MJHL pursuing identity upgrade

Junior A league seeks to provide improved opportunities for young talent

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If Kim Davis possessed a magic wand capable of stopping time, the commissioner of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League would have likely used it many times by now.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/12/2017 (1707 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

If Kim Davis possessed a magic wand capable of stopping time, the commissioner of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League would have likely used it many times by now.

Like the sport in which it governs, the MJHL is constantly evolving, searching for new and innovative ways to attract more eyeballs, to give its players the kind of exposure expected in this increasingly tech-savvy era.

“I don’t really understand a lot of the technology part but I understand enough to know they are good things and that’s where our society is going,” said Davis, who, at age 60, is in his 16th season as commissioner of Manitoba’s Junior A league. “There’s just unbelievable change right before your eyes.”

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The Virden Oil Capitals’ Kyle Salaway grabs hold of Griffin Chwaliboga’s stick during a game against the Neepawa Natives at Bell MTS Iceplex Wednesday evening. Virden won 5-1.

To keep pace with the other junior leagues across Canada, particularly more popular outfits such as the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL) and the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL), the MJHL hopes to expand its footprint by signing on with the company Hockey TV, an online, subscription-based streaming service available for scouts and fans to watch games.

While the MJHL has been with the company for some time, they only recently signed a five-year deal that includes some of Hockey TV’s other properties, including a complete revamp of the league and team websites, equipped with better stats-tracking software. Another thing the service does is incorporate natural language generation — a subfield of artificial intelligence — that is capable of reading a game summary and producing a 100-word recap.

In November, the league’s board of directors approved a motion that will have all 11 teams in the league streaming their games in high definition next season. Currently, just six teams can be viewed in HD.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS A Winnipeg Blues player is sandwiched between Portage Terriers' Lane Taylor, left and Turner Ripplinger at the MJHL showcase at the Bell MTS Ice Plex Wednesday evening.

“It’s only going to get more and more intense,” said Davis.

There are more traditional ways to show off talent, such as the annual MJHL player showcase. The three-day event at the MTS Iceplex began Monday and wrapped up Wednesday. It brings all the MJHL clubs together in one place, with each team playing two games in front of scouts from leagues including the NCAA, WHL and NHL.

Even that has been tweaked to better accommodate scouts, with the league moving the date of the showcase from September to December. Davis said the results have been strong, with the “number of scouts in attendance doubling during that time.”

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Winnipeg Blues coach Billy Keane keeps an eye on the play down ice.

Next month, for the first time in league history, the MJHL and Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (SJHL) will combine for another showcase, with each league featuring their top 60 players.

“We’ve seen a lot of positives here in the last couple years in terms of getting opportunities, presenting opportunities to our players in our league,” said Paul Dyck, head coach of the first-place Steinbach Pistons. “Could we be doing more? Perhaps. But we’re headed in the right direction.”

Though the results appear positive, in order to appeal to the most promising young players possible the MJHL is still very much in need of an identity upgrade. Currently, it possesses a lingering reputation among some scouts as a league for older and rougher players.

The MJHL has moved to change that perception, including reducing the number of “over-age” players — who are 20 years old and in the final year of eligibility in the league — from nine per team last season to eight. The board will meet again in January and in all likelihood will reduce that number to seven for the 2018-19 season.

“We want to make a concerted effort to have the impression, and in reality, be a younger league,” said Davis. “Mostly because that’s what the players are saying — we’re taking our cue from them. They want opportunities and they can have them by playing in our league, and this is something we have to do to accommodate that.”

It can be argued the MJHL is perhaps too accommodating to other leagues and should have a more defined focus. While some MJHL players go on to play in the WHL, what usually happens is players return from the WHL to play Junior A. Players are drafted to the WHL during their bantam year (age 14) and though development is different for each player, if they don’t make the team within two years they usually never do.

What might serve the MJHL better is to adapt to become a feeder league for NCAA Division I colleges. The number of Manitobans heading south to play hockey for these top schools has steadily increased over the past few years, with the number of Manitobans playing division I jumping from 13 in 2013 to 24 this year. Still, that’s nothing compared to the BCHL and AJHL — two leagues better known for NCAA recruitment.

In order for those numbers to increase, the league must make similar changes to that of their counterparts in other provinces. As one NCAA scout, who requested anonymity, put it: “As a much older league, the MJHL is not the same as what we’re used to in other leagues (in Canada), where players are younger.” The scout also noted that many of the top eligible Manitobans often leave to play in other leagues, such as the BCHL, because of its reputation among NCAA schools.

But not everyone agrees with the idea of making the league younger to appease colleges south of the border. Billy Keane, head coach and general manager of the Winnipeg Blues, the last remaining Winnipeg-based team in the MJHL, believes the league is better off being older. His argument is that the younger players in the MJHL are up against tougher competition. Also, players develop at different rates, with some hitting their stride late into their teens. He also doesn’t buy the number of commitment letters signed in other leagues, especially players that commit as young as 15 or 16.

“They brag about their commitments but I wonder how many de-commitments they get. They don’t advertise those stats ever,” said Keane.

“Our league provides some good young kids who get some division I commitments, but it also provides some college-ready guys. I think that, in some ways, is our identity — we’re an older league.”

And there’s no magic wand that can change that.

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.

History

Updated on Thursday, December 14, 2017 10:54 AM CST: Typo in subhead fixed.

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