Sports

WHL commissioner addresses issues facing junior hockey

Taking questions from season ticket holders of the Kelowna Rockets last Thursday were (left) Rockets team president Bruce Hamilton and Western Hockey League commissioner Ron Robison (centre), joined on the podium by forum  moderator Regan Bartel, the hockey team’s radio play-by-play broadcaster.  - Rich Abney/contributor
Taking questions from season ticket holders of the Kelowna Rockets last Thursday were (left) Rockets team president Bruce Hamilton and Western Hockey League commissioner Ron Robison (centre), joined on the podium by forum moderator Regan Bartel, the hockey team’s radio play-by-play broadcaster.
— image credit: Rich Abney/contributor

The Western Hockey League commissioner came to Kelowna last week looking for feedback from the fans and answering their questions on a wide range of issues.

Sitting with Bruce Hamilton, president of the Kelowna Rockets and chairman of the WHL board of governors, Ron Robison faced about 35 season ticket holders and local media at the Manhattan Point restaurant in Prospera Place.

Talking directly to WHL hockey fans is an initiative that Robison has carried out in other WHL franchise communities and hopes to continue to do more of it in the future.

He feels the interaction is a great way to listen to what junior hockey fans has to say and talk about what the WHL is doing in response to a myriad of issues facing junior hockey today, from a slippage in attendance to player safety.

As one might expect in Kelowna, the topic which generated the most discussion was officiating. Some fans have gone so far as to write letters to the Capital News, saying they won’t go to any more games because of their perception of a poor job of officiating games, while the playoff series with Kamloops Blazers last season left many fans puzzled and upset by the perceived one-sided number of penalties assessed against the Rockets.

Robison noted that “it’s always a controversial part of the game and always will be.…with the speed of the game today, the officials are under more pressure than ever before and consequently a lot is expected of them.”

Robison explained that the WHL has evolved considerably since the era where the referee and linesmen were each given a jersey and a whistle “and you said good luck and hoped everything worked out.”

He said the WHL has come to realize that the approach teams take with investing in player development must also be taken with developing property trained and prepared officials.

“In terms of the league’s overall budget, about one-third of our league expenses are directed towards our officiating costs and we’ve had a lot of debate about that with our board,” Robison said. “I think it is to the credit of the team owners that the have supported that concept of development for or officials and in return they want to see accountability for performance and make sure we are seeing constant improvement.”

Robison said that fiscal investment has translated into a more sophisticated approach to how potential refs and linesmen are recruited, and the on- and office training that each is given.

He said the NHL recognizes the WHL as an elite level training ground for officials, offering the opportunity for advancement to the pro minor leagues and ultimately the NHL.

“Our officials also are selected to do games in such things as the Subway Series, the Memorial Cup and in the world junior tournament,” he added.

He said the league’s supervisory staff can review, with the benefit of video replay, any game that the 135-member officiating crew members do and point out mistakes or oversights as well as applaud a well done game.

“Just like the players, the officials are held accountable. Those who perform well will get more games to do,” he said. “I think on the whole, our officiating program is in good shape.”

One fan asked if referees could be held publicly accountable or missed calls or having a bad game, something Robison said is unlikely.

“I don’t think we want to be calling out officials publicly in that way,” Robison said, noting accountability to the league and teams with complaints is as far as any critical review process should go.

“I think you can understand this better when you are involved at the league level, but it’s hard not to under-estimate the commitment our officials put in, “ Robison said.

“They are individuals who work hard at what they do. They do the best they can and some nights things don’t go the way you want, but for the majority of games it works out well. “

Robison said most game officials have other careers they work at during the day and balance that against time spent with their own families and working a essentially part-time casual employees for the league.

“Like the players travel on a bus to games away from home, the officials get in the cars and drive themselves to wherever their game is throughout the winter. As a league, we certainly admire that commitment.

“Early on after taking over as commissioner of the WHL, I noticed pretty quickly when visiting the officials’ room prior to a game how seriously they take what they do. I was in their dressing room and saw their jerseys folded neatly and them getting prepared for the game just like the players do.”

