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The Columbia Journal
P.O. Box 2633 MPO,
Vancouver, British Columbia,
Canada V6B 3W8
Phone: 604-266-6552
Fax: 604-267-3342

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    Amateur Status

    By John Hughes

    Vancouver GiantsThe 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, yes, scoring.

    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 wiser lightweights.

    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

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