Espanola Rivermen owner speaks out

February 26, 2014

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.

What you think about “Espanola Rivermen owner speaks out”

  1. Marcel you are a bit off kilter the oj and cc are mostly now charging players to play as well. This league needs american players as the quality will suffer,sounds like you want to keep the local kid just because he is local. You sir are the epitimy of a crazy minor hockey parent being over bearing and wanting to control every step of their child in hockey.

  2. Fans who I know in this region (and I know plenty of them) are in favour of Tim, Randy and Coach McCarthy because of the Profesional manner in which they operate the Rivermen. If the Owner wants too switch League’s there is a degree of trust as Tim, Randy and Coach McCarthy are hockey people that we trust.

  3. Marcel
    Can you list players from the north that are playing in other leagues? I don’t think there’s that many…..certainly not enough to fill NOJHL rosters.

    I’m not sure I understand the insurance aspect of hockey. Don’t all Canadian kids have health coverage? So we need double coverage to play hockey? Is someone in Hockey Canada making money double billing players for insurance?

    please explain…

  4. Tyler peters Lucas brown ryan aubertin Joel alary Maxine lamontagne , Brandon plourde ,Matt pinder , Devon shell , Brodie whitehead ,justin cook .tyler romain . Those are just a few of them . Lots more .

    Hey Marcel does this make the cc a joke to in your mind now that I found this.. I will agree some local kids are good enough to make the teams but some feel entitled as they are local and think they are better than they are. The bigger centres like the Soo have a lot to choose from and I will say the Soo minor program is one of the better ones and really like the Peewee group up there. Love the peewee arena to nice old barn.

    1. Marcel,

      I am going to tell you this again — and it’s the last time I will say it — your comments that contain potentially-libelous remarks will not be posted.

      I do have a lawyer in the family who advises me on the laws of libel and slander.

      Over and out, man. This is the last time we will have this conversation.

  6. 2 knocks on the NOJHL:

    1-travelling cost/budget vs the amount of fans to offset it
    2-lack of recruitment to NCAA……….who cares about CIS

    everything thing else is pretty much the same no matter what league you’re in !

  7. I doubt it that the Nickel Barons would leave the NOJHA but I have been wrong before. This IJHL concept is picking up steam it seems.

  8. Sorry Randy I may have encited Marcel just trying to figure out the world of junior hockey and his thoughts etc there are always three sides to every story this side that side and the truth in the middle.

  9. Is the NOJHL in trouble? Thats the word around Sudbury. I dont like to hear this but if Pay to Play is the way to go and with Imports and such maybe Clayden is on to something just saying.

  10. I for one would love to see an international league with both American and Canadian based teams but I’m not sure about the pay to play concept. Such a rule would drive the better players to other leagues that do not charge to play.
    As for the CIS dis…do your research as the caliber of play in Canadian University hockey is increasing to a point where it will be as good as the NCAA in the near future.

  11. pretty straight forward….Tim is going to take his team to where he can put the best product on the ice for his fans, get his players the best possible chance to succeed on and off the ice and give himself the best chance to break even financially. The sport is evolving and the NOJHL and CJHL either needs to recognize this and make necessary changes or be left in the dust. Kudos to Clayden for being the innovator to make the game better for the fans, players, owners and everyone effected by junior hockey…….we stand behind you 100% Mr Clayden, you and your boys deserve the best and its hard to accomplish that with your hands tied behind your back!

  12. Hockey guy – FYI, we met with a cchl team in the spring and between players fees and room and board you’re looking at 10 k plus.

  13. Stne… was not a dis about the CIS. yes it’s a good league. I played there 30 years ago. Mostly x CHL players.
    It was regarding recruitment. You can walk on a CIS team. You don’t need to be recruited.
    Cdn players just need to pick a university that they can get accepted to and tryout.
    The likely hood of doing that in NCAA is slim. It’s too expensive.

  14. i appreciate that Tim Clayden is a businessman in the business of jr hockey and not afraid to get his hands dirty to push on. You cant take away his contributions to jr hockey and hes certainly helped his share of kids play jr hockey. He very right about the recruiting prospects; big demand, few players and its only getting worse! Cant see how travel is going to get any cheaper either.

    Regarding kids playing elsewhere, you can probably ice 1.5 teams with all kids from the north playing in another league. no one has more than the Cambridge winter hawks! Many of good quality, Marcel lists a few of the lower end kids! Kids do leave for exposure reasons and i understand why it happens but the truth is how many of our northern boys have picked up D 1 scholarships in their hunt? ill be impressed if there has been an average of 1 a year over the past 5 years!

