GOJHL’s push for Junior ‘A’ designation may be fight for survival

PYETTE: GOJHL’s push for Junior ‘A’ designation may be fight for survival

The Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League has climbed aboard the ‘A’ train again.

The country’s top Junior B loop has rekindled its long-standing desire to be reclassified as a Tier II Junior ‘A’ circuit to fend off fears of westward expansion from the Toronto-centric Ontario Junior Hockey League and cut off the ongoing threat of losing top players to leagues of similar – and sometimes inferior – talent.

“It’s false advertising (over a letter),” said Paul Duarte, owner of the perennial Sutherland Cup-contending London Nationals and the GOJHL’s new director on the Ontario Hockey Association board. “We have the top league in Southwestern Ontario after the OHL and for somebody else to come into our footprint (of 70,000 players) would be disenfranchising us.

“We all share the same passion. We want our kids to move up to the promised land and achieve their goals. We feel here that Hockey Canada needs to do a little bit of housekeeping so we can make it right across the board (at the Junior ‘A’ level).”

The movement received a big assist from London Knights GM Mark Hunter, who played for, coached and co-owned the Junior B Petrolia Jets (now the Komoka Kings) during his career.“The professionalism and integrity that these organizations have shown in their everyday operations are deserving of a Junior ‘A’ classification,” Hunter said. “They have repeatedly shown the ability to put on a world-class operation and the ability to develop players both in hockey and in life.

“They constantly lose players to other organizations merely due to perception of the Junior ‘B’ classification.”

The GOJHL launched a petition Thursday and shared an open letter after unsuccessfully asking for a review and having a motion allowing OHA membership to vote on the issue at the annual general meeting denied to proceed.

“Our players and communities are missing out here,” new GOJHL commissioner Brent Garbutt said. “Every other area in Canada that has hockey has Junior ‘A’ and the fact there are none in this massive area southwest of Brantford is something we feel no one can ignore anymore.“We want to be heard and it’s been difficult to have an open conversation. We want to bring some attention to this and there is a line drawn in the sand. I don’t understand why we don’t have an inclusive environment to allow all players across the country an opportunity to be in the Canadian Junior Hockey League.”

An OJHL rep wasn’t immediately available for comment. Right now, they have the right to recruit GOJHL players for the bargain-basement price of a $1,500 development fee.

The CJHL’s stance is it has four regional leagues in Ontario to service the province. But few of them have the rich history, community support and solid base of the GOJHL’s 26 teams, which include the Chatham Maroons, Stratford Cullitons and St. Catharines Falcons.The league has been home to a good chunk of hockey’s biggest stars, from Joe Thornton to Jeff Carter and Logan Couture. It used to be an immediate stepping stone to top-flight NCAA scholarships, too.

“We have no issues developing players for the OHL and the (British Columbia Hockey League, which recently departed the CJHL fold),” Kent Coleman, the GM and director of hockey operations of the Strathroy Rockets, said. “Those are great leagues. But I’ll put our (GOJHL) Western Conference against anybody else in the province. We want to give kids the opportunity to play the highest level of hockey without leaving their house.

“Our teams are united in protecting our own backyard and it’s about trying to do what’s right for our players in our footprint.”This is hardly a new battleground.

The GOJHL and its status has been a discussion for decades. Garbutt was previously the OJHL’s director of hockey operations and was presented with the league’s first Chairman’s Award.

If anyone is qualified to discuss the similarities and differences of the two leagues, it’s him.

“The GOJHL is already on par, or better, than that of other Junior ‘A’ leagues in Ontario,” he said. “Our biggest hurdle is we have this hockey hotbed and how do we keep players as long as they want to be here. There are so many things our league can build off of that.

“We’re doing this together and our plan is to keep our group together and change our status. The ideal scenario would be as a CJHL member and be party to all the things that come within Junior ‘A’. We feel the CJHL’s agreement with Hockey Canada has very contradictory wording within the bylaws (on classification).”

A move to ‘A’ also would open the door for the GOJHL champion to compete at the national level. In the current structure, the Sutherland Cup crown is as far as the journey allows.“As owners, we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing, and that’s getting these elite players to where they want to be,” Duarte said. “We believe the ‘A’ designation would protect this great league and help keep the players who want to be here at home.”