Brampton Capitals all dissolved. As well, the Peterborough Stars teamed up with the Lindsay Muskies and merged into one team.

John McDonald, president and assistant general manager of the Trenton Golden Hawks, said his team isn’t going anywhere.

“Right now we’re looking at negotiating another contract with the arena for another three to five years.”

Nobody from the Dukes’ front office was available to comment.

The Huntsville Otters have been a Junior A team in some form since 1990. Now that they’ve moved out of the OJHL, the team will continue operating as a Junior C team in the Georgian Mid-Ontario Junior C Hockey League starting next year.

In a statement to the league, Huntsville co-owner Jason Armstrong said that “It has been a difficult acceptance for the Otters’ organization to be contracted by the OJHL.”
The Vaughan Vipers have also been a mainstay, and have been in existence since 1991. Owner Al Doria was also a member of the league’s board of directors.

He said that “The Vipers would like to thank all those that have supported the team over the years, and this decision was not an easy one.”

The Brampton Capitals, the longest serving team, have been a franchise since 1989. They won the league three times in that span, and were also three time division champions. In the statement to the league, the ownership team said that “This decision was not taken lightly and was very difficult to make. The Brampton Capitals wish to extend thanks to all of the past and present players, dedicated coaches and staff, generous volunteers and sponsors, the City of Brampton and especially the fans throughout the years.”

The end of this season also spelled an end to the Peterborough Stars. Known by many names throughout the years, the Stars played at the Junior B for decades, and the franchise has been in existence since 1960. They joined the Junior A league in 1993, and were a consistent playoff team, right up until this past season.

Stars owner Bryan Cathcart said that ““Lindsay is a great organization and with its close proximity to Peterborough it will make it logistically easier for Peterborough players to continue playing Junior ‘A’ hockey close to home.”

McDonald says that with that odd number of teams at 23, he hopes the league can shed one more team before the start of the season.

“I think from our point of view, we’d like to see it drop to 22, and two 11 team divisions would be great.”

Brent Garbutt, the OJHL’s manager of hockey administration says that as of right now, the league has no plans to shrink any smaller.

“No, this is the end of our three-year plan,” he said.

McDonald said that because the league has been able to trim itself down, it makes it better for the teams that are actually staying in the league.
“It helps us, because it’s going to mean the player pool will get deeper – better players will be available, said McDonald. “Now, I think we’ve got to balance the divisions

The OJHL, which has seen a fairly linear growth over the last 25 years, split into two leagues in 2009 because of the large number of teams. That only lasted for one season, but when the league came back together as one, officials agreed that with a 37-team league, the player pool had become too diluted for the level of hockey they deemed to be Junior A standard.

Garbutt confirmed that the decision to decommission a team rests solely on the team’s owners. He also added that in the case of the 14 teams that have folded, the league hasn’t forced the hand of anyone.

“It’s purely on the team. They submit a request to the league that they would like to decommission, and it’s us that approve it.”
McDonald said that one of the things the league did when it decided to cut down on teams was to set up a fund that would give owners who folded their team a buyout. Owners can decide whether to take the buyout, or in the case of Peterborough, merge their assets with another team.

“It all comes down to the money,” he said.

“You put a value on what you think your franchise is worth and then you look at what the league is giving as a buyout, and then you have to say ‘Well, do I think my
franchise is worth more than that?’”

Junior A hockey, which has been operating in the province since the 1950’s, is hardly a guaranteed sell. On any given night in Wellington, one might see 800 fans take in a Dukes game. In Whitby on the other hand, the Fury often get under 100 fans per game. But with corporate sponsors, advertising, and a lot of volunteers, a Junior A team’s success can’t just be judged by the number of fans in the seats every night.

For many of the teams that have folded – the timing was just right. Future plans to sell the team were hurried up when a league buyout was up for grabs. For others, there was enough interest to seek a merger with another team, where owners would pool their assets. However, the obvious remains that a team that’s losing money is a team that won’t last for long. And as many teams have found out, a team that may have made money 20 years ago doesn’t necessarily make money today.

Whether there may or may not be other cuts to the league has yet to be seen. But at least fans can be sure that the Dukes and Golden Hawks will both take to the ice come September.