    University or college of choice is just as big a factor in kids heading out! How many of the kids playing down south are going to school in or close to the center they play in! Aubertin being the exception, and congrats to him! That issue always was and always will be around the NOJHL! In the market were in, with the competition were up against, it cant be easy running a team, certainly not one that can compete for championships on the ice and remain in the black on the books!

    1. The kids that Marcel mentions are not the lower end kids as you say. The whole NOJHL is watered down. Let’s bring tthese kids to the South to play against these lower end kids as you say. I know who my money will be on and it’s not the NOJHL!

  15. Quote from article…
    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.
    End of quote…..

    What I am getting from this part of the article is that it sounds like some teams from the NOJHL will be moving from their current camp to an area that goes beyond the current bounderies….is this correct?

    Can you, Randy or Mr. Clayden answer this question?
    Can anyone answer this question? or am I missing something here???

    1. Hi Blueliner I am from Espanola (no secret there) it has been announced on local radio here and in the Elliot Lake/Blind River area that the Bobcats have been approved to move to Cochrane. We have enjoyed the closeness of Sudbury,EL and Blind River as a fair amount of fans take in road games there. I have enjoyed friendly banter with the Elliot Lake fans when there but they seemed to not really have,how do you say nicely, a lot of likeness for Mr.Leonard not knowing why exactly. There are some passionate fans in Elliot lake you never know maybe the Beavers would look at taking up shop in the old barn. Of course that last part was speculation.

  16. Blueliner
    You’re understanding of this is fine.
    With Elliot Lake moving to Cochrane, this pushes travel costs up for SOO, BR, Suds and Espy…those in the hwy 17 hub. This relocation is better for KL and ABI.
    With NB moving to Mattawa, this pushes EVERY TEAMS travel costs up. It pushes that franchise out away from the rest even more.
    If all the teams were within a couple of hours of each other, there wouldn’t be a need for hotel costs on a 3 game road trip; but that is not the reality in the NOJHL.
    When I played in the CC, we never had hotel stays and they still don’t. The average distance from each team is 50 miles. So their budget is lighter on the travel cost side than most organizations in Canada. And they are heavily recruited. Where’s the recruitment in the NO???
    The only scouts I saw were at the Showcase in Espy in Jan.
    Don’t misunderstand me; there’s some fantastic Div 1/3 potential players but the schools have travel budgets too.
    When you need milk, do you go to the furthest C store?

  17. So shut down the league or just kick out 2 of the top 3 teams in the league (attendence and on ice) then lock leonard in the dead market! question is why was it ok for Abitibi to do it all these years, and why it such a huge deal now that it effects those with lightest travel budgets in the league?

    Abitibi welcomed manitoulin, elliot lake and the espanola with open arms despite the fact they knew it would it would add to their travel budget (worst travel budget in the league i might add) no tears were shed for them so they simply shut up and worked harder for the greater good of the NOJHL!

  18. Good one, eskisfan, you picked up on where I was going with this.
    I’d like to continue on this subject, if others don’t mind.

    Here is yet another quote from the article…

    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.

    In the second paragraph the “few others in the game today” that is being referred to about looking for American hockey players, are any of them from the NOJHL??

    Are we looking to develop CANADIAN hockey players in a CANADIAN hockey program or would it somehow be better for a CANADIAN hockey team/league to look for players from abroad and develop their skills??

    Just trying to figure out just where exactly Mr. Clayden is going with this.

    Could/would Mr. Clayden be willing to clarify or can Randy do this for me?

  19. I know there has been much discussion about the NOJHL and its future. I did a quick count of players in the NOJHL and where they come from.

    85 players were from Northern Not.
    28 from out of province.
    36 from southern Not.
    41 from the US

    Espanola had the following.

    10 from Southern On
    3 from Northern On
    6 from the US
    3 from out of province.

    Soo Thunderbirds
    19 from Northern On
    3 from the US
    1 from Southern On

    Sudbury had the following.
    20 from Northern On
    2 from Southern On

    Needless to say less than half of the players are from Northern On. To think they are talking about not having US players would surely be the end of the NOJHL. The junior leagues in Southern On really don’t care about up North as they have a large pool of players to pull from. We need these players from the US and out of province to keep our level as high as it is. We do not have enough calibre kids in the north unless we want to water the NOJHL down.

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