When Jory Uhlman took to the ice on March 2, 2012 for a playoff game against the East Hants Penguins, he had no way of knowing it was likely the last time he'd skate competitively at the Junior B level.
Uhlman, of Bridgewater, is one of several Royals hockey players that are left without options since the team was granted a one-year leave of absence July 7 and the players were put into a dispersal draft. Although selected by the Port Hawkesbury Strait Pirates as an over-age player for the 2012-13 season, the Acadia University student has no way of making the games.
“There's a zero per cent chance,” said Uhlman, who, like many university students, doesn't have a vehicle.
“I've already talked to their GM and we've both decided that there's nothing really to be done,” he said in a phone interview.
As a 21-year-old, Uhlman is considered an over-ager, and this coming season would have been his last within the Junior B level.
“The thought is upsetting. It's been a major part of my life for 17 years now,” said Uhlman, who spent Grades 10-12 playing in New York State with Hoosac Prep.
“I played my last game without even really knowing it at the time. It's going to be a major lifestyle change.”
The same transportation issue faces Jacob McKendry. The all-star goalie, who is entering his third year at Acadia University, was picked up by the Glace Bay Junior Miners.
“I have been in contact with the Glace Bay organization and although they have expressed their desire to have me on their team, they have respected the fact that I am just too far away to play for them. They have asked me which team I would like to play for but as of right now, I will not be playing my final over-age year,” said McKendry in an email interview.
“Words cannot express my disappointment especially after last year's success. I was ready to come back to the league and have an even stronger year, with one last chance to win a championship.”
The Royals, who placed third in the Fred Fox Division for regular league play and was just three wins back from the first place Bay Ducks, faced the Penguins in the best of seven 2011-12 Nova Scotia Junior Hockey League’s Fred Fox Divisional Playoffs. They lost the series 4-1. Prior to the fifth game being played, their coaches were fired, then rehired.
Luke Short, a Dalhousie University student, is also weighing his options since being picked up by the Sackville Blazers during the dispersal draft. Short said he feels for his former teammates who are facing not playing hockey at all this coming season.
“I’ll miss the town, the rink, my teammates, and the coaching staff, but at least I still have a reasonable option to play. Many of my teammates are no longer afforded that and all of them absolutely deserve a better fate,” Short said in an email interview.
Best of the best
Although the majority of the Windsor Royals Hockey Club 2010 Society executive were in favour of the leave of absence, and indicated there were problems with the coaching staff, the players themselves beg to differ.
Head coach Josh Dill and assistant coaches Bob Dill and Rob Lindsay — all local guys — were hand-picked to coach the team prior to the start of the 2011-12 season.
“I've never had better coaches — coaches I wanted to go out and play for. They were knowledgeable about hockey. They were really awesome coaches on and off the ice,” said Uhlman. “They all played junior hockey before at different levels. They were local. I thought they had everything a player could ask for.”
Since joining the Royals in 2010, Uhlman said there was quite a turnover of coaches.
“I know in my time there, I had three coaches in less than two years,” he said.
Dave Marston, who was announced as the Royals head coach in June 2010, was let go before the end of 2010 when the Royals were sitting in second place in the Fred Fox Division. Kevin Harvey took over as head coach and the team made it to the division semi-finals against the Bay Ducks. The star goaltender, Tyler Whynott, was injured near the beginning of the semi-finals. The team lost the best of seven series 5-2. Harvey was not invited back to coach the 2011-12 season.
“Both the coaches I played under that they fired immediately got picked up by other teams in the league — and they're still there now,” said Uhlman.
According to the NSJHL website, Marston is the assistant coach with the St. Margaret's Bay Ducks and Harvey is the head coach of the Brookfield Elks.
“I think the coaching has been fine. It's been upper management that has been trying to control them,” said Uhlman.
When the Royals were in their playoff series with the East Hants Penguins this year, the executive fired, then rehired, the Dills and Lindsay. The players were outraged and rallied around their coaches. It wasn't the first time these coaches were fired and rehired; it happened in December 2011 as well.
