By John Hughes
The junior leagues are where
all the excitement in hockey has gone.
Night after night the 16-20 year olds who make up the rosters of the
Western Hockey League’s teams tear up the ice like the pros do once
every four or five games. Though the unusual success of the Vancouver
Canucks has drawn attention away from the local variant of this fire
wagon hockey, a fan-base is accumulating relatively quickly.
The demise of the New Westminster Bruins eons ago deprived the Lower
Mainland of top-level junior hockey until the 2001-2002 season, which
saw the inauguration of the Vancouver Giants. Since that time the
difference s between the pros and amateurs have stacked up unfavourably
for the professionals.
The truism of amateur athletes playing harder than their professional
counterparts in order to be considered for a paycheque is manifest when
one watches WHL hockey. Some of the player’s enthusiasm is pure
youthful exuberance but the idea that scouts are watching makes these
young guys play their guts out on every shift. The resulting spectacle
is delicious to watch.
For those fans who lament the decline of pugilism in hockey (you know
who you are) the WHL is the place to find it. Junior fighters put on
the kind of show that has not been seen in the NHL since the 1970’s.
The fighting modus operandi is for two heavyweights to square off, away
from the play, discard their league mandated face shields and hammer at
each other until a decision is taken. The removal of the face
protection is voluntary.
That sort o f bravery/bravado is, for better or worse, a foreign thing
in the NHL. These guys really like to duke it out, though. According to
the Vancouver Giants game night media coordinator, Borden Armstrong,
Giants tough guy Tristan Grant actually smiles all the way through his
fights whether he is winning or not. Now that is tough.
The WHL does not employ the egregious “trap” style of play in which the
neutral zone is continually jammed with defenders and fans catch up on
their sleep. Junior hockey is a bout development and, mercifully, the
junior league coaches have refrained from developing the sort of
players who thrive on boring hockey. They have to wait until they are
drafted by an NHL team for that. One benefit of having clear lanes to
move through is that it promotes exciting end-to-end transitions and,
Another thing the freewheeling WHL style promotes is lots of open ice
hitting. Armstrong says that at least once a game an unsuspecting young
buck comes rushing up the ice with his head down and is blasted with
locomotive force by a marauding defenseman. This is a steep learning
curve to be on and it pays to learn fast. The way the league is set up
there are 140-pound 16-year-old boys playing against 220 pound 20
year-olds. Such mismatches make for spectacular hits and sadder but
One of the most important things Armstrong points out about WHL hockey
is the personal development these kids go through. Most of them come
from out of the way towns where they are big fish in small ponds. The
attitude that they will remain the best when they hit the big city
usually fades after taking a few big hits or making a mistake that
costs the team a goal. Sitting on the bench for a while afterwards also
helps as an attitude adjustor.
The life of a junior hockey player is also one of extremes of hope and
despair. Players can maintain amateur status until they are 20 years
old. If they are drafted, it usually takes several years of playing in
minor pro leagues until they get their shot at the big leagues. This
path is for the lucky few. The kids who go un-drafted either hang up
their skates or sign as free agents with a minor pro team where they
can look forward to a career of riding buses between towns like Saginaw
and Topeka for a pittance. The glory days of a junior player are very
short and the WHL is full of young men who know how to make the most of
them. S p o rt s