New Junior A league launched, Rivermen join

by Alicia McCutcheon

ESPANOLA—There’s a new Junior A hockey league in town—and Manitoulin isn’t part of it.

Last week Tim Clayden, president and director of operations for the Espanola Rivermen Junior A hockey club, announced the launch of the Canadian International Hockey League (CIHL)—an independent tier two Junior A league of which the Rivermen will now be a part.

According to a press release from the new league, the CIHL will begin operations effective the upcoming 2014-2015 season as an independent junior hockey league while making its application to be officially sanctioned this June by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) to play for an international championship each season under the United Hockey Union (UHU) umbrella. Mr. Clayden will act as Canadian International Amateur Hockey Federation president and chairman of the board.

“It’s been absolutely overwhelming, in a positive way,” Mr. Clayden said in an interview with The Expositor.

“A lot of us think a change in junior hockey is overdue, and by the overwhelming response, there’s no doubt about it—we’re right on the mark,” he added.

Mr. Clayden said the league’s first thought was to have the eight-team league, with franchises located along the Highway 17 and 400 corridors, see two teams located in Northern Ontario, one of which would be the Espanola Rivermen. Twenty-three individual owners and communities have stepped forward, expressing interest in the CIHL, Mr. Clayden reported.

“Some of the interest coming in is from well-known hockey centres and well-known hockey people—I can see the CIHL at least having an Ontario division of eight teams, but it could be upwards of 16.” Franchise ownerships from Bracebridge, Collingwood, Colborne, Milton, Toronto and Sudbury have confirmed intent in becoming inaugural members of the CIHL for the 2014-2015 season, beginning in September, the press release states.

“A lot of people are taking potshots at me (over the CIHL),” Mr. Clayden said. “We’re a bunch of like-minded people with the same interests of placing an emphasis on student-athlete, junior hockey advancement. People are automatically assuming our league will be a step down and that’s absolutely not true. All of my teams have always been very competitive and that won’t change,” he added, pointing to the successful franchises of the North Bay Skyhawks, Trenton Golden Hawks and the Port Hope Predators and, now, the Rivermen.

The ‘international’ in CIHL means that both American and European players are welcome to play in this league. Currently, under NOJHL rules for the upcoming season, seven American players are allowed per team, but no European players.

Mr. Clayden pointed to the recent changes for NOJHL franchises as one reason for a split from the organization.

“I moved to Espanola knowing that the Elliot Lake (Bobcats) was in the backyard,” he said, noting that the team could play for approximately $1,000 in travel expenses. The team recently announced it was folding and relocating to Cochrane—452 kilometres away. Factor in other far away teams such as Kirkland Lake and Iroquois Falls and a team’s expense list can grow far beyond its means.

For the Rivermen, an away game means packing 34 people on a bus and paying for their food and lodgings. This, he said, costs upwards of $15,000 a weekend.

“I run a business and there’s no money in junior hockey,” Mr. Clayden said. “The key is to operate as close to the black as you can.” Travel expenses like this, he added, make this almost impossible.

“And let’s call a spade a spade—how many scouts are in Cochrane, Iroquois Falls or Kirkland Lake? None,” he continued. “How do I tell a player and his parents from Edmonton, Alberta that there is no OHL or NCAA exposure? That’s another concern of ours.”

He said the CIHL’s combined allowance of as many 15 American and European players is a boon to everyone as the experience of playing hockey with young men from around the world and learning from one another is only a good thing.

“At the end of the day it’s really about the program and our program speaks for itself,” Mr. Clayden added.

He spoke of the overwhelming support he and the Rivermen have received from Espanola’s mayor and council and community, including Manitoulin fans.

“They have faith in us that we’re doing the right thing,” he said. “We’re not doing this to buck the system, we’re doing this because the junior hockey system in Northern Ontario is broken.”

[pullquote]“They have faith in us that we’re doing the right thing,” he said. “We’re not doing this to buck the system, we’re doing this because the junior hockey system in Northern Ontario is broken.”[/pullquote]

Mr. Clayden said he fully expects the CIHL will be sanctioned by the AAU later this spring.

“We’re not competing (with the NOJHL), we’re just giving the player, student-athlete and parent another option,” he said.

When asked if Manitoulin was on the list of potential CIHL teams, Mr. Clayden said that ship had sailed.

“I’m very disappointed in the lack of community vision to move forward,” he said of earlier talks of Manitoulin hosting a Junior A franchise. “But I am incredibly grateful for the Islander fans that have supported us.”

“There are a lot of good junior players that play elsewhere, but unfortunately they won’t be returning home to play—it’s not going to happen on Manitoulin Island.”

“The leadership in Little Current never took the time to read the contract in-depth or ask Espanola where they are at,” he continued. “It generates hundreds of thousands to the community in the winter months at no cost to the Town of Espanola.”

He said he believed the Northeast Town’s trepidation was the result of past experiences with Junior A teams on Manitoulin, “but Espanola didn’t have great past experiences and this didn’t stop them. I think the Rivermen proved everyone wrong.”

Robert Mazzuca, NOJHL commissioner, told The Expositor he wished Mr. Clayden and the CIHL all the best, stating that it’s always hard when any team is lost, making note of the Espanola Rivermen leaving the NOJHL.

Responding to a question about the newly added expense of travel to such far reaches as Cochrane, Mr. Mazzuca said, “It’s expensive for junior hockey in the North. Period. Transportation costs are high,” he admitted.

The commissioner said the NOJHL had an application from a Northern Michigan team, which was rejected for that very reason. However, he continued, when weekend games are made so three games can be played in three days on the road, giving the example of Abitibi, Kirkland Lake and North Bay, savings can be met.

The board of the NOJHL meets this week to discuss the fate of the North Bay Trappers in its bid to move to Mattawa and at the same time will be discussing a new “financially stable” and hockey-minded North Bay group that is interested in taking the Rivermen’s spot in the league, subject to a City of North Bay lease agreement.

“Any ill will?” this reporter asked of Mr. Clayden and the CIHL.

“Absolutely not,” Mr. Mazzuca responded. “In fact after the announcement I sent Tim an email to pop by the next time he’s in Sudbury to get together for wings at Eddie’s (Sports Bar). He hasn’t responded though, so whatever.”

For more information about the CIHL, visit the website at www.thecihl.com.