“There's nothing harder for a group of players having to switch from different coaches,” said Uhlman. “You have to understand the bond coaches and players have. You go out and play everyday for your coach, essentially, and then for them just to be removed, it's extremely difficult.”
Fond memories are all that remain for the Windsor Royals teammates.
“There was nothing better than being in the room with the guys. This being the 17th team I've been on, it's been the best group of guys that I've ever played with,” said Uhlman.
For Short, all of his favourite moments with the Royals involved his teammates.
“Memories of playing with the Royals always start in the dressing room, being with your teammates and the coaching staff just laughing and joking around made hockey enjoyable for me once again,” said Short. “There isn’t one singular memory but a combination of many, none of which are just about me, but all include my teammates and the coaching staff.”
McKendry, who was encouraged to try out for the team by his first-year roommate Nathan Little, also found picking one single moment to be difficult.
“My fondest memory will be the road trips to practices with Whynot, Little, (Jordan) Morash and the other Acadia players, the hilarious chats in the dressing room, road trips to games and playing for a small community like Windsor, where high school student's entertainment on a Friday night was to come out to the game.”
Erik Jackaman, the team captain for the 2011-12 season, was reached in the Yukon via email for his comments. He was shocked to learn the leave of absence was granted by the NSJHL board of governors. He had hoped to return to the Royals this year as part of the coaching staff.
“Executive members who voted for the leave should feel ashamed. McKendry and Little, for example, have been picked up by teams that make the commute to play hockey next to impossible,” said Jackaman. Little was picked up by the Cumberland County Blues.
Other than turmoil on the executive board, one of the main reasons that was provided to support the hiatus was the executive's desire to develop local talent.
That's something Jackaman, and several Royals, openly question.
“If the executive members that voted for the leave are so concerned with local development, why didn't they make an arrangement for Royals players to attend/run/help out at high school hockey team practices? Or minor hockey team practices? Why didn't those executive members arrange for more player involvement in the community?” questioned Jackaman. “We would have been happy to be more involved with the community. The community involvement we were a part of this year was all arranged by the coaches, not them.”
The three local players on the 2011-12 team — Mark Swain, Brandon Parker and Jake Galbraith — were picked up by the Antigonish Bulldogs, Pictou County Scotians and St. Margaret's Bay Ducks, respectively.
“You can check any junior team's roster across the nation only to find that each team has two to three local players maximum,” said McKendry. “Local developed players with the talent go on to play Major Junior, Jr. A or Jr. B, but rarely for a local squad.”
Community loses out
Jackaman said the loss of the team, even for just one year, will likely have a profound effect on the community.
“I think this is going to affect the community in a negative way. It's one less thing in Windsor and Hants County to bring people together,” said Jackaman.
“This decision will certainly divide the community in Windsor,” said Short. “I’m sure it won't take much for people to find another way to spend a Friday night once a competitive level of hockey is no longer an option. This makes me sincerely hope for the sake of the community and the league that this matter is resolved sooner rather then later, as once the drive for the team to be there is gone from the community, it will be very difficult for a team to come back.”
McKendry said he feels the community — especially young people — will be the ones losing out by not having a team this year.
“I am not from Windsor, nor have I spent a very long time out in the community, but I assume it will have a devastating toll,” said McKendry. “Growing up in Barrie, my dad would take me out to Barrie Colts (OHL) games and I always wished I could play for them. In a small town like Windsor, I'm sure little kids have the same feeling as I did growing up. I feel bad for the little kids that ran down to give us all high fives after a game even if we lost — another memory that I will take with me about Windsor.”
McKendry said if the Royals are back in 2014, which the executive said they are aiming for, he'll be watching.
“I hope that Windsor gets a team once again, I really do. If there is a team that is placed on the ice in 2014, I will be there to watch. This is the Birthplace of Hockey and it deserves to have a hockey team,” McKendry added.
Uhlman shared a similar sentiment.
“Obviously I wish we had a team this year so I could continue to play but I really want management to be different. I think everything stems from there.”