SENIOR HOCKEY: Avalon East league turns thumbs down on expansion

Future of senior hockey in Harbour Grace, Mount Pearl in jeopardy

Terry Roberts
Published on August 27, 2014
CeeBees' executive president Nick Saunders.
Photo by Nicholas Mercer/The Compass

A decision by the executive committee of the Avalon East senior hockey league to reject all applications for new teams for the 2014-15 season is being met with disappointment and anger in Conception Bay North.

It’s been learned that during a meeting on Tuesday, the executive decided that a four-team format will continue for the upcoming season, with teams based in Bell Island, Torbay, St. John’s and in Mobile on the Southern Shore.

The decision likely leaves two well-known teams — the CeeBee Stars of Harbour Grace and the Mount Pearl Blades — without a league to play in this season.

An effort by hockey enthusiasts in the Whitbourne area to enter a team in the league also appears to have fallen short.

It’s the latest twist in a series of dramatic moves on the senior hockey scene in this province, and it’s not sitting well with Nick Saunders, president of the executive committee that manages the affairs of the CeeBee Stars.

“We don’t know what to do now,” Saunders said.

He said the team is now “treading water,” despite the best efforts of hockey leaders in Conception Bay North and Mount Pearl to convince the Avalon East brain trust to welcome the two teams back into the fold.

“Right now, there may not be any senior hockey for CBN or Mount Pearl,” said Saunders.

The circumstance was created in June after the six-team Newfoundland Senior Hockey League was disbanded, and four teams — Clarenville, Gander, Grand Falls-Windsor and Corner Brook/Deer Lake — were given the green light by Hockey Newfoundland and Labrador to establish a central-west league, which will begin play this fall.

This left the CeeBees and the Blades in the wilderness.

Over the summer, supporters of both teams began making overtures to the Avalon East league for membership.

Saunders said they did everything that was asked, including submitting potential rosters.

But in the end, it wasn’t enough.

For many, the decision does not come as a surprise. The CeeBees and the Blades bolted from the Avalon East league several years ago to join the upstart provincial league, and the break-up wasn’t pretty.

There was a battle over league royalties that made its way into the justice system, with the CeeBees eventually prevailing.

“We had put that behind us, and we were hoping they had too,” said Saunders, adding that expanding the Avalon East league to six teams would have been great for hockey in the region.

Unlike the provincial circuit, he said, the Avalon league features local players, and is run on a much tighter budget.

Saunders said the CeeBees and the Blades were willing to play by whatever rules were put in place by the league.

But he said the league never really seemed to take it seriously.

“It was hard to get meetings with them,” said Saunders, “but we were patient and understanding.”

He said reaction to the rejection has been pouring in.

“I have been overwhelmed with emails,” said Saunders.

He added that officials with the senior council of HNL have suggested a couple of options, including a series of exhibition games between the CeeBees and the Blades throughout the season, with the winner facing off for the Herder Memorial Trophy against the winner of the central-west league.

Saunders dismissed this notion outright, saying it’s unlikely that fans, sponsors or players would buy into this concept.

The prospect of forming a separate league, perhaps with a team from Whitbourne, is also a longshot, added Saunders.

He said it’s hard not to feel bitter about the situation. He said the CeeBee Stars have iced a very successful team, having appeared in eight Herder finals over the past decade, and winning four.

And if the team is forced to sit idle for a season or longer, he’s doubtful it will recover, adding “it won’t be me” who makes the effort.