Espanola Rivermen owner Tim Clayden has served notice that he intends to move his team out of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League and into the new Canadian International Hockey League effective the 2014-2015 campaign.
I asked Clayden why the Rivermen are leaving the NOJHL and what we can expect from the CIHL.
Following is a transcript of the interview.
RUSSON: Why are the Espanola Rivermen leaving the NOJHL?
CLAYDEN: First and foremost, we are leaving the NOJHL because the league has simply become too expensive to operate a successful junior hockey program, in my opinion. With the move of Elliott Lake to Cochrane (effective next season) it is a minimum increase of 25 % in transportation costs to our annual budget each season. We are talking between $25,000 and $40,000 more annually. The Espanola Rivermen simply cannot afford to add that much more money to our annual operating costs.
The way I see it, if travel costs and the travel times are relatively the same for us to play some games in Michigan and the majority of our games in Central Ontario next season at the very same costs as it is now to be playing in the more remote Northeastern Ontario part of the NOJHL, then we think it will be more advantageous for all involved in our organization to look at playing elsewhere, especially if time to travel to games and lodging and food costs remain relatively the same.
Changing leagues means providing better National Collegiate Athletic Association exposure and opportunities for our student-athlete players so we feel the timing for a change in operating venues is at the end of this season. We will begin anew in the best, long-term interest of playing and operating a junior hockey club on the North Shore and in Espanola, Ontario.
Another alarming concern for our hockey club is with the Hockey Canada eventual elimination of American players from the NOJHL and all of Hockey Canada league play. That move will hurt our program and hurt the quality of the entire league and in my opinion, eventually crush the entire Great North Midget League as they simply do not have the talent pool to replace the American players within the NOJHL each season.
We have heard for three years now from that the NOJHL will have more American imports and even two European players each year. Not a chance, it’s not happening in my lifetime. Why would the Ontario Jr. Hockey League or the Central Canada Hockey League and all other Jr. A teams from across Canada allow the NOJHL to have an advantage over all other junior teams and still compete for a national championship ? We no longer believe it is a possibility.
We currently have 42 American lads playing within the NOJHL today, next year we believe that number will be cut in half until USA players have been completely eliminated from playing hockey here in Canada. I have no idea how our team could replace our USA kids.
It really is a shame, someone should cut a hole in the box and have a look outside that very same box, the game of Tier 2 junior hockey in this country is changing. We want to be on the right side of the change and ahead of the curve, and that would be living and playing hockey in a global free market that allows Canadian kids, American kids and European players equal opportunity to speak, live, develop, play and grow on the same team, in the same junior hockey league that develops and promotes student-athlete players as a league wide priority to the next level of play.
We are leaving for what we feel will be a better opportunity for our student-athlete players with better league operations with a franchise business model that works for each and every league member while providing better NCAA exposure for each of our student-athlete players playing within what will be known as the CIHL.
Our executive team believes there are opportunities opening in the junior hockey landscape that will allow the Espanola Rivermen to add value for all of the franchise stakeholders. It is our responsibility to our players, volunteers, staff and the town of Espanola to position the organization where we have the best chance possible to enjoy the most success. We must constantly be re-evaluating our options.
Looking beyond the 2014-2015 season into our three-and-five-year plans, we feel the CIHL is the strongest option for the Rivermen franchise. The players will be given opportunities for increased NCAA exposure and additional resources as student-athlete junior hockey players. Our fans expect to be treated to highest level of junior hockey possible. Political interference in the NOJHL will place roster restrictions eliminating American imports. Our belief is that this will decrease the talent level.
It is our duty to the volunteers and staff of the organization to instill confidence in the club’s operations for many seasons to come. The movement of several teams has increased travel schedule and would be pushing our annual budget to its limits. The move to the CIHL will reduce the risk of financial hardships, giving confidence to our players, their parents, our staff and volunteers and just as importantly, the Town of Espanola.
RUSSON: So, will the CIHL be a go for the 2014-2015 season?
CLAYDEN: We are submitting our 2014-2015 application to the Amateur Athletic Union and if accepted as expected, we would be sanctioned by one of the largest amateur athletic non-profit volunteer sports organizations in the world.
We expect to be playing as a member of the United Hockey Union under the USA-based Amateur Athletic Union, the governing body of all AAU sanctioned junior hockey leagues registered under the AAU umbrella. The AAU is already here in Canada in many other sports including baseball, basketball and soccer.
To answer your question, Randy, we fully expect the CIHL will be officially operating in plenty of time for the 2014-2015 season.
RUSSON: How many teams can we expect to be a part of the CIHL and where will they be located?
CLAYDEN: We are not at liberty to discuss the number of teams in the league at this time. An official press conference will be held in mid-April once the AAU application has been processed and franchise applications have been accepted.
Applications have been received from possible franchise owners across Northern and Southern Ontario. In addition, there has been a proposal to have an interlocking schedule with a USA-based league with teams surrounding the Great Lakes. We are reviewing this option.
We have a meeting in Toronto coming up and we cannot announce anything formal until such a time as our applications have been reviewed and accepted, but I will dare say that we could see an 8-to-10 team division between Soo, Ontario and Markham, Ontario beginning play this September for the 2014-2015 season.
Each team we add will have a very close team rival within nearby travel distance providing naturally-built rivalries that also help to reduce travel costs for all visiting teams.
