Edwards/Giguère Testimony - 11/5/98 (Part 4)

25 May 1999

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    Mr. David Branch: The Canadian Hockey League is proud to be entrenched in communities across this country as a vital part of their cultural activities in many respects. At the focal point, as Mr. Dley outlined in terms of the facilities, teams are certainly an important and integral part of the economy in those communities and surrounding areas.

    We would also suggest that the Canadian Hockey League represents a huge part of the future of this country in terms of being responsible for developing so many of tomorrow's leaders, whether that development takes place in a hockey arena, in a boardroom, or in some other activity that puts back into the community and serves our country. As we have seen, through the power of sport, high-performance people-which these young men we are blessed to have in our leagues tend to be-go on to contribute and give things back.

    We would appreciate any support and consideration so that together with you we can work toward supporting the interests of the educational foundation that we would ideally like to structure for the benefit of the players so that we can continue to support their educational needs. We hope you will explore the Prime Minister's millennium trust fund in this regard, as Mr. Dley pointed out. We also hope you can assist in supporting in any way the lifestyle programs that we provide and must continue to provide, and which only enhance drug and alcohol programs, other lifestyle issues, and abuse issues.

    As well, we would appreciate any support that you may provide in the interlocking portion of our plans for a schedule. We're a little different from professional leagues in terms of interlocking schedules. Teams in professional leagues can go on a swing out west and spend three to six days on the road. We're dealing with student athletes. The reality is that if our goal is to be realized to send Rimouski to Medicine Hat, the team must leave on a Friday and come back on a Sunday in order to support, accommodate, and serve the needs of their educational interests. A short stay like that, in which they would play one or two games, just does not generate the necessary resources for us to move forward with that undertaking at this time.

    We are very grateful for the opportunity to appear before you, and we thank you for your time.

    The Chairman: Thank you, Mr. Branch.

    Before I go to Madam Tremblay, who will be our first questioner, I was asked by the Liberal whip of the House to give you his regards. Mr. Bob Kilger is a graduate of the Canadian Hockey League, and he very much wanted to be here, but he could not make it because the House is active today.


    Ms. Tremblay.

    Ms. Suzanne Tremblay: There were certainly many subjects of discussion in the presentation you have just made. I thank you for this presentation and for the quality of the documents that you are providing to us. We will probably run out of time. Every one around the table probably would like to ask questions.

    There's one thing that I am very concerned about, and that's violence in hockey. Since the beginning of this season, we have seen Eric Lindros in the NHL-I was glad to see it was the helmet he knocked off and not the head-get away with a hit that had someone carried out on a stretcher. It was in all the headlines. We read that, by the end of the season, 80 NHL players will have suffered a concussion.

    A number of these players come from your league. In late August or early September, the newspapers were full of talk about the make up of certain junior teams. We read that a certain player didn't have much talent, but that he had been signed up for boxing lessons and that this kind of player was needed as an enforcer on the ice.

    It's true that, in places like Rimouski, the arena is full and I'm not complaining. There are a lot in Gaspésie to, and on the North Shore, they're doing well.

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    Things are going well almost everywhere, and there are still some young people who are developing their talents, who are playing hockey and who are perhaps heading for a quite interesting career, but we are also turning out Alexandre Daigles, young people who go up too fast to the NHL. We have seen the pressure put on the young Vincent Lecavalier. His every move was followed. After playing four games, he hadn't even made a pass. It was becoming a dreadful spectacle. People wondered whether he had enough talent to play in the NHL. One day, they said: "Look, he scored his first goal." He was very happy to have scored while his parents were watching. Everyone is watching it and it doesn't look easy.

    Do you not think that the quality of hockey is not as good as it used to be? When the European teams arrived here we told ourselves that we would finally see players who knew how to skate gracefully. We thought that NHL players would learn how to play, but it's the Europeans who learned how to fight so that they could come and play in the leagues that paid money instead of staying in their own country.

    There is something that worries me. Yesterday, I learned the results of a study. It showed that hockey ranked sixth in importance for men; for women, it was so far down the list that there wasn't even a number for it. That was in the test group. In the control group, hockey ranked 21st in importance for men and 19th for women.

