For the first time in 17 years, the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League (KIJHL) had a new president open it’s semi-annual board of governors meeting held in Castlegar on Sunday.
West Kelowna resident Larry Martel took over from long-time KIJHL president Bill Ohlhausen, who resigned in June, and the new guy is a man with a plan for the 20-team KIJHL.
“It’s been good, there’s been ups and downs, it’s been a much bigger work load than I thought it was going to be, but as far as it goes it’s nothing that I’m not used to seeing,” said Martel, who spoke to the Times at the Nitehawks game against Princeton on Saturday night. “It’s just a matter of adapting and working with our current board.”
Martel has worked hard in his first four months leading up to Sunday’s meeting and introduced an agenda that included changing the way the KIJHL is run and creating a map for its future.
For Beaver Valley Nitehawks Vice President, Jake Swanson, Sunday’s meeting was an opportunity to review an update on the new governance structure and discuss potential changes.
“We’re trying to come up with a more efficient way to run the league than having 20 people sit around a table” said Swanson. “We are one of the biggest junior leagues in Canada and we want to have a professional structure in place to cope with the demands that are on the jobs of president and secretary treasurer.”
The plan calls for restructuring the current KIJHL leadership model from the top down and creating a paid position (similar to the BCHL Commissioner) to pilot the lofty KIJHL ship.
The board of governors will still be in place, but the proposed changes include a ‘Chairman’ with two to four vice presidents representing each division and/or conference, said Swanson.
“Those people would have more day-to-day oversight to the league, and then those people would be responsible for hiring and firing the league commissioner, or a league president, or league CEO, or something along those lines. The focus is just to get the league running more efficiently.”
Martel likes the direction the league is going, including the reintroduction of conference play this year, and the upcoming KIJHL Showcase.
“I think the fans have really liked seeing the cross-over games,” said Martel. “We have to massage that a little bit, because I think the costs are a little bit higher, although I think everybody knew there would be more costs involved.”
Playing teams from the Okanagan-Shuswap Conference has been a positive, but, this year’s schedule saw divisional play lose some of its competitive edge, dropping to three home and three away contests against division rivals, as opposed to an eight-game total the past two seasons.
The Nitehawks suggested a reduction in inter-conference games (ie: playing Eddie Mountain Division teams), and upping the inter-divisional contests, something Martel was receptive to, adding it could come with an increase in the league schedule from 49 to 52 games.
The league also introduced its first KIJHL Showcase, which will be hosted by Kamloops Dec. 27-29, and expects dozens of Junior and College scouts to attend. However, the Showcase has had its share of detractors, with the festive seasonal dates conflicting with KI teams’ most popular home games.
“It’s unfortunate we’re losing some valuable game nights,” said Swanson. “Those are usually pretty busy nights for us, because we have lots of people in town for the holidays, but the league’s approved it and we’re going there to win two games.”
As for the full-face-mask mandate, it was a moot point at the meeting, as the KIJHL filed a class-action suit against BC Hockey and the first court date goes in December.
“Those kind of things move very, very slowly,” said Martel. “I don’t think the game changed all that much, at least for me, and I think a lot of the people that were against it, are starting to notice that too.”
The biggest change for Martel was manifested in the way referees call the game. Most elbowing, high sticking, roughing and cross-checking penalties now fall under the hit-to-the-head category, which is why there has been an increase in those particular calls. New rules have also made hit-to-the-head penalties cumulative, which result in longer suspensions.
As for the future, Martel says that each of the KIJHL’s 20 teams is marketed independently with no cohesion or cooperation – and he wants to change that.
“It’s really the administration side,” said Martel. “Having someone with a vision, and where our league wants to be in two, five, or 10 years and put a plan together, that involves marketing, accountability to the team and how they treat their players, just have an overall package so we’re all on the same page. Right now we have 20 teams and they all work very differently from one another and that’s not a good model moving forward.”
Martel also floated the idea of amalgamating all three BC Junior B leagues (KIJHL, PJHL, VIJHL) and creating a 42-team league with the potential to expand.
“We’ll be one big league, maybe one day down the road, maybe we get the Cariboo involved and their Jr. B systems. So that’s where we’re going, so we want a governing structure that works with media, works with social media, works with our fans and just increases the whole entertainment product. I think the on-ice product is great, I just want the stuff around it to be a little better and more coordinated, and I want the teams’ stability, their finances, everything to be top notch.”
For the Nitehawks, the governors meeting was a productive and hopeful start to a new era in the KIJHL.
“We did get a lot of stuff covered and it is the first meeting chaired by someone other than Bill in the last 20 years, so we’re already starting to see some positive changes that Larry and Kathy (Merkel) have made to the league,” said Swanson. “They’re both doing a really good job, and both put in a lot of hours and a lot of effort, and in my opinion, we’re seeing some really positive changes.”