Robison added the availability of video replay in all the team’s arenas now has added another level of checks and balances to make sure the right call is made on goals.

“Our philosophy is the same as other leagues that use video replay. The bottom line is to make sure the right call is made. Everyone expects that and video replay is another tool to help us get there.”

Robison fielded a host of questions a host of other issues facing the WHL with Hamilton also adding in some of his comments:

• Balanced regular season schedule

Because of the distance covered by the WHL from Brandon, Manitoba, to Portland, Oregon, having a balanced schedule where every team plays in every other team’s building at least once is a geographic  challenge.

While Robison agrees that a balanced schedule

would be ideal, the league also has to address the travel pressure placed on the players, many of whom are still in high school, and travel costs.

“What we have right now not a full interlocking schedule but a part-interlocking schedule, where teams from the West and East alternate road visits every second year,” he said. “I think it’s the opposite direction to where we should be going with the schedule, as from a fan’s viewpoint I would like to see all the teams play in all the visiting arenas, but we are trying to strike a balance in thinking about what is best for the players.”

Hamilton said he looks at the scheduling

issues in terms of bus time. “We play a doubleheader in Portland or they play a doubleheader here because it saves us 18 hours of bus time for our players,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton said in the U.S. division, those teams play each other up to 12 times a season, which can be a detriment for other clubs like his if those teams aren’t evenly balanced.

“It can hurt us because if there are one or two bad teams in that division, the other teams can mop up points against them and that affects the overall standings,” he said.

“But I don’t think even if it was Kamloops, that if we played them 12 times in the season, six times in our building, that fans would go for that.”

• Attendance

Robison acknowledged that the aging

demographic of the WHL’s hardcore fan base is a concern to the league.

“Getting the younger

generation out to the games is a challenge for us. They are busy dealing with kids and other family activities and so forth. So the big challenge for us comes down to time and what people to with their available time and disposable income,” he said.

“We have to make our game more attractive to people. We have a bias that nowhere else will people see a better brand of hockey displayed every night that in our league, where young guys are trying to get better and reach that next level.

“But part of our hard research is telling us that many of our fans are heading south for the winter during hockey season and that affects our ticket sales.”

Hamilton said the Rockets, like other WHL franchises, are addressing the marketing challenge of getting more younger

people out to games, as the team’s string of nine consecutive years with sell-outs has ended.

“I would love to see more the university and college kids coming out to games because I think that would really charge up the atmosphere for the games,” he said.

Hamilton acknowledged that just winning isn’t enough anymore to attract new fans.

Robison also noted that teams often play in arenas owned by someone else, whether it be private company or the community, and the two have to work together on marketing schemes, such as a value deal that involves game ticket and concession specials, to help attract fans.

“That can be a difficult situation because the arena owner and the team owner may not be on the same page, but it’s in the interest of both parties to bring more fans into the building,” he said.

In Kelowna, Prospera Place is owned by R.G. Properties in a public-private partnership deal with the City of Kelowna. The Rockets are  the arena’s single largest tenant.

• Players’ union

Robison said he takes great exception to criticism directed at the WHL about how players

are treated, criticism which last year led to reported efforts back East to unionize the players in the WHL, OHL and QHL.

“Our response to that question is always to ask the players and their families. The treatment of our players is the number one issue for all our franchises,” he said.

“We are worlds apart from how players were treated back when Bruce was playing in the WHL. The quality of treatment with regards to travel, to equipment to our scholarship program has come a long way. At the end of the day we are not a professional league, we are an amateur league and we take great pride in that.”

Hamilton reiterated

that all the owners are devoted to doing what is best for their players to not only see them develop into professional hockey players, but to use their experience in the WHL to propel them in life down other career paths.

“It’s always great to see the (former Kelowna Rocket, now Montreal Canadien) Josh Gorges of the world playing in the NHL, but I’m even more proud to see players using our scholarship program to further their education and come back to see us during the summer as teachers, lawyers and doctors. “

• Expansion and relocation

Robison said the perfect league alignment would be 20 teams in four divisions, but expansion has since increaded the league to  22 teams.

