It’s the most underrated level of junior hockey.
What was once considered a jungle has been bulldozed over. Paths run throughout the remaining trees. Signposts direct players ahead. The attractions once seen as wild animals are now trained, skilled young players, more worried about the tape on their stick than on their knuckles.
The local junior B circuit was created in 1965 and today the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League has been a starting place for enough NHLers to give it an undeniable legitimacy.
It’s a legitimacy that’s been hard earned.
It wasn’t long ago that the stats page of an NHL player would date all the way back to, but not include, their junior B season.
My, how those days have changed. Case in point: NHL all-star Jamie Benn from Central Saanich.
On Wednesday, Benn sat 15th overall in NHL scoring with 13 goals and 42 points in 41 games. A few lines above the numbers of Benn’s current season on NHL.com shows a successful 2005-06 season with the Peninsula Panthers, when he scored 31 goals in 38 games.
“Twenty years ago, junior B wasn’t as conducive to development as it is now,” said Island league president Greg Batters. “Players often stayed in midget until they were 17 years old, and went right to the BCHL and WHL. Junior B was a league for guys (who just wanted) to keep playing.”
The VIJHL has come a long way in 46 years, graduating hundreds of players to the B.C., Western and NCAA hockey leagues. Maybe thousands. Only a few have made the NHL, but only a few ever do.
The newest phenomenon at the junior B level is seeing college recruiters in the stands. The presence of WHL scouts, of course, is nothing new.
“All-star games aren’t the best representation (of players),” said Nathan Hays, a local who scouts for the Tri City Americans, and plans on being at the VIJHL All Star Classic at Pearkes arena on Sunday.
“The prospects game is better. There’ll be four or five WHL scouts as well as regional BCHL teams (at the all-star game). For (the WHL), all we’re looking for is to hand out invitations to next year’s tryouts. Generally, we are there at the beginning of the season and chart the guys we like throughout the year, especially in playoffs, to see how they change.”
Grads in the bigs
In his day, Batters was in the majority when he graduated from midget to the WHL’s Victoria Cougars in 1984, though there were exceptions.
Geoff Courtnall was one of them.Before he starred for the Victoria Cougars, Courtnall was an Oak Bay Flyer.
But it’s the modern era of junior B that’s seeing grads continue from the BCHL, and WHL and NCAA to the AHL, NHL and Europe, with regularity. Along with brothers Jamie and Jordie Benn, the latest generation of VIJHL grads playing full-time in the NHL features Clayton Stoner (Minnesota Wild) and Ryan O’Byrne (Colorado Avalanche). Both took a spin in the Island league before going opposite routes: Stoner through the BCHL and NCAA, O’Byrne through the WHL.
Last season, former Saanich Braves forward Adam Cracknell was a regular on the St. Louis Blues’ fourth line. This year he was named captain of the team’s farm club, the AHL Peoria Rivermen. But a coaching change with the NHL club gave the 26-year-old another shot. As a callup in December, Cracknell potted a goal in less than eight minutes of ice time.
Former Saanich Braves and Victoria Grizzlies defenceman Lee Baldwin is another grad with a unique story, said Braves coach Brad Cook.
“Baldwin’s a poster child for junior B development, playing in Saanich for three years before he went to the BCHL.”
These days, 6-foot-5 Baldwin shares the Conneticut Whales dressing room with fellow players contracted to the parent New York Rangers. Some of his teammates are quite well known, and highly paid, including Wade Redden and Sean Avery.
Rosters and rule changes
The biggest change to happen to the VIJHL in years has already happened, with the BCHL moving to a 21 player roster, down from 25.
“Some of the more wealthy BCHL teams want to have 25 guys because they can recruit 25 good hockey players,” Batters said. “Take the extra skaters from the three biggest clubs in the BCHL, and you’ve got 12 pretty good players who aren’t playing. Now they’re either spread around the BCHL, or making junior B better.”
Already this season the VIJHL has seen a record number of players called up to the BCHL.
“We don’t have the exact numbers,” Batters said. “If we can get stats and show it’s a good thing, it helps the BCHL keep this rule, and helps our league.”
Tracking player movement was one of the ideas on the agenda at last week’s junior committee meetings in Vancouver. Batters met with reps from the Kootenay and Pacific junior B organizations, as well as the BCHL and WHL.
“We’re discussing the future, where we’d like the game to go and insuring we do our best to give the kids an opportunity to develop,” he said.
Also on the docket are rule changes for junior B in B.C.
The VIJHL is exploring a different three person officiating system as a possible option. Instead of the traditional two linesman and one referee, a new system has been used in Ontario and Saskatchewan with two refs and just one linesman.
It’s a variation on the popular two ref, four person officiating team. But that option adds travel costs to the VIJHL’s already thin budget.
“This way the league could get that two ref system. It’s been piloted and accepted by B.C. Hockey as an option, but hasn’t been used in B.C. yet,” Batters said.
Changes to the current offside rule are also in discussion.
“We’re looking at reinstating the old rule, without the tag-up.”
Currently, when the puck is dumped into the offensive zone, offside players are allowed to clear that zone and tag-up. It’s believed the rule adds to the flow of the game, limiting whistles.
But Batters sees it another way. Coaches don’t want to take the risk. Defenceman dump the puck in to buy time for their forwards to clear the zone and clog up the neutral area.
“It’s shortchanging our players. They aren’t learning how to pass the puck. In the old system, players had to wait until their players cleared or take an offside (which led to a faceoff in their zone). To avoid going offside, they had to pass the puck to their partner, and control it.”
Jr. B trade deadline
Upgrades were the number one objective for every general manager in the VIJHL on Tuesday for the nationwide trade deadline for all levels of junior.
Trouble is, everyone wants what there’s little of to get, said Cook.
“We’ve lost defenceman Jaden Schmeisser, signed permanently to the Victoria Grizzlies. That’s great. We’re doing our job, he’s moving on.”
Helping their cause, the Braves recently acquired 20-year-old defenceman Adam Wade from the Kerry Park Islanders.
The Victoria Cougars made a more significant move on Tuesday, bringing in forward Colin Minardi from the Summerland Steam of the Kootenay league.
Minardi, a 20-year-old, has 15 goals, 43 points in 37 games this season.
“Minardi will enhance our leadership, character, and provide us with another offensive threat,” said Cougars assistant coach Thomas Kala.
Skills and thrills
In between the prospects game and the all-star game is the 2:30 p.m. skills competition, a favourite for the Braves’ Cook.
“I love the skills competition.” And so he should, with fond memories of his own. Cook carried the puck through the cones during the agility drill of the 1996 BCHL all-star game’s skills competition faster than anyone else. He went head-to-head in the with Shawn Horcoff, who currently captains the Edmonton Oilers.
“Beat him in a photo finish. I still have the video.”