As an owner, operator and general manager, Tim Clayden is known as one of the shrewdest and best Junior A hockey operators in Canada.
Now the owner of the Espanola Rivermen — who as a first-year franchise are leading the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League in attendance — Clayden is exploring other avenues for his team.
Following is the transcript of a lengthy interview I conducted with Clayden.
RUSSON: What has changed in the NOJHL and what prompted you to consider alternatives for your Espanola Rivermen?
CLAYDEN: For some to not admit the landscape of Junior A hockey is changing at this level across the country is like playing a hockey game with blind-folders on.
A lot of things have changed in the NOJHL over the past three years and the future looks to be no different. Should change not be advantageous to our players and our team operations, yes, we will look for other opportunities and actively have been.
The way I look at it, if travel costs are the same for us to play in the USA as they would be primarily to northeastern, Ontario, yes, we will look at playing elsewhere — especially if moving means providing better NCAA exposure opportunity to our players. We want to play where we can give our community the best possible affordable junior hockey experience and give all of our players the best possible chance to succeed on and off the ice.
We are always looking to advance our players to university levels of play, both here in Canada with the CIS and in the USA within the NCAA and that will never change as that alone is the fabric of our program. Two concerning examples for the Rivermen to look at other playing opportunities are the relocating next year of some current NOJHL teams.
If final approval is given for more than one team to move, it will only drive our own travel and operating costs up even further. It will be a tough pill to swallow after moving here only a year ago knowing that we would be in the heart of the NOJHL and budgeting for annual travel costs only to have our travel costs increased by at least 32 per cent in year two.
I don’t think that is fair to our team after we did our part to help the NOJHL get back to eight teams this season. In return we are thanked by being asked to pay the Sudbury Nickel Barons a negotiated fee to allow our team to move to Espanola and then put in position where our own operating costs are to be increased in year two by as much and maybe more than 32%. Not a nice surprise!
Another alarming concern for our hockey club is in the possible elimination of American players from league play. That move would hurt our program and hurt the quality of the entire league in my opinion.
To that end, it’s no secret that myself and a few others in the game today have been exploring other possible junior hockey opportunities that may be better than what we currently have available to our teams and players today. I make no apologies for looking for something better, for both our players and our team and the community in which we represent and play in. We are always looking for new ways to improve, on and off the ice and that will never change.
RUSSON: Do you have any other playing options other than the NOJHL?
CLAYDEN: Well, for now we can stay in the NOJHL where we are. But there would have to be significant consideration given on many fronts in order for us to survive season after season within the NOJHL and lack of NCAA exposure for our players is becoming an even more glaring issue for us.
We certainly need a much better business model in order for teams to survive each and every season rather than guessing at whom may be back and or out season after season. In my not so humble opinion more consideration has to be given to the individual operating teams and their own annual budgets. In the end, if you don’t have financially healthy teams, you can’t possibly have a financially healthy league. I don’t believe a lot of consideration has been given of late to the individual teams or our ever-increasing operating costs. Any and all debate to date seems to have fallen on deaf ears the past two seasons with continued increases to our annual operating costs.
Two years ago, we lost one of the best franchises in the league in the Soo Eagles after being pushed out over a questionable player suspension that gave cause for that ownership group to feel unheard and unwelcome. So they packed up and left to play in the North American Hockey League.
The NOJHL will surely survive with or without Tim Clayden, there is no doubt about that and there is also a pretty good chance that I will survive in hockey without the NOJHL. We will make our decision where we play based on what is best for our players, the community which we represent and play in and where the annual operations business model makes the most sense. We strive to financially break even every year and will continue to try to do so.
I also believe strongly that if the Canadian Jr. Hockey League were to eliminate American players, the NOJHL will die a slow death. I don’t agree with removing American players but I do also understand it’s not my call, but the powers to be in their thinking. To not allow USA kids to play in Canada is archaic thinking and simply wrong and a decision that will hurt all junior hockey teams at this level across Canada and in the end, only hurt minor hockey midget programs as well as midget players will be the only other area for all 126 CJHL teams to draw potential players from.
We live and work in a global market everyday, hockey is a global sport, we need to open up our league to global players and that includes USA players.
37.4 % of the NOJHL is now made of American players, next year that number will be decreased by another 25% and eventually have all USA players eliminated from playing junior hockey here in Canada over the next three years. Where will the NOJHL teams recruit their players from then? The Great North Midget League? How will that happen?
Our teams are in trouble every year for raiding the GNML of their eligible and better players and therefore watering down the GMHL midget programs throughout northern Ontario. Without American players in the NOJHL my guess is the GNML will not have enough quality players to continue to play at a high level. Frankly, the caliber of the NOJHL will be terrible without USA kids as many of our better players playing within the league today are American.
This entire process has not been well thought out and decisions are unfortunately being made by others that do not or have not owned, managed and or operated junior hockey teams at the Junior A level here in Canada and more consideration has to be given to the individual teams operating today.
Another glaring concern for us in Espanola is the future of NCAA scouting of the NOJHL and how we as a team can provide kids with more NCAA exposure. It is our most serious concern for us as the NCAA is the basis of our recruiting each year.