    The importance of hockey is on the decline. Attendance is dropping everywhere. Fox network has trouble keeping its ratings up. What are you, the bigwigs of hockey, going to do to save the sport? I am talking about the kind of hockey we watched when I was young, the kind of hockey that drew us to the sport. That kind of hockey no longer exists. There aren't any more players like Béliveau, Richard, Gordie Howe. Those people knew how to play hockey and how to pass the puck. There are a few left.

    An Hon. Member: Cournoyer.

    Ms. Suzanne Tremblay: He wasn't the scrappiest of the lot. Léo Labine was perhaps worse. I am talking about people who knew how to play hockey with elegance, how to pass the puck, and put themselves in the right place. There aren't any more like that. That is not what we see. We see people who shoot the puck any old place, who get rid of it as soon as they get it. They rush into the corners. Hockey is no longer an elegant game. It seems like people are playing hockey without using their heads. That's the impression I have. In football, players play intelligently. What are you going to do to save hockey? To start with, it has to be interesting, there has to be good hockey.


    The Chairman: Your answer must be less than thirty seconds long.

    Some hon. members: Oh, oh!

    The Chairman: Just before you begin your answer, Mr. Branch, very rarely does the chair challenge Madame Tremblay, but I think I'm going to have to challenge her today. I have watched Vincent Lecavalier play hockey, and he'd be a pretty graceful hockey player from where I come from. I think everybody should also know that Monsieur Lecavalier comes from Madame Tremblay's riding, so you forgot to talk about him.

    Go ahead.

    Mr. David Branch: I think Madame Tremblay illustrates the passion so many of us have for our game. I think there are a number of statements she has made with which we would agree.

    Recently we had a most unfortunate incident in Ontario. A young man clearly violated what I think we all would agree would be proper deportment on the ice, and he has been banished for the balance of his junior career. That's because we clearly accept the burden and understand that the value system must be such that in the Canadian Hockey League, which is the number one development league in the world, we must provide an atmosphere in which players may develop their skills to play the game as you described, without fear of injury and other needless acts. We do that, and we'll continue to do that to the best our ability.

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    There has been a tremendous evolution in our game. Without question, hockey has become a universal game, and I think we should share our game with great pride. However, we must continue to work even more diligently to maintain our position as the number one hockey-playing nation in the world. Working along with Canadian Hockey-Bob Nicholson and his organization-we have a number of outstanding programs under way, in place, that we are all involved in for the benefit of skills development: strength and conditioning, nutrition, all the latest ways and means in which players should train, coaching programs, referee programs, athletic therapist programs. All of these things are out in the field. They've been generated and they're working. But yes, we can do better; and yes, we will do better.

    On some of the situations you described, I went with great pride to Bathurst, New Brunswick-which happens to be my hometown-and watched the opening game of the Acadie-Bathurst Titan. It was an outstanding evening and a great hockey game. I commended Mr. Courteau on the quality, style, and level of play.

    We have the benefit of going around and watching these young people play, and I think there comes a time when we ask ourselves if it's right or fair that players like Vincent Lecavalier or Alexandre Daigle or Chad Kilger should leave at the age of 18, when they haven't fully developed. We wonder if they will ever reach their potential. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that it's not good, but that's out of our hands, out of our control. We'd love to have these players come back to our program to continue to foster their own development and to help the development of others that they play with and against.

    I think there is a much more enlightened approach to the game, and we will continue to take strides to serve what we feel are the best needs for our game.


    Ms. Suzanne Tremblay: You've touched on a very important point. Who could set the stage so that young players are eligible for the draft at age 18 but remain in the junior leagues until they are 20? Why can't you reach that kind of agreement? Physically, a young man undergoes a lot of changes between the age of 18 and 20.


    Mr. David Branch: Well, possibly through support from this committee and from the federal Government of Canada, we could go together to the National Hockey League and speak about that issue once again. In the past there have been challenges to the idea of a person of the age of 18 having the ability to work for a living. There was the Ken Linseman case back in the 1970s, and it was upheld. The National Hockey League had to change their entry draft rules so as to provide the opportunity for players of the age of 18 to go forward. But if you were to ask the NHL people themselves, Madame, they'd love to see a 20-year-old draft, because they would then have a better sense of who's going to be good, who's going to be ready, who's going to meet their needs.

