"They told me they had a deal with Kingston and would I accept it? I thought about it for a couple of days and said no ... I want to try and go for it in case it's my last year in the OHL."
— Guelph Storm forward Matthew Sisca, on why he turned down a trade to the Kingston Frontenacs
The story is from Monday, but what the hell. Good on the Kingston Whig-Standard for alerting readers to how owner Doug Springer's ramshackle franchise is viewed across the league.
The intent here is not to rip, but to convey that the Frontenacs long ago reached their limit with trading in fallacies. It seems best to head off the hype now rather than after the fact. Making the playoffs in a weak OHL Eastern Conference will not be proof there is a rebuilding program, pure and simple. By the same token, their collection of forwards with Ethan Werek and defencemen with Erik Gudbranson (who is wearing an alternate captain's A for Team Canada at the Ivan Hlinka world under-18 tournament this week in Europe and got a glowing notice in Sports Illustrated) is as good as they have had since 2005-06. Doug Gilmour has shown some promise as a coach.
One would say this is a critical year for the future of major junior hockey in Kingston. It should become a political hot potato if the primary tenant at the city of Kingston's $43-million downtown arena continues to be an also-ran at the box office and in the standings as 2009 becomes 2010. It goes double with an election in November. (Picture Mayor Harvey Rosen saying, "Again? This stupid province.")
Another subpar season will further the perception, as per the Sisca quote, that Kingston is the league's Siberia.
The situation with Brock Higgs is illustrative. Higgs is a Kingstonian who was drafted by the Frontenacs in 2008. Long story short, he elected to play Provincial Junior A across town with Kingston Kimco Voyageurs and go for a NCAA scholarship. His plan is to play at Canisius College in Buffalo, where he can play hockey, get an education and be tip taxi drivers generously.
This is kind of adaptation of a comment left some time ago at the awesome OHL Prospects. It kind of lays out why it is understandable a Kingston prospect would not want to play for his hometown club. Higgs is on NHL Central Scouting's radar screen, but he is no sure thing to get drafted.
It is far from a stunner that Brock Higgs would not jump to play for the Frontenacs. If you'll indulge me...Admittedly, that is inflammatory rhetoric for mid-August, but the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Springer set the bar last September when he told play-by-play man Jim Gilchrist during a between-periods interview that the team's goal was "top four" in the East. A season later, they have more talent and a reasonable facsimile of a coach with Gilmour, so why let Springer move the goalposts?
The player said in June it 'looks like' he is returning to the Kingston Kimco Voyageurs and will go to Canisius in 2010. He is 17 years old with the right to change his mind.
There is the education package if you end up going to a Canadian university after major junior. However, as OHL alum Jason Cassidy explained, it's determined by how high a player was drafted. Higgs was a fifth-rounder.
Meantime, and who knows how much stickiness this has with agents and parents, the Frontenacs are the franchise which was sued by a former player after Larry Mavety tried to deny him his education package. As the player, Brody Todd, told the Toronto Star (Nov. 26, 2006): "I was disgusted how they held this (education package) back from me after playing in the league for five years ... If I hadn't pushed and sued, I likely would have ended up with nothing."
There is a lot of antipathy among the sporting class in Kingston toward the Fronts.
Their owner, Springer, has a reputation for not being accountable to fans. They have not had a playoff series win since he bought the Fronts in the late 1990s, but he refuses to change the general manager. Meantime the city of Kingston, which was just ranked as one of Canada's worst-run cities in a Maclean's magazine report, built a $43-million downtown arena, thus making every Kingston taxpayer a stakeholder in the Frontenacs.
Nevertheless, when the city council tried to cover its butt last winter by demanding the Frontenacs appear at a public meeting to discuss their "marketing plan," (wink, wink), Springer refused to take questions. Instead, he had his PR person and Gilmour (who had been in the league for about 30 games at the point) speak.
It's also telling that whenever players on their way out of town are asked what they'll miss most about Kingston, they invariably pause and say, "The people, the city." It's never the organization.
The Frontenacs have a bad reputation. They need to change the culture, since as of right now, they're not part of the fabric of the community, in the manner of other major junior teams.
People in Kingston are pretty savvy. They know there's no rebuilding taking place as long as Springer interferes in hockey decisions and as long as Gilmour follows in the footsteps of Mavety, simply settling for making the playoffs. The attendance spike they got from Gilmour lasted about one game.
As for Higgs' personal choice, who knows? It could be his family is big on education. The Kingston paper had a feature on Higgs during the Voyageurs' playoff run which noted his older sister goes to Queen's University, a pretty prestigious academic institution.
Canisius is also a first-rate Catholic college. As a school in a border town, it is also sensitive to the academic needs of Canadians. There is a young woman from Ottawa who plays basketball there, Steph MacDonald. She pointed out to the Ottawa Sun two years ago that one of the determining factors in choosing that school was not having to worry about getting her credits accepted if she applied to do a post-graduate degree in Canada.
The OHL is a place to be for a high-end talent who's got a great shot at being drafted at age 18. I'm always coming from the perspective of being a Kingston fan — paraphrasing what Roger Ebert says about writing for the Rupert Murdoch-owned Chicago Sun-Times, the Frontenacs are my team. Doug Springer just happens to own it. It's a childish attachment, I know.
However, a fan has to be clear-eyed. There are a lot of reasons why Higgs would go the NCAA route. The advisers for another Kingston lad, Scott Harrington, made it known before the OHL draft that he did not want to be drafted by the Frontenacs. The "out" the Frontenacs had was that Harrington was not a clear-cut No. 2 overall pick, he was somewhere in the top 5-10 picks, plus they are fairly well-stocked on the back end with Gudbranson, Taylor Doherty and Brian Lashoff.
None of this is cut-and-dried. The situation can change quickly with a young player. If Higgs does report to the Frontenacs, I'll gladly eat my words. How's that for an out clause?
Long post shorter, they should get better. Werek should have a shot at a 40-goal season. Greatbranson will rattle opposing forwards' teeth during his draft year. However, let it be said this franchise is not starting with a clean slate.
It has been 658 days since Doug Springer promised to do "whatever it takes" to bring a winner to Kingston.
Incidentally, here is what S.I. said about Greatbranson:
"Fast and fearless, Erik Gudbranson captained the Kingston Frontenacs last season despite being just 16 years old. The 6-3, 185-pound blueliner struggled in camp, but is regarded as a Mark Stuart-type: solid in his own end, strong skater and a great leader."(He actually only wore the C for a handful of games, but still, Sports Illustrated.)