LONDON, Ont. – Junior hockey has sure changed since Scott Walker was playing in Owen Sound back in the early 1990s. It was long before the Ontario Hockey League had small-scale NHL-style arenas filled with state-of-the-art equipment to help foster the best young talent.
He realized how much the junior game had changed when he went to the 2005 Memorial Cup here, as a spectator. It was no longer one step above minor hockey, but rather one step below the NHL.
“Junior hockey has really grown,” said Walker, now the coach of the OHL-champion Guelph Storm, one of the four teams competing in this year’s Memorial Cup. “At least from when I was there, I played in Owen Sound, we just had a dressing room and one bicycle and it looked like it had grown a fair bit from that.”
Back then in 2005, he had already spent a decade in NHL and was used to seeing – and enjoying - the amenities the pro game had to offer.“It was the first time I had been to an event like that and it was quite an eye-opener,” said Walker. “I was still playing in the (NHL) at the time and thought I was just coming down to watch a hockey game. But then you can’t park within four blocks of the arena and I was like ‘Whoa, this is a little more than just a hockey game.’ ”
In Walker’s final season of junior in 1993, the OHL hosted the Memorial Cup in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., in an arena that seated 3,900. On Saturday night, the 40-year-old’s Storm will face the WHL champion Edmonton Oil Kings at the Budweiser Gardens, which has a capacity of 9,100.
“Now the new standard of the rinks now are basically smaller-sized NHL rinks,” said former NHLer Sean Brown, who is an assistant coach with the Oil Kings.
The Oil Kings, back at the Memorial Cup for the second time in three years - are owned by the same group that owns the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers. The WHL club plays out of Rexall Place – home of their NHL parent. As a result, Brown says the team is able to access the same kind of training facilities and medical services as an NHL team.
It’s a far cry from what Brown remembers during his own junior career with the OHL’s Belleville Bulls and Sarnia Sting.
“Thinking back to those days when you look at the weight rooms and the trainer’s rooms and how small they were and what you had – it was basically a bag of ice,” said the 37-year-old. “Now they’ve got all these machines and equipment that can get you back on the ice that much quicker.”
He remembers the dressing room in Belleville as being spartan with one or two pillars painted in team colours – far from today’s luxurious digs that feature carpets including team logos, couches, televisions and an endless supply of snacks and sports drinks.
“It’s come a long way,” said Brown, who played more than a decade in the NHL with the Oilers, Boston Bruins, Vancouver Canucks and New Jersey Devils. “I remember going to NHL camp and you’d get a T-shirt and shorts and a stick and some gloves and you were like, ‘Wow! This is exciting.’ Now you see kids and they have their own (stick) patterns and I’m like, ‘Wow.’ It was always an eye-opener when you went to an NHL camp, but now these kids are getting this right out of minor hockey.”
Like Brown, Jeff Paul, an assistant coach with the host London Knights, remembers when getting your own stick in junior was a really big deal.
“When I played you didn’t get your own stick until your third year – you had to pay your dues,” said the 36-year-old, who played in the OHL with Niagara Falls and Erie back in the mid 1990s. “It’s evolved, but so has the game. The kids are quicker, they’re in better shape and the equipment’s improved and with all that evolution comes results and that what we see today.”
These changes have also allowed teams to attract better players by billing the Canadian Hockey League as the fastest route to the NHL, despite the fact only a small fraction of the players in the three leagues will ever end up in the show.
It’s become big business and teams with money thrive, while the teams operating on small budgets continue to struggle.
“Business is business and I understand that,” said Paul, standing in the media tent outside the Budweiser Gardens. “But now there’s so much more at stake – just take a look around – from when I played. I can’t think of a rink that I played in that’s (still the same). The old rinks in Sudbury and Ottawa’s been renovated, but the rest of them, almost all of them have new arenas. With all the amenities it’s a good recruiting tool for kids.”
Being able to showcase former NHLers as coaches is also an important recruiting tool. It seems like former players are forgoing retirement outside of the game to help hockey’s next generation, whether that’s as coaches, general managers or as team owners. In this Memorial Cup, three of the four head coaches – Walker, London’s Dale Hunter and Edmonton's Derek Laxdal – have NHL playing experience.
“It’s so important to have people around who can share their experiences,” said Brown. “You know in this game you don’t have a lot of time to prove yourself and as an organization it’s smart.
“We all get involved with the game because we love it and we want to stay in the game. It’s what you know, you’ve done it for your whole life and it’s easier to stay in something you know.”