For example, we have been approached by two groups now that wish to have their own team in Greater Sudbury, which is a great fit for us in Espanola.
RUSSON: Who will be running the CIHL as Commissioner?
CLAYDEN: For sure, it won’t be me, However, we have already been contacted by a number of high-end candidates about the position and will be conducting a formal interview process to ensure the right person is positioned for success.
It is very exciting to have so many quality junior hockey people in the game today interested in becoming involved within the CIHL concept. Some will be surprised by the number of quality candidates that we have lined up, we have more than a few good, experienced and qualified hockey people currently involved in the game today that are interested.
RUSSON: Where will the CIHL draw players from?
CLAYDEN: The long and short of it is, we will have student-athlete players come from throughout the world to play in our league. What our proposed constitution is looking like is a Canadian International Tier II Junior ‘A’ Hockey League that includes unlimited Canadians, with a combination of as many as 15 American and or European players where each team is committed to developing and promoting student-athletes from throughout the world to their next level of play.
I believe we will provide exceptional NCAA exposure for each of our student-athlete players and give Northern Ontario lads an alternative to what is out there now, an alternative that sincerely provides student-athlete hockey players with much better NCAA exposure than they have been provided with today.
All players from Canada and Europe will be free agents to the CIHL and free to come and go as they please, frankly if our hockey programs don’t deliver, players will not be held back for any reason. We are awaiting clarification on USA born players and where they can be recruited from.
RUSSON: Will CIHL teams play an interlocking schedule with an American-based league?
CLAYDEN: It has been a proposed to have an interlocking schedule with a USA-based league currently surrounding the Great Lakes waterway system. We are reviewing this option and consulting with the AAU to determine if this would add value for both parties involved.
It really depends on our AAU application and it is to early to comment on other than to say playing interlocking games in some USA key located communities would certainly set the CIHL apart from not just the NOJHL but set the CIHL apart from all other Ontario based junior hockey leagues.
It’s okay to be different today. We don’t have an axe the grind with any CJHL teams and/or Leagues. Some of my best friends in junior hockey today remain active throughout all of the CJHL, and Hockey Canada-based junior hockey teams and leagues. We are simply providing an alternative opportunity for student-athlete players to play junior hockey — and they can be from throughout the world.
I do not believe our move will have affect my long-term relationships with other current League commissioners and or Hockey Canada-related hockey personnel that I have known and worked with in hockey for as many as 25 years now. We are simply starting a new junior hockey league that provides new opportunities to world wide student-athlete hockey players that we are putting first in each of our junior hockey programs, including top priorities given to league wide to development and promotion of our student-athlete players, on and off the ice, with increased exposure to the NCAA and Canadian university levels of play.
Our hockey club, our community and our management team in Espanola is completely aware of our decision to change leagues. There are a lot of questions out there but many can rest assured that we will maintain some very similar and close rivals that we currently play against today. Hockey is a very small world, we have no intentions other than to include all Rivermen fans and expand on our junior hockey horizons while maintaining some current rivals and creating other new game-day rivals in the near future.
RUSSON: What about leaving the NOJHL behind?
CLAYDEN: We only wish each NOJHL league partner the very, very best, we are moving forward looking through the hole in the box that we have cut out, planning to do something different and innovative with like-minded league executives and team governors that wish to provide something different where we expect to create better business opportunities for all our teams, our players and our fans than what we currently have available to us today.
This is about moving forward in junior hockey without borders and maintaining everyone’s first Charter of Rights to do so, including freedom of speech for all involved. I know many want myself, and some of my friends coming along for a junior hockey ride of a life time to fail miserably, that’s okay, stand in line. All are entitled to their opinion and to speak freely.
RUSSON: What about referees?
CLAYDEN: The leading candidate for on-ice structure replicates the NCAA three-man system. We have an experienced senior man in place now that we have been having several on-going discussions with regarding our new league and its proposed new direction, where he has a bank of experienced officials on standby now.
We are designing a competitive compensation plan to attract and develop quality officials. We are very excited in our discussions to date with this chap as he also has many years of experience officiating both here in Canada and the USA and within the AAU itself.
We will also have an independent discipline committee made up of five current and experienced junior hockey men that includes the head of our discipline committee being a current vice president of an operating junior team with more than 12 years experience in the game of junior hockey and another 25 in provincial police work, whose upstanding reputation speaks for himself of being both honest and stern but fair and understanding.
RUSSON: What will be the cost for players to play in the CIHL?
CLAYDEN: The CIHL will be a pay-to-play league based on the NCAA rules of what we can and cannot provide to eligible student-athlete hockey players. However, league costs will be very similar to fees today within the NOJHL, CCHL and the OJHL. We will be somewhere in the middle of Hockey Canada junior leagues and the current Greater Metro Hockey League teams that operate today.
The difference between the CIHL and the NOJHL for example with be in the consistency of our own junior hockey programs and our league formula for successes throughout consistent league franchise operation standards, that will only help justify to parents and players why they pay to play in our league.
For example, in Espanola we practice 4.5 to 6 hours a week where other teams in our area practice an hour or two a week. We plan to have league-wide standards in place that include the same minimum practice times for all league franchises, where should a player from Espanola be traded to say, Markham, Ontario, the only difference should be his team jersey.
League standards will be an important aspect of our league programs and operations in order to justify CIHL league fees to all players and all parents. It has to be worth their investment — and CIHL programs must deliver.