If Kyle McIntyre thought he’d have a slow and gradual start to his new job as SJHL commissioner, he’s been mistaken. The new top guy for the league, since taking over the spot in the spring, has been busy remaking the league’s plans for business, outreach and sustainability.
“It’s been extremely busy. The position has probably been a lot busier than I thought it was going to be,” said McIntyre, who replaced long-time SJHL commissioner Bill Chow in May after 11 years in the spot.
“We really have done a number of things in the SJHL since June. When I came on in May, I was hoping to just enjoy hockey at the Centennial Cup. We really jumped into things.”
After that tournament, the league held a quick succession of meetings and made plans - first a strategic retreat for the league’s governors, a scheduling meeting for the upcoming season, the league draft and annual general meeting, all coming within June.
McIntyre said the league has, in the past three months, crafted a new mission statement for the league - new plans for long-term strategy and hockey operations, business, marketing and broadcast partnerships. The league has hired new communications and social media staff and has new departments for standard of play and player safety.
“We're really interested in promoting the league, our brand and our players,” said McIntyre.
One of the new commissioner’s main goals is to get more people watching the league, whether it’s everyday fans, business interests and sponsors or scouts from other levels of the sport. The attempt to put more butts in seats - or, for the Whitney Forum, on benches - will mainly take the form of increased online involvement, including on social media sites and through online broadcasts, as well as more partnerships with companies and community organizations. The league has brought back a weekly podcast discussing events during the season - like they had last season - and will add in several feature articles and posts about teams around the league throughout this season.
Online broadcasts through the SJHL’s broadcast partner, HockeyTV, will see an increase in broadcast quality - the league has footed the bill for new video and streaming equipment for all 12 teams to improve those broadcasts.
“I do believe that we have the premier junior A hockey league in Canada in the SJHL. I don't think we've done a good enough job celebrating the talent and the calibre of play and the parity that we have in the league. That's really going to be our primary focus,” said McIntyre.
“We have a lot of people that watch the SJHL, whether it's NHL teams, Central Scouting or the NCAA, so we really thought we needed to improve the camera quality so we can get more eyes on our kids. A lot of scouts rely on HockeyTV and on Instat to do a lot of scouting and advanced scouting for prospects.”
Another priority for McIntyre is to help make the SJHL a viable path for Saskatchewan-born prospects. About 39 per cent of the league’s players are from the province itself, while top prospects from the province itself usually either go the major junior route or leave the province altogether for either the AJHL or BCHL - leagues often seen by the hockey establishment as superior to the Saskatchewan loop.
Last year’s top scorer in Saskatchewan’s U18 AAA league, Jacob Cossette, left the province and a chance to play for his hometown La Ronge Ice Wolves to play in Alberta this season. So did the league’s second-, third- and fourth-highest scorers, while fifth-ranked Roger McQueen will go to the WHL. Only one player in the league’s top 10 scorers - Jayden Jessiman - will play in the SJHL this season, joining the Humboldt Broncos.
While the league has been able to keep a few top homegrown talents, including the Bombers’ Cole Duperreault and the Battlefords North Stars’ Holden Doell, only keeping a small number of token talents is not enough to satisfy fans - nor is it enough for McIntyre, who says the league is seeking to strengthen bonds with the U18 AAA league, Hockey Saskatchewan and with college and university programs.
“We have to put the ‘Sask.’ back in the SJHL. We have a responsibility, as a league, to promote our players and our franchises,” said McIntyre.
“Kids are going to go to programs that they know are quality programs like Flin Flon or Humboldt or Battlefords or teams that are turning around, like Melville or Weyburn. We’ve got to make sure that we do all we can do as a league to promote our players and stars and make sure the teams are all offering quality programming for the kids.”
Part of that campaign includes an effort to change the way the SJHL is seen by the hockey world at large. While back in the ‘80s, ‘90s and even into the 2000s the league developed a reputation as a tough and physical league full of fisticuffs, McIntyre believes the game has changed and hopes fans and scouts on the outside will be able to shed those preconceptions.
“Our hockey ops is all about changing people’s perceptions of our league. People who think our league is an old league? Our average age is 18.8. It is not an old league. People think we play bush hockey here? We have some of the best hockey teams and best games that I’ve seen on HockeyTV in years,” he said.
“We have a fast game, we have a skilled game, we still have physical play in this league. It’s competitive. We have lots of rivalries. I think the biggest thing that we have to overcome is people within our own province who have a perception that leagues and programs outside of our league provide a better opportunity for kids. That’s not true.”
The commissioner also added that, while the BCHL and some other junior teams have shifted to a pay-for-play model for players and teams, the SJHL hasn’t made the switch and does not plan, as a league, to do so.
“In B.C., it's pay to play. It's not pay to play in Saskatchewan. In Alberta, there's probably only two franchises that I would consider to be premier, whereas in our league, we have a lot of parity and equity in our league,” said the commissioner.
“I still think at the league level, we have to do more to promote our franchises and promote the kids. The kids and their advisors or their families, they still want to know that there are people watching their children and getting eyes on their kids to take them to the next level or the next opportunity.”