It is a work in progress that will begin its third season in 2014-2015 — and it will do so in part with brethren north of the International Bridge.
Like any new enterprise, it has had its ups and downs and highs and lows.
Nine teams are scheduled to take to the ice when the first puck drops on the 2014-2015 Midwest Jr. Hockey League season and commissioner Scott Gardiner likes what he sees.
“Our competitive level has improved and the growth of the league is controlled by design,” said the even-keeled, 49-year old Gardiner who was a high-end centre with the Belleville Bulls and Windsor Spitfires during his Ontario Hockey League playing days that spanned three seasons from 1981 until 1984.
Gardiner is particularly excited about the addition of the new, Ontario-based, Canadian International Hockey League to the membership of the United Hockey Union under the umbrella of the Amateur Athletic Union.
As members of the four-league UHU brotherhood, the MWJHL and the new CIHL have partnered up for a series of showcase and invitational tournaments prior to and during the upcoming season.
“It’s very exciting to have the CIHL as a playing partner,” said Gardiner. “I think the CIHL will be good for the MWJHL in terms of increasing the level of play and showcasing what we have to offer.”
Gardiner is not the only person associated with the MWJHL who has witnessed the movement of the league from its inaugural 2012-2013 season.
Doug Goudreau owns and manages the Soo Firehawks with his wife Paula in addition to serving as treasurer of the MWJHL.
“We definitely have improved our level of play from our first season,” Goudreau opined. “I think we proved that by the way the Firehawks and (MWJHL champion) Traverse City Hounds competed at the UHU national tournament last spring.”
With eight of its nine teams based in Michigan, Goudreau is torn as to whether he thinks the MWJHL should expand beyond what it has.
“We do not want to see much more if any growth in the lower half of the Lower Peninsula,” offered Goudreau. “Personally I would like to see one more team in the Upper Peninsula. Having said that, we are happy with the current number of teams. Bigger is not always better.”
In addition to the Soo and Traverse City, the other six Michigan-based teams in the MWJHL are the Alpena Flyers, Berkley Bruins, Detroit Fighting Irish, MC Monarchs (Mount Clemens), Michigan Ice Dogs (Farmington Hills) and West Michigan Freeze (Kentwood.)
The Illinois-based Decatur Blaze makes up the ninth team in the MWJHL.
Goudreau, meanwhile, likes the fact that the MWJHL will interlock with the new CIHL with showcase and invitational tournament games.
“I think it is great,” said Goudreau. “We have had quite a few young Canadian men on our team the past couple of years and have loved the friendship and level of play that they have brought to our side of the St. Mary’s River. We are definitely excited about the CIHL becoming a travel and playing partner with the MWJHL.”
Goudreau’s coach with the Firehawks, Joe Esson, shared his thoughts about the growth of the MWJHL and the concept of the new CIHL.
“I think our league has evolved very well,” Esson began. “It was a tough road but the league went the right direction and stayed on that path. The league has become more competitive and a very strong option for Tier 3 junior hockey.
“I think it’s great that the CIHL has joined the UHU. I think we could have some great games with the Batchewana Attack, the Espanola Rivermen and the Sudbury Royals, for instance,” Esson added.
The CIHL has eight teams set to begin play in the 2014-2015.
Besides the aforementioned Batchewana Attack (which will play out of Rankin Arena in Sault Ste. Marie), Espanola Rivermen and Sudbury Royals, other confirmed CIHL teams are the St. Charles Spirit, Central Ontario HTI Stars, Colborne Cramahe Hawks, Milton Battle Arts Cobras and Collingwood Ice.
The affable Dan Vasquez is the coach-general manager of the Detroit Fighting Irish of the MWJHL. Vasquez has been part of the MWJHL since its start.
“I believe the growth of the NWJHL has stayed on course from what our Board of Governors established as a vision statement which is to maximize the opportunities for players in the Great Lakes region,” said Vasquez. “In our first two seasons we have had extraordinary success with great numbers in college advancements for our players.”
Vasquez added that a strength of the MWJHL lies in team ownership.
“The operators who we have now are well-seasoned vets who are experienced in the obstacles of running a hockey organization but most importantly they are vested in their communities. The MWJHL is proof that grassroots hockey is still viable in Michigan.”
As for the establishment of the CIHL and its relationship with the MWJHL, Vasquez termed it “tremendous.
“And I say tremendous not only for the players in both leagues but junior hockey in general. The union between the leagues breaks down the traditional walls of many of the unwanted rules of the past that prohibited this type of interaction between American and Canadian programs. It opens more doors to players from both sides of the border,” Vasquez stated.