When the St. Michael’s Buzzers and the Vaughan Vipers opened their regular seasons this past weekend, it was easy to spot a major difference.
It was the youth and inexperience of one team and the speed and dominance of another.
Last season, these two teams played in the same Ontario Junior Hockey League.
But, in June 2009, a difference of opinion sent the Buzzers one way and the Vipers the other.
The Central Canadian Hockey League teams will recruit younger players and focus more on player development, whereas the Ontario Junior A Hockey League will continue playing under the same rules as in the past with restrictions on 16-year-old roster players.
Players wanting to keep their eligibility for the NCAA can continue playing in either league, but fans will notice more 16-year-olds playing in the CCHL.
“The split didn’t really affect the recruiting element [for us],” says Jason Fortier, head coach and assistant general manager of the Vaughan Vipers.
“I know a lot of the young guys coming into this division were a little hesitant because of the fact they heard the other division was going to be a little younger and there would be more opportunity for guys to get a couple more shifts in.”
While the Vipers are focusing on winning the OJAHL championship this season, the St. Michael’s Buzzers are rebuilding under the new CCHL rules.
“We are trying to put more of a focus on development,” says Michael DePellegrin, head coach of the Buzzers. “Instead of going after, like they did years ago, players from the Ontario Hockey League, we are now going after players in minor hockey.”
Fortier is a believer in the OJAHL philosophy and giving the players the skills they need to succeed at the next level.
“For the most part we try to put a good program on the ice,” he says. “We offer the kids everything they need to excel and I think our style with the kids basically speaks for itself.”
DePellegrin credits Mike McCarron, president of the Buzzers, with vision and foresight to join the new league.
“He has prided St. Mike’s as being a leader,” DePellegrin says. “He saw a lot of things wrong with the way junior A hockey was being run. He wanted to put more of the focus back on the kids and development.”
Over the past few years, the Buzzers have been producing players for the National Hockey League like Andrew Cogliano, Anthony Stewart and Wojtek Wolski by preparing them for NCAA teams. DePellegrin hopes that continues.
“We are going to have to learn to be a lot more patient because we are dealing with younger kids,” he says.
While the DePellegrin realizes the younger players will make mistakes on the ice, but believes it is up to the coaches to teach the players and put them in spots to have success.
“Our organization is rebuilding, so we are really young this year and we have to realize young kids are going to make mistakes because the learning curve is a little different than in years past because they have never played junior hockey before,” he says.
In the end, the two separate leagues will play separately throughout the regular season and have their own set of playoffs, but the two league champions will faceoff for the opportunity to compete for the Dudley Hewitt Cup.