Don’t get me wrong, the Soo Thunderbirds have a fantastic team made of very strong local players, a team headed up by arguably the best general manager within all of the CJHL. The Soo can play and be competitive in any league they should choose to play in and Sudbury too always have a competitive team made up of local kids.
Espanola has two local young men with true potential in young Jason Bednarski and Barrie Colts OHL prospect, Kevin Labelle. If we lose American players, I have no idea how we will fill our roster year after year in Espanola, I really don’t.
I don’t make any apologies for looking south of the border for better possible NCAA exposure for all our players, without NCAA opportunities, we simply don’t have a team in Espanola anyway as the NCAA and CIS university opportunities are the sole basis of our recruiting quality players each season.
RUSSON: What about the proposed International Junior Hockey League?
CLAYDEN: The idea of the IJHL started out as summer hockey league concept that would allow players from throughout the world to play in an organized summer hockey league.
I did contact the Amateur Athletic Union regarding player insurance to ask if a summer league concept would be allowed. The answer I was given was yes, it is possible.
Insurance is the biggest concern for all players and all parents and it should be, we are currently looking at our own insurance policy as it compares to both the AAU and frankly the Great Metro Jr. Hockey League as well. Many are upset with me because a few of us have been looking into a league concept that could include unlimited USA, European and Canadian players — in other words a league made up of international junior hockey players from throughout the world.
In my own opinion and without some sort of import player increases, the NOJHL’s future is a big concern for me as a individual franchise owner and league member. I wonder where we will recruit our players from without an increase of import players, American and or other.
It amazes me the stones that are being thrown my way right now regarding the IJHL. We started the idea of the IJHL as a summer junior hockey league concept where all players, internationally and others, would be allowed to play in an organized summer league, great idea and great conditioning tool too. Such a great idea, the Ottawa Tier II league picked up on the idea and my understanding their league is starting one this summer.
No one will tell you that I started the concept but they will tell you I am the bad guy for having some other forward thinking. But it is okay for a league to follow my lead and implement a summer program. I find that interesting and find myself wondering where the player insurance will come from.
Without quality player insurance, there can be no summer or winter league. The IJHL concept has opened up many scenarios including a summer league with international players and now even a winter league concept that could possibly include cross-over interlocking games with USA teams playing at the same level in other leagues during the winter season.
Both concepts are on the table and both would be a lot of fun to be involved in and both intrigue many. Some of our current League leaders have suggested to many and on more than one occasion that some within the CJHL are looking at other possibilities for play should they not get their way on a few issues with Hockey Canada.
Our own commissioner has stated that some leagues may consider going outlaw. What is outlaw? There is no outlaw league, outlawed just doesn’t exist. It boils down to insurance, if you have Hockey Canada insurance, you are sanctioned by Hockey Canada and play by their rules. If you have AAU insurance, you are sanctioned by the AAU and must play by AAU rules and if you play in the GMJHL, it’s not rocket science, you play under GMJHL rules and their insurance.
The bottom line is the IJHL boils down to insurance, that’s it. Some might be surprised to find that the AAU participant insurance policy is pretty darn attractive, here and internationally, one that protects all players regardless of their citizenship and regardless of whether it is in a summer or winter junior hockey league. If a player is insured properly to play, regardless of what country he or she is from, does it really matter if a summer junior hockey league or winter junior hockey league is called the International Junior Hockey League?
I would like someone to explain to me the difference in player insurances and it certainly is not outlawed. The word outlawed in junior hockey doesn’t exist. It’s a myth.
RUSSON: So, what about this Greater Metro Jr. Hockey League then?
CLAYDEN: Because GMJHL founder Bobby Russell — who by the way played in the OHL and NHL, both leagues that all players in the world dream to play — had an idea of something different that would allow for global player participation at the junior level and had the backbone to start something different, does not make him a bad guy. To me, it makes Bobby Russell a junior hockey innovator.
I have known Bobby Russell for many years dating back to watching him play as team captain of the OHL Sudbury Wolves and more recently in my days of working in the Ontario Jr. Hockey League as the Executive 1st Vice Chairman and OJHL Contraction Chairman for eight consecutive years.
In that time, although we were competing as league adversaries, Bobby was only forthright and honest with me in all our dealings. We may not have seen eye to eye on all junior hockey issues that we debated, he always addressed the issues head on with straight forward truths and that is often hard to find in this game, especially behind the scenes. I consider Bobby Russell a hockey friend and a pioneer in junior hockey for what he and his league have already accomplished over the past few years.
RUSSON: So, what is the bottom line with you?
CLAYDEN: The bottom line is the idea of an International Junior Hockey League started out as a summer hockey league concept that has now grabbed the attention of many in the game today that could possibly evolve into a winter junior hockey league that would see international junior hockey players having an opportunity to play here in North America.
If that intimidates some and threatens others, I can’t control that. What I can control is the ability to explore better opportunities for my team and my own players that continues to primarily focus on the ability to recruit quality hockey players through better opportunities to eventually attend university as a student-athlete, both here in Canada and the USA.
We are looking for a league that provides the very best NCAA exposure opportunities for our players with the very best annual operations business model that gives our organization a chance to break even every season. We have not made that a secret nor do we apologize for it.