Hockey is a results driven business.
I know, not exactly ‘Breaking News’ there, but keep the phrase in mind. Ask any coach or GM, any scout, trainer, equipment manager or mascot. Hell, ask any owner. If you’re not successful, eventually someone else is going to get a chance to do what you do and they might do it better.
This summer has seen a ton of news in the Western Hockey League as teams make changes to coaches, assistant coaches, scouts and executives. Soon we’ll all start reading pre-season polls and power rankings as pundits try to determine who the best team in the league is.
It made me think of a story last fall that was written by Ryan Kennedy of The Hockey News. Full disclosure here; Kennedy is a frequent guest on The Pipeline Show and we’ve occasionally assisted each other with projects in the past. The starting point for his feature was to determine an answer to his question “which organization would you want your son/nephew to play for?” with the OHL’s London Knights being the most popular reply.
I don’t take issue with Kennedy’s story or the end result, in fact it’s hard to argue with the choice of the Knights. It’s the premise of the story coupled with the mass changes in the WHL this summer that brings me to my topic today.
My question is “What determines whether a franchise is a “success” at the major junior level?”
The WHL, and the CHL beyond that, do their best to legislate ways to balance the scales as much as possible so that the smallest markets in the league have just as good a chance as the largest. Look no further than the 2018 Memorial Cup that saw two of the smallest market CHL teams claim the WHL and QMJHL crowns.
The average hockey fan, the one that spends 99.9% of the time focused on his or her favourite NHL club, will likely gauge success by how many NHL players a specific junior team can boast about on it’s “alum” page.
Meanwhile, the junior hockey supporter will be more inclined to count the red and white WHL banners hanging from the Enmax Centrium, Prospera Place, the Brandt Centre or the Veterans Memorial Arena in Spokane.
But hockey is a results driven business and respected, qualified people lose their jobs if they aren’t ‘successful’ so in this case, it’s not the fan’s opinion that interests me.
I asked three general mangers, all currently employed in the Canadian Hockey League, for their perspective on what ‘success’ at the junior level really means. One of the genetlemen asked for annonymity while the other two were happy to publicly share their insight.
I began with the following scenario: “In a 5 or perhaps 10 year period, your club is a perennial playoff team, wins multiple league championships and a Memorial Cup but not a single player from that time span goes on to have a NHL career. – Are you a successful CHL franchise?”
First up is Calgary Hitmen General Manager Jeff Chynoweth. I’d barely phrased the question before he was knocking it out of the park.
“You’re successful one hundred percent,” he immediately said.
Chynoweth, who spent 2001-2017 as the General Manager of the Kootenay Ice, knows a thing or two about trying to compete from a challenging market.
“Winning championships in junior hockey is difficult; you have turnover every year, it’s a cyclical business, you’re dealing with 16 to 20 year olds, you don’t have free agency where you can just add things so you have to build – It’s tough!” he said, “Going four rounds in your respective league and then going to play a round robin for the Memorial Cup. That is very difficult.”
Chynoweth oversaw two teams that claimed WHL titles, the most recent in 2011 and of course the one that went on to capture the 2002 Memorial Cup. But what about using the list of NHL stars the team produced as an accurate barometer for success?
“Obviously we want all of our players to move on to the NHL, that’s their aspiration and their goal when they come and play major junior hockey,” Chynoweth added. “Unfortunately, as you go up the ladder toward the NHL it gets tougher and tougher to make teams but that shouldn’t be considered a [junior team’s] failure or not being successful if your players don’t go on to the NHL.”
“From our 2011 championship team, Cody Eakin and Brayden McNabb are the only two [NHLers],” Chynoweth countered, “Our 2002 championship team, Jarrett Stoll played for a long time. Then you look at the rest of that team and Nigel Dawes had a cup of coffee in the NHL, Duncan Milroy…you see that all the time.”
“It’s tough to look into that crystal ball and see who is going to make it,” Chynoweth said. “Who is going to be an NHLer from the Swift Current Broncos?”
With their victory still fresh in everyone’s memory, it would be easy to offer up the name of half a dozen Broncos but Chynoweth wasn’t throwing shade on Swift Current’s victory at all. In fact he’s saying the opposite. If no one from the 2017-18 Broncos goes on to play National Hockey League, would it somehow take away from their WHL title?
“It shouldn’t diminish what they did.”
The next person I spoke with has the dual role of General Manager and Head Coach. His name is Jim Hulton and after years of coaching in the OHL, the NHL and the USHL, he’s preparing for his fourth season leading the Charlottetown Islanders of the QMJHL. Hulton will also serve as an assistant coach for Canada’s U20 entry at the 2019 World Junior Championship this coming winter.
I started off with the same scenario.
“For us in Charlottetown, our mandate is to be an elite level franchise and that’s based on wins and losses.” Hulton stated, “The old Brian Kilrea line I learned years ago is “our job is to win junior hockey games, not NHL games”.
For the Islanders to get those wins, their looking for the best junior players today instead of the players who might become good professional players years from now.
“We’re in a small market in Charlottetown and we have to win to put butts in seats,” he added, “Those smaller, five-year players that contribute a lot to our franchise success, those guys are important.”
Further to his point, Hulton explained that his team is seeking consistency from one year to the next rather than the ‘ride the cycle’ approach that other junior teams might take.
“When I took over as GM and I sat down with ownership, there wasn’t an appetite to be one of those teams that says “Let’s go all in one year then sink down to the bottom and rebuild”,” he explained, “That’s a good formula for a lot of teams but we want to be one of those teams that is top four or top six every season so that, if you stay healthy and get some luck, you can compete for a championship.”
Under Hulton, the Islanders have reached the QMJHL semi-final in back-to-back seasons.
The last General Manager I spoke with is based in the Ontario Hockey League but I won’t be any more specific than that. When I put the scenario to him, ‘is OHL success more important than producing NHL talent?’, he paused to measure his reply.
“That’s a loaded question,” he began. “I know what the answer should be; the answer should be YES!”
I don’t know if it was because he was speaking from a perspective of anonymity but for this GM, success isn’t necessarily best represented by wins and losses.
“I think successful junior programs come up with a combination of winning championships, of developing players to play professionally and I also think it’s very important for teams to develop players off the ice to be good citizens,” he said, “I think all three of those are, in some regards, equally important. That’s the type of program, if I was a parent, that I would want my son involved with.”
Now if that sounds very Pollyanna to you, you’d be right. Of course the ideal scenario is to have a team that wins a ton AND develops a load of NHL players AND they all turn out to be great human beings. But that wasn’t the point of the exercise.
Obviously you win by having talented players and obviously some of those talented players have a chance at advancing their careers. No one thinks those are two mutually exclusive concepts but what is Priority A and what is Priority B? I think that Jeff Chynoweth summed it up best.
“They go hand in hand, but, If we don’t win and have success, the coach and GM won’t be around,” he said, “Your first goal is to win championships. your second goal, which is a close second, is to develop players for the next level.”
And to develop quality human beings.
I am interested in hearing your thoughts on this topic. Do you agree? Why, or why not? Who do you think the most successful WHL (or CHL) franchises are?
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