It remains to be seen whether the Peguis Juniors will have an opportunity to win yet another Keystone Junior Hockey League (KJHL) championships. The Junior B club, which plays its home games on the Peguis First Nation, has won three consecutive league titles.
But plenty of controversial off-season changes throughout the Manitoba-based league have left the Peguis side with an uncertain future.
For starters, it was announced in May that five of the southern squads from the KJHL would be leaving the circuit to form their own loop. Those that left to start up the Capital Region Junior Hockey League (CRJHL) are the Arborg Ice Dawgs, Lundar Falcons, North Winnipeg Satelites, Selkirk Fishermen and St. Malo Warriors.
And this past weekend it was announced that the Fisher River Hawks would be taking a one-year leave of absence from the league.
As a result, the KJHL which featured 10 clubs last season, is now down just to four squads.
“It was a big surprise for everybody,” Peguis head coach Michael Spence said of the KJHL entrants who formed a new league.
This announcement came in May, several weeks after the KJHL had staged its annual general meeting in April. At that time it appeared the league would once again proceed with 10 entrants.
Despite being the three-time defending league champs, the Juniors are having a difficult time trying to ice a team for its regular season, which is scheduled to begin this weekend.
Less than a dozen players showed up to the Juniors’ tryouts the past two weekends. And as of Tuesday morning, Spence said the club had only signed seven players for the coming season.
Another tryout is being staged Tuesday night. Spence is hoping to have 14 players committed to the team following this session.
“I’m telling our guys tonight is the deadline,” Spence said. “If we don’t have about 14 committed players then we are going to have to make a decision.”
The Juniors are scheduled to host the league’s Showcase Weekend this Saturday and Sunday.
The three other remaining KJHL squads, the Opaskwayak Cree Nation Storm, Cross Lake Islanders and Norway House North Stars, are also scheduled to take part. Each team is slotted to play three matches during the weekend.
Peguis general manager Ryan McCorrister is remaining positive.
“I think the chances are pretty good we will have a team,” he said. “Everybody is getting on each other saying you have to come to practice.”
The Juniors have featured rosters in the past stacked with Indigenous players. But many of those players have been from Winnipeg and surrounding communities.
This season many such players are preferring to suit up for teams closer to home in the new CRJHL, Spence added.
Spence is also furious that a couple of former Juniors players are now toiling for CRJHL clubs even though they have not received their releases from Peguis.
“That’s pretty upsetting as well,” Spence said. “We had a meeting about this before. They know they have to get their proper releases.”
Spence would welcome willing bodies, whether they are Indigenous or non-Indigenous.
“We’d definitely take players from anywhere now,” he said.
Spence and McCorrister are not buying any of the arguments from those that left to form a new league.
The high cost of travel expenses for southern teams to travel to the northern portions of the province was cited as one reason.
“The northern teams paid for their bus rides (for southern teams) and even for their food,” Spence said. “So I don’t know what they are talking about.”
Spence said he also heard parents from players on southern clubs were hesitant about having their sons on lengthy bus trips, especially with the tragic accident that happened this past April involving the Humboldt Broncos.
Sixteen members of the Broncos, members of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, died in the spring after their bus was involved in a crash en route to a playoff game.
“Every team has to do bus trips,” Spence reasoned. “They shouldn’t be saying stuff like that.”
McCorrister is also disappointed the Juniors were never consulted on whether they would be interested in joining the CRJHL.
“If you look at the map, the closest (northern) team to Peguis is Cross Lake, which is 5-6 hours away,” he said. “Every single team in the new league is closer to us. Arborg is the closest team and it is about 45 minutes away. And St. Malo is the furthest team, which is about two-and-a-half hours away.”