Robison said recent expansion to Victoria was an important market for the WHL to be established in as was Edmonton, an area he said that contributes a significant number of players to the WHL while being under-serviced for junior hockey.

“Those have been two great additions to our league but overall, I don’t see any further expansion in the foreseeable future. Our focus is to maintain the viability of our existing franchises,” he said.

Hamilton also spoke to rumours of potential expansion candidates in Fort McMurray or Grande Prairie in Alberta, saying the travel distance to play other teams negates such a move making sense.

“Prince George is already challenge for us. It’s a great hockey centre but to have to travel six hours to play a game against your closest rival places a great demand on your players.”

Hamilton did add, however, that with Victoria back in the league, landing a second franchise on Vancouver Island in Nanaimo, if that city ever built an arena suitable for WHL attendance standards, would be given a hard look.

• Player safety

Concussions are a hot topic in the WHL as in many contact sports today, but Robison feels his league has introduced what he calls a seven-point plan to ensure players aren’t rushed back into playing too soon from head injuries.

Robison said concussions dropped by 20 per cent last year one the previous season, and says it has significantly gone down again at the start of this season.

“It’s a physical game and there is always lots of contact, and we don’t want to see that change,” Robison said. “But we want to make sure that our players are always aware of what’s taking place on the ice.”

Hamilton said the league has now collected 10 years of background date on head injuries, more than any other league, and has set up an independent decision-making process headed up by a Toronto doctor that determines when a player can suit up again.

“We don’t want to see anyone put back in the lineup until they are ready. If the Toronto doctor says no, then the boy sits,” Hamilton said.

“There are real good safety measure in place in that regard as the safety of the kids is still the most important thing for me.”

Hamilton said while players need to be aware when they are exposing themselves in vulnerable position for physical contact, players sometimes also have to know when to hold back.

“I think it comes down to respect. You have to learn that sometimes it’s better to back off and kids playing today have to learn that more than ever before.”

Hamilton added that repeat headshot offenders are being held accountable for the entirety of their WHL careers.

“If you make a mistake, you sit,” Hamilton said. “If you are a repeat offender the sanctions or suspensions against the will increase. Like anything with youngsters, when you take something away from them, you get their attention.”

• Changes to scoring point system

Robison said the WHL has followed the lead of the NHL in the points allowed for games that go into overtime or shootouts.

“Adding another point for a team that wins those games would be a change from what I think in the past has been a greater inclination to follow the traditions of the game and not step outside the box,” Robison said.

“But what the NHL does, we tend to follow because to try to explain why we would change or be different from the NHL becomes a challenge for our fans to understand why there is a difference.”

Hamilton noted Canadian junior hockey leagues tend to gravitate to the NHL’s way of doing thing because the WHL operates in partnership with the pro league.

“We develop more than half the players in the NHL and the subsidy contribution we receive for that is what keeps a lot of our teams in business, particularly in some of the smaller Alberta and Saskatchewan team markets,” Hamilton said.

“We have a long-term partnership (with the NHL) and I think you will start to see some changes in the game over the next four to five years if (NHL commissioner Gary Bettman) gets his way to remove some things he wants to see out of the game.”

• Players demanding trades

Players holding out for trades is not something WHL teams should not offer any compassionate flexibility to accommodate, said Hamilton.

He said when junior players sign up for a junior team, they should live up to that agreement—or else, face not playing for any other WHL team.

“I think a lot of that starts with the environment the player is in. With Lethbridge, they have made a lot of changes and it hasn’t turned that tea around yet, but I think it is correct to stand your ground,” said Hamilton, referring to the holdout by a  Lethbridge player, Jaimen Yakubowski, who has since been traded to Seattle Thunderbirds.

Another went the same route last year. Alex Forsberg, who wouldn’t report to Prince George Cougars and ended up playing a season of junior B hockey in Saskatchewan before returning to the Cougars this season.

“You sign up to play for a team. If you don’t play for that team, you won’t be playing for anyone else.”

Robison said he agrees with Bruce’s position. “When you sign to play for a team, you sign a commitment to that organization and that community and you should fulfill that commitment.”

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