State of the union: SJHL commissioner talks about future of junior A hockey in Saskatchewan

SJHL commissioner Kyle McIntyre

Darren Zary

Saskatoon StarPhoenix

An ever-changing junior A hockey landscape in British Columbia and Alberta sent shockwaves and tremors throughout Western Canada and North America, yet the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League continues to hang on and hold tight.

Earlier this year, five teams — the Brooks Bandits, Okotoks Oilers, Blackfalds Bulldogs, Spruce Grove Saints and Sherwood Park Crusaders —  left the Alberta Junior Hockey League to join the British Columbia Hockey League, which had earlier left Hockey Canada and no longer competes for the national junior A hockey championship.

No major changes are planned for Saskatchewan, however. SP sports reporter Darren Zary recently met with SJHL commissioner Kyle McIntyre during the SJHL playoffs for a state-of-the-union Q&A:

Q: Given the changing landscape in junior hockey across Western Canada, how is that going to affect the SJHL? Is it something that is going to be brought up in upcoming league meetings?

A: It’s been a hot topic, for sure, probably since the exodus of those five teams to B.C. We really have a super-stable league. Probably the difference between Saskatchewan and Alberta or British Columbia, or even Ontario, is that the teams are community-owned — they’re owned and operated by volunteers.

The communities are super-passionate about the teams and, really, in Saskatchewan, our greatest strength is our people and our volunteers. And we’re really landlocked, in terms of travel, and I think that most teams, although we’re not fiscally in trouble — I think most of our teams are fiscally solvent — it really takes a lot of efforts from all the volunteers to keep the league operating and keep the teams viable and, really, I think we’ve got a real good thing here in Saskatchewan.

We have a super-competitive league with lots of competitive balance and we’re producing good hockey players and we’re producing quality hockey. So at least the commissioner and many of our governors of teams, we aren’t looking to go elsewhere. I think we’ve got a real good thing here. I just think we’ve just got to do a better job of celebrating that for the rest of the world.

Q: Is there real concern amongst the SJHL teams as to what’s happening?

A: I think there’s concern about losing the higher-end talent, but a lot of our ’06 (16-year-old) or ’07 (17-year-old) players who play in the league, the minute they get an NCAA Division One scholarship, a lot of them are going to finish in the USHL or in B.C., and, really, that’s up to the school.

I hope that schools realize that we have some good quality programs and we have some quality coaches. When I look at the Humboldt Broncos, for example, they have the youngest team in the SJHL. They’ve got a young coach. A lot of these kids are already committed to NCAA schools. So I hope that the schools will see that we have some real good programs in the league that are developing a lot of kids for that next level and the kids would be just fine if they learn how to play the game and play in our league.

Q: So you’ve been in the league a while now (two years since taking over from Bill Chow); what have you learned during that span and what direction do you see the league going?

A: What I’ve learned is people are super-passionate about hockey in Saskatchewan. I’ve learned that we have some quality programs in our league and we probably have some programs that need a bit of work. So I think my work, as commissioner, is to identify what are some things we can do to improve all the programs in our league without bringing down the programs that are high-functioning to the lowest level.

I want to raise everybody up to the highest common denominator and really develop a competitive, viable league where teams are prospering financially and kids are wanting to come and play, especially the Saskatchewan kids who want to stay and play in the SJHL.

Q: Specifically, have you identified ways to do that?

A: I think we have. We’re really working hard to promote our teams and promote our players and really celebrate our Saskatchewan content. I think we need to do more of that. I think I need to continue to build a relationship with the U18 AAA leagues, AA leagues and SaskFirst. So I know that’s work that I’m looking at doing in the next few years.

I think, really, the biggest thing is that our coaches between those two leagues really have to learn to work better with one another. Like, we have some good relationships but we have a high turnover and they have a high turnover, so relationships have to always be at the forefront. But I think we also have to make parents aware of what a quality product we have and what are some options coming out of AAA they can explore right in Saskatchewan.

Q: There is always the argument of the ‘overage’ question and how many 20-year-olds each SJHL team is allowed to carry. Do you see the SJHL becoming a younger league, or do you kind of like where it is now?

A:  It’s always s hot topic. I think a misnomer is that people think we have an old league, but really, the average age is about 18.8 to 18.9 in our league, so we’re not super old.

Every year, at our (league) governors’ meetings, the ‘20-year-old’ question comes up. I think that if things come to fruition with NCAA providing eligibility for the CHL (major junior) players, I think that’s going to force us to be a younger league, but I do think that’s three or four years down the road before that happens.

When I come out and watch Humboldt, for example — it’s the youngest team in the league. I watch them play against Flin Flon or Melfort and they’re super-competitive and it’s exciting. I think that coaches have to get the best players available, whether they’re young or old.

What you’ll see is the team that wins our league, when they go to the Centennial Cup, it’s super fast and it’s super-competitive, so if you really want to have high skill and high speed, it doesn’t matter what the age is, because physical intimidation and physical play really isn’t seen at the Centennial Cup.

Q: Could we see the day where there’s a regional tournament leading up to the Centennial Cup involving Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba tams now that B.C. is out of the picture and the old Doyle Cup, Anavet Cup and Abbott Cup series are in the past?

A: I think those are always possibilities. We work very closely with our prairie provinces of Alberta and Manitoba. We’re looking at doing more combined showcases. We’re looking at having conversations about strengthening and helping one another, being unique and being separate but having opportunities where we could do a combined world junior A challenge training camp, where we can do combined showcases, where maybe we compete and bring back that provincial rivalry between Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta.

That’s always on the table. Right now, we have a pretty strong partnership in the CJHL amongst the nine leagues, with the ability of every league to compete for a national championship, but I also know that, if that structure does not continue into the future, I know we can rely on Alberta and Manitoba to bring back some of those historical rivalries and they’ll certainly be alive and well because the spirit of collaboration between the commissioners of those leagues is super strong.