It has been 25 years since Tillsonburg was home to a junior hockey team. Remember the Titans? Set to begin the 1991-92 season, Tillsonburg's Junior B hockey club abruptly moved to Aylmer.
Two-and-a-half decades later, Woodstock's Ian Ellis plans to bring a Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League team in for the 2016-17 season.
A former minor pro, Ellis played his share of hockey over the years with stops in Saginaw, Tulsa, and Bakersfield. Returning to southern Ontario to play Senior A hockey, including a stint with the Simcoe Gunners (with teammate Terry Lammens), his last offer was with the Tillsonburg Thunder.
"From Tim Christo," said Ellis, 42. "I think I was 37. I had played as much as I could, as long as I could. Tim offered me a spot on the team, and I was pretty grateful because, given my age and the calibre of players they had, it would be hard to compete. I just decided with my three boys at home I'll go take care of their hockey."
Ellis recalls being at a Cambridge tournament with one of his sons when he crossed paths with the Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League. After talking to players, he met with Bob Russell, the owner.
"We sat down at a couple of meetings at their office in Bradford, and their concept and their beliefs – starting players early in Junior hockey and finishing late – ran parallel to mine.
"I've always been a firm believer that if you're 15 and you can handle the bump and grind... you should be able to play. If you have the smarts, and you can take that, you should be able to play that level at 15. There's been such a void in that area, these past 10 years. You can't start playing Junior B at 15 any more, it's 16. And they only offer 'so many' cards. And Junior C only offers 'so many' cards. And you finish early."
Ellis likes a league that starts at 15-16, and finishes at 22.
"You can still start at 21 and finish off at 22. This allows players to develop two more years longer, physically and mentally. There's an age group there, from 20-22, where players get a chance to grow and mature just that little bit more."
Another big plus for Ellis was the recruiting that goes on for Division III schools, and even a chance to play Division I and II.
"A lot of players have got scholarships to US schools from out of this league. It's starting to get stronger and grow in that direction, which to me is the No. 1 way to go. With our focus, that's what we're going to do, help the kids develop to get to that next level for the school route. I think that's our main focus... guide the players in that direction."
But that's not the only direction. It could be Major Junior hockey, whether that be the OHL or Quebec.
"We'll guide the players in any direction they want to go and help their families make the easiest path for them."
Investigating available ice time in the area, Ellis contacted Tillsonburg, Ingersoll and Woodstock.
"The ice time was available first in Tillsonburg. I met with arena staff, Rick Cox and Becky Turrill, and their was an interest right away. Rick Cox was familiar with the league. Becky said that there would be no conflict whatsoever with any minor hockey or any Senior A hockey of taking their ice time.
"My top priority was not to take from the kids hockey. That's a top priority when it comes to their development. It didn't conflict with any time that we have, Monday to Thursday, right after high school, from 3:30 to 5 or 5:30 for practice. We're negotiating that, we're just putting that down on the final paper."
Home games will be Saturday nights at 8:15 p.m. or 8:30 p.m.
"There is a Thunder game Saturday nights, and they start an hour before us. We'll be starting, really, around the end of their second period. So it's going to be a lot of electricity, excitement, at that rink on a Saturday night. We'll get some fans going into the Thunder game, then the Thunder fans will come over to our game. And it will be a good atmosphere at the Community Centre.
"Everything has kind of fit so far, having Tillsonburg represent this team. And Tillsonburg hasn't had a team since the Titans."
Talking to Woodstock, Ellis said he could not get ice time.
"I'm not interested in having the biggest ice pad," said Ellis, aiming for 4-6 hours of practice per week on the Colin Campbell Community Arena ice, plus one home game. "I want the smaller ice pad. It's better ice. And it's more economical and efficient for our team.
"The Thunder are there, too, and that's great. I'm not looking to take anything away from those guys. I know with the community sponsors, I'm sure there would be sponsors – companies – that would like to be part of our team because of the fact there are 30-plus teams in the league. And some of the communities are Burlington, Toronto and London. For sponsorship, they're going to get a lot more exposure and a lot more benefits for their funds."
The league's draft for new players will be in May.
"Right now it's doing a lot of legwork," said Ellis. "I do have a couple sources out doing some talking with players. I was over in Austria in January, so I have a couple contacts over there."
His website (Tillsonburg Jr. A Hockey Club) will also be used as a recruiting tool as they gear up for training camp in August.
"There's many ways we're looking to find players. It's not going to be easy at the beginning, but I think geographically, there's a lot of hockey players in the area. And when they find out there's going to be a Junior A hockey team in Tillsonburg, there should be a good draw. Some Junior C, some Junior B players that are finishing up and would like that extra couple years of playing hockey. And that advantage of knowing we're there to help push them off to school, too.
"Right now we're hitting all angles to recruit players. Having international players, it adds to the excitement. It could be a Russian or a Czech. But the focus is to get as many local kids as possible and signed with the team for the first year. We should have a nice, good team of good players, I'm hoping... I'm hoping," he added with a smile.
The GMHL hasn’t been without its share of controversy. It’s considered an outlaw league that’s outside the confines of Hockey Canada or its affiliated leagues and a number of teams have folded.
Most notably, it’s also a pay-to-play league. Each team negotiates a players fee, but GMHL president Bob Russell said it can be anywhere from $2,500 to $7,500 with the money being used for ice, trainers, accommodations and gym time.
Russell, who himself owns two GMHL teams - the Bradford Bulls and Bradford Rattlers - and is part owner of the Tottenham Steam, said the pay-to-play system is a matter of reality in present day hockey.
“It’s not like it was in the 1970s when you had rinks filled for Tier II hockey. Nowadays, you’re lucky to get a few hundred. When I played Junior B or Tier II, we’d have 1,500 at a game for the Dixie Beehives,” Russell said in a phone interview. “It doesn’t happen anymore and now you have to pay for that privilege.
“I’ve owned Junior A teams as an owner of the Thornhill Rattlers and a team in the British Columbia Hockey League and I found it was impossible to run a season without losing tens of thousands,” Russell added. “The only thing that worked for me was to charge players… That’s the way it’s done now. If you don’t charge them, you’ll lose money.”
Ellis added that there’s always been a price for playing upper tier junior hockey, but as years have passed and more expectations are levied on players costs have risen.
“This league’s not charging outside of the norm. We’ve got family ties to the Oakville Blades (in the Ontario Junior A Hockey League), and they’re charging $5,000 a player. We’re not outside the norm and unfortunately, hockey’s going in that direction. When I started, a coach of mine said to me hockey is fun but when you get to junior hockey, it’s a business,” Ellis noted. “People invest money and their livelihood’s are at risk. And 25 years later, it’s even more now. People expect more for their investment.”
The league itself has no borders to recruiting players and Russell estimated this past year was split of 50% Canadians, 25% Americans and 25% Europeans. Additionally, they allow teams to ice players anywhere between 15- and 22-years old, whereas Junior A and B in the Ontario Hockey Association is 16 to 21.
“I have what I haven now because of the way I was raised playing hockey and that’s why I want to give back to a community and to the players. It’s my time for that. I’m not going to make a lot of money in this. If I break even, I’ll be happy. The goal is to get players off to school or the next stage.
“We want to develop them smarter, develop them stronger and develop them faster,” Ellis added.
Ellis said the team is holding a promotion to find a name for the team.
The chosen team name that’s selected will see a family pass for up to six people be rewarded with season’s ticket for the inaugural season.
- With files from Greg Colgan (Sentinel-Review)