A massive pilot project has taken the OPJHL by storm.
Eight teams have created a new Central Division, in an effort to create an division within the league that gets away from the appearance of a "watered-down product." Central Division teams will play an independent schedule within the league, with the champion advancing to the OPJHL playoff semifinals where they will face off against the rest of the league.
The eight teams involved are the Cobourg Cougars, Hamilton Red Wings, Markham Waxers, Newmarket Hurricanes, St. Michael's Buzzers, Stouffville Spirit, Toronto Junior Canadiens and the Wellington Dukes. This has come over some objections with the league.
Marc Mercier, governor of the Cobourg Cougars and member of the executive board for the new Central Division, explains the rationale.
“We believe, strongly, that the changes we have made for the upcoming season as part of the pilot will have a very positive impact on the future direction of junior hockey in Ontario.”
The changes Mercier are alluding to include “stronger franchise governance principles, the use of division-wide educational agreements, meaningful reduced roster sizes, mandatory play rules for 16 year-olds, reduced roster positions for 20-year-olds, the use of 2-referee systems, among various other changes.”
Fellow Central Division executive board member and Anthony Pietramala, the co-owner and president of the Newmarket Hurricanes, feels that there was a pressing need to create a test project in the OPJHL.
“The watered-down product and quality of programs offered in a 36 team league has noticeably deteriorated in recent years as evident by the disparity of teams in all current divisions as well as the substantial reduction in OPJHL players advancing to the next level be that the OHL, CIS, NCAA or Professional Hockey,” he says .
While many in the league are in agreement with Pietramala’s assessment, things are not all that rosy. There were numerous clubs that either declined to comment or did not return phone calls in connection with this story.
Frank Robinson, GM of the Whitby Fury -- a non-pilot team -- sees both sides of the coin.
“The Central Division is a good mission, it is setting an example for Junior A hockey. It's the right thing to do. However, if you think everyone was happy, no they weren't.”
Robinson sees how teams were chosen for the new division as a sticking point.
“We’ve known for the last three years that something was going to happen," he says. "The bone of contention is how did those eight teams get chosen, it should have been an invite, (however) it was done by all types of calls in the background."
There is reason to believe that other teams are far more at odds with how these changes will affect their operating costs, especially with the loss of divisional rivals that are in close traveling proximity. The Kingston Voyageurs, for instance, lose Cobourg and Wellington as conference opponents. Instead, they gain Whitby (formerly Durham), the Ajax Attack and Pickering Panthers.
Mercier acknowledges as much.
“We understand that some of the teams in the OPJHL are disappointed with the emergence of the Central Division. However we are very encouraged by the number of those teams who have indicated to us that they support our vision, our core operating principles and objectives and very much look forward to working with us closely.”
Pietramala explains how the pilot is really in its infancy.
“Initially there will not be a major impact as the recruiting of players for this year was not based on this test pilot but rather the current system.”
Major changes this year will include roster sizes being pared down from 23 players to 21 and the number of players dressed from 20 to 19.
The number of 20-year-olds will be reduced from nine to seven and as well, teams must dress their 16-year-old players unless there are special circumstances preventing them. All teams in the OPJHL will play four more games this year for a total of 53.
Pietramala sees the upcoming season as a challenge but thinks that if it is successful, it will benefit the league as a whole. “Change is never easy to manage and I’m sure there will be growing pains and challenges to educate in one year - players, scouts and associations - as to why the concept will be beneficial to junior hockey long term,” he says.
“The intent of this pilot is to improve junior hockey as a whole across Ontario at all levels. This is a test pilot and it may prove to be only that a one year pilot but like anything else sometimes you need to isolate a small group to understand what changes are best for a wider group,” he adds.
Meanwhile, even though he understands and agrees with the motivation for the new
Central Division, Robinson is more sombre about what the future may hold.
“Some teams will survive the changes and some teams won’t.”
Pietramala does not deny that at some point if the pilot lasted long term, beyond this season and expanded, there could be a drop off in the number of teams hitting the ice in the OPJHL.
“Potentially less teams over a larger geographic region would make for a more competitive product on the ice night after night which would benefit players wanting to develop for the next level, be that the OHL, CIS or NCAA.”