Going, but not quite gone

Coach Dale Grayston and the Beardy’s Blackhawks are in what will likely be the program’s last season of Midget AAA hockey. They’re hoping to make it memorable. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

Anniversary seasons aren’t supposed to go this way.

Normally there are charity events, promotional nights, and ceremonial puck drops from distinguished alumni. The Beardy’s Blackhawks’ 25th anniversary season may still have all of those, but they’ll be done with the grim knowledge that the 2019-20 campaign is their last in Saskatchewan Midget AAA hockey.

“We were hoping to really make it a celebration of what we’ve gone through the whole time,” head coach Dale Grayston says. “Now, to be told you’re no longer part of the group …”

Grayston’s voice trails off, and not because it’s hoarse or tired. He’s just finished coaching the Blackhawks to a 6-2 victory against the Prince Albert Mintos in a game where almost everything has gone right for his team. Still, the highs of winning can’t completely overcome the recent lows.

The Saskatchewan Hockey Association’s recent restructuring of Midget AAA hockey has left the Beardy’s Blackhawks as one of two programs without a league spot. More than 24 hours after the announcement, Grayston’s feelings are still a little raw.

“They called us ahead of our practice so we could let the players know after,” he says. “I think we’ve been a pretty good member of the league for 25 years. We’ve done everything from win it to have some exciting games. Even tonight, I thought it was just a really exciting hockey game. We’ve always been able to add to the league, I believe. It was really emotional. We shed some tears with the players in the dressing room.”

This is Grayston’s 23rd season as head coach, and for the next few months he’ll do what coaches have always done: focus on his players. That means practice sessions, coaches meetings, and pep talks—as the situation requires—all in hopes of preparing them for the next level of hockey.

The Blackhawks have done that with plenty of players. Their alumni list includes multiple NHL, WHL, NCAA and CIS players, most notably two-time Stanley Cup champion Dwight King.

“When you’ve been there 25 years and saw 25 different teams go through, it’s kind of hard to know that those same types of committed kids wouldn’t be going through our dressing room,” Grayston says.

Management, however, has a different focus. For the foreseeable future, team president Rick Gamble and others will explore every option for keeping the Blackhawks in the SMAAAHL. Yes, that even includes legal ones.

“We just met our legal counsel, and we’re moving forward on that front,” Gamble says over the phone. “Once that starts, then everything is in the hands of our legal advisor.”

Gamble hopes it doesn’t come to legal action, but he’s pessimistic about other options. Saskatchewan Hockey Association general manager Kelly McClintock recently told the Saskatoon StarPhoenix they would not reconsider the decision, and added that there is no appeals process anyway.

Gamble doesn’t expect the SHA to overturn the decision. He’s not even sure they’d get a fair hearing.

“Somehow we knew it was going was happen because of the inside politics that goes on in the SHA and communities,” he said. “We weren’t totally surprised, but we are dismayed and disappointed to say the least.”

The SHA evaluated Midget AAA applicants on a variety of criteria, including coaching resources, educational opportunities and billeting options. The review began three years ago, and every team in the province knew they might not have a chair to sit on once the music stopped.

The review process, which also covered female Midget AAA and male and female Midget AA programs, was confidential, but McClintock is adamant there were no predetermined decisions and no inside politics.

“There was no fix,” he told the StarPhoenix.

However, Gamble’s worries extend beyond the political. The Beardy’s Blackhawks program, based on the Beardy’s and Okemasis First Nation, was ahead of its time in building bridges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

In an era of reconciliation, he argues, the SHA needs more programs like Beardy’s, not fewer. He’s disappointed that aspect wasn’t considered during the review.

“You can’t measure that (type of) success with the program,” he says. “It’s been fantastic and for our community it’s been good because it’s provided an opportunity for our youth to shoot for a higher level of hockey. Provincially, we’ve contributed a lot of players to the National Aboriginal Hockey Championship, Team Saskatchewan, and the list goes on and on and on. To me, it’s a travesty, but like I say, we’re not prepared to throw in the towel yet.”

The other major debate point involves player quality. With the community of Warman scheduled to join the league, there will still be four Midget AAA programs north of Saskatoon. Beardy’s would have been the fifth.

The SHA voted to limit the SMAAAHL to 12 teams, but Gamble is confident there’s enough talent to stock a few more.

“They didn’t have to take our franchise away. They could have created two more teams,” he says. “To me, there are enough hockey players in this province that you could make a 14-team league and it wouldn’t water down the product. There are a lot of good players out there and for the First Nations and Aboriginal hockey players, this was their avenue towards a greater league of hockey and it’s gone.”

The SHA disputes the notion that Indigenous hockey players will suffer with the Blackhawks’ exit from Midget AAA hockey. McClintock told the StarPhoenix that eight different teams sent Indigenous players to a recent national tournament.

Other Midget AAA clubs also dispute the notion that Indigenous players won’t have anywhere to play next season. Prince Albert Mintos coach Danton Danielson says they’ll welcome anyone of any ethnicity, as long as they can play hockey.

“If you can play hockey, you’re a good person and you work hard, you can play for this team,” Danielson says. “I can’t speak for the other teams or how they make their decisions, but for me, I’m proud to have Indigenous players on our team and I hope we can have many more in the future.”

However, that doesn’t mean Danielson is happy to see the Blackhawks go. Even after they’ve beaten his Mintos badly on this night, he doesn’t hesitate to speak highly about the team on the other side of the ice.

“I’m definitely not in the camp of people who wanted to see them go, if there was such a camp,” he says. “That program is a storied program. I grew up in Saskatoon, watching a lot of rivalry matchups between them and the Contacts and the Blazers and teams like that.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for that program. I’m sad to see them go, but hopefully with the new alignment we can move forward and league will be stronger for it.”

As far as the SHA is concerned, Beardy’s exit from Midget AAA hockey is a done deal, although many fans, community members and alumni see it differently. A petition to reverse the decision on www.change.org had more than 2,500 signatures by press time.

The players and coaches won’t go quietly either. On Nov. 14, just two days after learning the program was coming to an end, the Beardy’s Blackhawks accepted an invitation to the prestigious Mac’s Midget AAA Hockey Tournament in Calgary.