    Dev, is there anything else that you might want to add to that by way of your-

    Mr. Dev Dley: No, I think you've covered it.

    The Chairman: Mr. Mark.

    Mr. Inky Mark: Thank you, Mr. Chair. I just have a short question following on the same topic of player development.

    I've asked this of other delegations here regarding the sport of hockey, which is our national game, obviously. Regarding the whole area of development from the perspective of the Americans, they've taken a high school or college route versus the junior hockey we have in this country-and we have many tiers of hockey. Certainly where I come from, it's tier two hockey, but we're also very proud of the Brandon Wheat Kings. It's unfortunate that a province of the size of Manitoba doesn't have more than one Canadian Hockey League team.

    What's your answer when people ask you if this is the right approach in the long term? I understand you're producing a lot of good hockey players at this time, but in the long term, say twenty years down the road, should we be switching somewhere, midstream?

    Mr. David Branch: Do you mean the system in terms of where our players-

    Mr. Inky Mark: In terms of the system of development.

    Mr. David Branch: Not unlike any other industry or walk of life, you must continue to look at what is best, what you can do to work towards the future. Two summers ago I was asked to go down to speak to a gathering of the United States Amateur Hockey Association general assembly in Boston. What became apparent is that there is a very strong movement and there are very definite and specific results they are attempting to achieve. They are attempting to move their hockey development program out of the educational system and into club team programs known as that animal, junior hockey.

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    In the last two years we have seen the involvement of two junior leagues in the United States, and now there's a third. They have clearly said that in order for them to compete at the level we're at in Canada, to compete internationally, to compete in terms of the number of players going on to the NHL, we've come to realize that the best way to develop these young men is through having them playing in a program that's very demanding.

    We are on the ice virtually every day of the week, and we get top-level coaching and top competition in order to meet the needs of high standards. In fact the Americans have taken it a step forward and now have a program in place in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They bring the top forty players from across their country into an intensive training program period. In speaking to Jeff Jackson, who runs that program on behalf of U.S.A. Hockey, I asked him if he was worried that this may even take away development opportunities in those areas from which a player is taken away-say, the top player from Edina, Minnesota-and what about those players left back there. He said I was right, but that what they're trying to do is initially create a spark that will show Americans they can compete with us damn Canadians at a high level. Once they establish a better mindset, they will then push them all back to their club team programs.

    So in consideration of that, in looking at what's happening around the world, we have virtually-and I guess I have to be careful what I say before a parliamentary committee-put a program in place that limits the number of Europeans who wish to come here to play. In our opinion, that's to serve and to protect the best interests of Canadians in order to develop their skills.

    I think people from all over the world regard our system as being the best system to develop hockey players. To pick up on what Madame Tremblay said, that's not to say we can't do better work to improve some individual skills, and we're seeing a huge change back to that. Hockey goes through cycles. I think the National Hockey League is starting to set a better example in this area, and all of us can work together for the betterment of the game.

    The Chairman: Thank you, Mr. Mark.


    Mr. Coderre.

    Mr. Denis Coderre: First of all, I would like to welcome Mr. Courteau. I know that he has been convalescing. You are looking very well and we are happy to have you with us.

    I am going to nuance what Ms. Tremblay said. I remember some games between the Trois-Rivières Draveurs and the Shawinigan Cataractes, where there were some all-out brawls. They gave each other dirty looks before the game started and they battled it out.

    During the 1980s, there were a huge number of brawls and the numbers have dropped off slightly. We have teams like the Val-d'Or Foreurs with Lionel Brochu, who has done extraordinary work, and the quality of Huskies' game. We are sad however to have lost the Granby Prédateurs because they did win the Memorial Cup. And it's more or less from that perspective that I'd like to talk to you.

    I would like to thank you for the figures you have given us, because that is exactly what the committee requires under its mandate. We see the economic impact a franchise has on a region and on a province.

