Wishful Thinking Wednesday: AUS men's hockey, getting back to even numbers

One hurting element of St. Thomas calling it quits in men's hockey, of course, is that it takes some shine away from Atlantic University Sport's triumphal finish to the season.

The sport conference, after all, raised the bar for hosting the CIS University Cup and three of its men's hockey powers have something to show for the season, with UNB winning the national championship, Saint Mary's nabbing the nationals bronze, and St. Francis Xavier winning the conference championship. A conference, though, is like a chain: only as strong as its weakest link.

Perhaps less teams could mean more; St. Thomas being in CIS hockey, hate to say it, was a little like Eastern Michigan University playing major-college football when it's a five-minute drive away from the University of Michigan with their Big House. The Tommies averaged 3.5 conference wins over the last six seasons.

They will be missed, especially when it comes to evening out the schedule, and the point of this Wishful Thinking Wednesday is to help brainstorm a long-term solution. Running with an odd number of teams isn't ideal, and it can create the kind of turmoil that might make other university administrations start to look at whether it should ice a men's hockey team, or have the program iced.

Bad Idea the First — Whither Memorial?

University sport tends to be accepted on merit when it is an Only Game In Town and has something of a captive audiene. That loosely applies to the dominant franchises, such as UNB men's hockey, since Fredericton is one of the largest cities in Canada with neither major junior nor Junior A hockey. It also applies to Laval football, since the Rouge et Or caught the wave when Quebec City had a post-Nordiques, pre-Remparts vacuum in the mid-1990s. Similarly, the strongholds in OUA football are places such as Queen's/Kingston, Western/London, or Guelph, when there isn't a tie to a CFL team.

That trait is also true with Division I sports, to some extent. Putting it bluntly: there isn't a whole lot to do in Ames, Iowa, on a weeknight, so if ESPN comes to town for an Iowa State Cyclones game and you're a student, you want to be there. The same is probably true in Division I college hockey, where a lot of the programs are in somewhat isolated northeastern college towns.

It's hard to tap into that in much of Canada. All eight Canada West hockey programs are in major cities that have pro or major junior. Eighteen of 20 in OUA, with Lakehead and Trois-Rivières being the sole exceptions, are in a market with the NHL and/or major junior.

Shifting focus, though, one ought to look at how St. John's, N.L., has been a political football in a shell game of Affiliation Musical Chairs over the past decade or so. St. John's is an excellent hockey town, but the hockey world has jerked them around something awful.


  • AHL St. John's Maple Leafs, 1991-2005 — For 14 seasons, the city hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs' affiliate. That changed when, long story short, MLSE was able to take over the lease on Ricoh Coliseum and create the Toronto Marlies as an AHL spin-off. That didn't necessarily create the 'just down the road' model of affiliate agreements, but was definitely a contributor.
  • QMJHL St. John's Fog Devils, 2005-08 — The expansion team started promisingly, but when Canjet canceled some of its routes into St. John's, it ceased to be viable. The franchise was sold midway through its third and final season, is now known as the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada.
  • AHL St. John's IceCaps, 2011-17 — When True North bought a NHL team and renamed it the Winnipeg Jets. the AHL franchise that had been playing at the MTS Centre became the IceCaps. Then the 2015 affiliation shuffle left St. John's in a two-year temporary arrangement with the Montreal Canadiens, which will end as soon as the Habs have an AHL-suitable arena in Laval, Que., a Montreal suburb.

Doesn't St. John's deserve high-calibre hockey that is there to stay? A good university hockey program, to quote from a great blog post by Carleton University broadcaster Carlos Verde, has "coaches and players functioning at a professional level." If only that point could get across to people.

About three years ago, MUN noted "without having an on campus rink, certainly ice time and a place to play would be a huge expense in terms of the bottom line finances." However, St. John's has a fine arena with Mile One Centre, and it is soon going to need a primary tenant. It is easier said than done, but Nipissing and North Bay, Ont., were able to work something out where the Lakers filled a void while the city was trying to get back into a more prestigious league.

The upside of a commitment to university hockey is you know the team won't relocate.

Bad Idea the Seeond — A Big East?

Seven plus three is not just a touchdown and field goal, it also stands for the number of teams in the Maritimes in the number in Quebec, with Concordia, McGill and Trois-Rivières, which are content as associate OUA members.

Our university sports isn't prone to the same conference-jumping power grabs as its louder southern cousin, for which one should be grateful. For if CIS was, you could easily picture an overture being made to Le Trio Québec to blow that Upper Canada popsicle stand, bringing over their qualifying berth in the University Cup. The conference lines would also correspond with the CHL and Canadian Junior Hockey League.

Scheduling would become much more difficult, especially with two clusters of odd numbers, though.

Bad Idea the Third, Part A — Interlock 

This will never, ever, happen, but it is Wishful Thinking Wednesday, after all. No doubt AUS will come up with something more practical to adapt the regular-season schedule. Having a randomized fifth game apiece against four other teams will, in the short run, make up for St. Thomas' absence and get everyone to the 28 also played in OUA and Canada West.

Of course, playing an opponent more than four times, beyond exhibitions, a playoff series and a possible matchup at nationals, gets repetitive.

If only there was a way to have an interlock with OUA, consisting of a two-game trip to central Canada and hosting two teams for one weekend per season.

One only brings this up as a believer in university men's puck. Making some scheduling and structural changes instead of the same old, same old, might open up some eyes that this a game that rates being taken seriously.

Bad Idea the Third, Part B — Interlock, With the O-QHC! 

This will never, never, ever, ever happen ... but would that the imaginary interlock was with a seven-team hockey conference encompassing Eastern Ontario and Quebec.

That's not happening. Carleton and uOttawa are fine playing in a Quebec conference for women's hockey, but not for men's, and Queen's identifies more as a southern Ontario school. Royal Military would not benefit either way, and Laurentian and Nipissing are just too far from anyone.
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