    Mr. Courteau, I want to talk to you about the future. A new team is being set up, the Montreal Rockets, and it will be managed by Serge Savard's son. Has the contract been signed? And that leads me to a question about the cost of franchises. We've seen that with respect to operations, the budget is $1.3 million, but if I remember correctly, a franchise costs $850,000. Is that accurate? How are things going on that side? I will get back to that.

    I would also like you to talk a little bit about the impact of losing a franchise. We want to show the importance of sport as an industry in a region. What is the impact of losing a franchise? We lost the Trois-Rivières Draveurs and the Granby Prédateurs. The Beauport Harfangs and the Quebec City Ramparts are still around. There were several teams. I remember the good old times in Sorel. There was Saint-Jean. We lost a lot of teams. Have you been able to measure the impact of losing a franchise?

    Ms. Suzanne Tremblay: -

    [Editor's Note: Inaudible]-

    Mr. Denis Coderre: That bothers her, because she thinks that Gordie Howe was a good player. Forget about that.


    An hon. member: He still is.

    Mr. Denis Coderre: He was a goon. Everybody knows that, but it's okay.

    Voices: Oh, oh!

    Mr. Denis Coderre: When Bob Gainey was playing for the Canadiens, he said he was tremendous player, but ask the other teams.

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    Mr. Gilles Courteau: First of all, with respect to the Montreal franchise, we are currently negotiating with a group of businessmen interested in obtaining a franchise in the Montreal metropolitan region. The team would play in the Maurice-Richard arena. We agreed, at the Quebec Major Junior League, that by mid-December a final decision would be made as to whether or not everything is in order so that they can obtain a Quebec Major Junior League franchise.

    Secondly, at the Major Junior League level, the cost of an expansion franchise is $850,000. My partners David Branch and Dev Dley will be able to give you more details on the cost of an expansion franchise for their league. It's specific to each league.

    What is the impact of losing a Major Junior League franchise or a Canadian League franchise in a city? There is no doubt that we do not want to lose franchises when a city is granted a franchise. However, there are circumstances that explain and justify decisions that are made by club owners when the time comes to decide whether they continue their operations in the same city, transfer their franchise or sell it.

    Over the years, we have experienced those situations at the Quebec Major Junior League level and at the Canadian Hockey League level, but at the end of the day, these are positive elements.

    You mentioned earlier that with respect to the Quebec Major Junior League, for example, we have expanded to the regions and have been very successful. Ten or fifteen years ago, that was out of the question. The same thing happened in the OHL and the WHL. They expanded for the good of hockey and the Canadian League, to maintain the level of development of hockey players, coaches and managers. Moreover, we went into cities where major junior Canadian hockey was the number one event. You can see how successful we have been.

    When we talked about bringing Chicoutimi into the league, in the mid 1970s, a club owner in the metropolitan region wondered if all the trees in the park would have to be cut down to put in a road to get to Chicoutimi. I remember when there was talk about bringing Rimouski-

    Mr. Denis Coderre: Was that-

    [Editor's Note: Inaudible]- who said that?

    Mr. Gilles Courteau: No, it wasn't him. He was not there.

    When we talked about Rimouski, people wondered if they would have to take a boat to get there. All that to say that the new vision we had at the Canadian League has been very beneficial over the years, with the new franchises that have been put in place.

    Mr. Denis Coderre: I'd like to go back to what Ms. Tremblay said about developing players. Basically, it is true that 18 years of age is too young. The problem is not the National League or you. It's one Bob Goodenow. We will be meeting with him next Tuesday. We have some juicy questions to ask him.

    Put yourself in our shoes. What question would you like to ask him? Let yourself loose, like we say back home. Now is the time.


    I don't know the translation for this expression.

    Voices: Oh, oh!

    Mr. David Branch: I suppose the number one question would be whether or not the NHL Players' Association would support an initiative to see the draft age raised. I think that's the number one question that would be on the lips of every person involved in hockey across this country, and not only at our level. For us to say it, it sounds like we just want Vincent back. Yes, they do want him back in Rimouski because of what he brings. As you say, it's beautiful to watch him play, but he also helps development as a whole.

    As we say, we'd love to go to Winnipeg and win back our pride at the World Junior Hockey Championships, and have Vincent, Manny Malhotra, and others in the lineup. So I think that's the number one question.

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