The Real Cost Of A Losing Team

In the month of May the only thing you can see at Kingston’s Rogers KRock Centre are the monster trucks,  if you want to see OHL hockey you have to go to Oshawa.   So we did,  hitting the 401 on Mother’s Day weekend to see Game 2 of the OHL finals and Erie’s phenom Connor McDavid.

When you a get a taste of junior hockey played at its highest level,  you understand just how much we’ve been cheated in Kingston.

The price Kingston fans have paid for supporting a team that has never been competitive.

Oshawa fans call themselves ‘Gens Army’, a sea of red sweaters and shirts fill the GM Centre even during warm up.   Outside there is a a buzz and it’s not just from the small beer garden setup near the main entrance.  There doesn’t appear to be anywhere nearby you’d want to have a beer before the game, to say downtown Oshawa is not very nice, would be an understatement.  I asked one fan where we’d find, “the nice part of Oshawa?”   He thought for a moment and replied, ‘Whitby.”

I was thinking how much better this would be in Kingston.  Parties in the square with live bands and a really big beer garden before and after the game.  Not to mention our unique local pubs and restaurants overflowing, try finding that in downtown Oshawa.

But because the Frontenacs never win, Kingston misses out.

Kingston has bid twice to host the Memorial Cup and never got past the stage where the CHL selection committee just rolled its collective eyes and said. “Kingston, really, you’re kidding right?”

We’ve got everything we need to host the tournament,  except for a team, which is the most important aspect of the bid.

We also have something no other city has,  the history.    Kingston hockey pioneer Captain James T. Sutherland founded the Memorial Cup here in 1919,  after two local hockey heroes died overseas;  George Richardson and Scotty Davidson.   Sadly, the tournament has never come ‘home’ .

In fact,  it’s pretty cocky (or delusional) to submit a bid and expect to host the Memorial Cup when you haven’t won a single playoff series since 1998.  And you wonder why, when they show up the OHL Board of Governors meetings, no one takes Kingston seriously.    Thank God for Sudbury, or we’d be the OHL’s permanent punchline.

A few years ago I co-chaired Kingston’s bid to host the RBC Cup,  Canada’s Tier 2 hockey championships.     We had a great organizing committee and an exceptional bid.     What we didn’t have was a decent rink.     The RBC Cup is played at the same time as the OHL Finals,  and the Kingston Frontenacs wouldn’t give up their home rink.   Just in case they happened to be playing for an OHL title.

Now,  I know what you’re thinking,  like any other sane hockey fan,  pigs will fly before that happens.

Doesn’t seem to matter to them,  so we go to Calgary to present our bid to Hockey Canada and we’re forced to pitch the Memorial Centre as our home rink for the tournament.

Try doing that with a straight face.

The suits at Hockey Canada are looking at us funny and ask,  ” don’t you have a brand new rink downtown?”

Sure we do,  we just can’t use it.  It’s sitting there empty, waiting for the Fronts to get to an OHL Final.  Its been over 40 years and we’re still waiting.

Not only does the ineptitude of those on Tragically Run Way prevent Kingston hockey fans from ever enjoying an OHL Final or Memorial Cup,  they shut the door on other potential hockey events; including the RBC Cup.  Apparently,  it’s written somewhere in their lease.

I suggest you get to an OHL Final or a Memorial Cup,  the experience should make you a lot more vocal about the wreck of the Kingston Fronteancs and what it has really cost us as a community.

Fans in Oshawa  think they’ve been shortchanged.    During intermission,  I overhear one conversation among Oshawa fans saying, ” we haven’t won a Memorial Cup since 1990,  it’s been a long time.”

I look up at the banners and it reminds me Oshawa won 4 OHL titles between 1983 and 1997.   I mention Kingston’s little 17-year playoff drought and they look at me like it can’t be for real.   One of them asks,  ‘Doesn’t Doug Gilmour run that team?”  I nod my head and he replies, “I thought he’d do better than that”.    Exactly.

In Oshawa, three rows from ice level,  you see the intensity and the price the players pay to get here.  The importance of every single shift,  the dogged determination,  players on both sides throwing themselves to block shots and finishing bone crunching checks.  Things you don’t see at a game in January.

I watch and think to myself, how the hell did Kingston beat Oshawa six times this season?  It just doesn’t seem possible.

On this night, Oshawa’s grinders come through, shutting down McDavid and the raucous fans in Oshawa see their Gens take a 2-0 series lead.

GM just announced a couple weeks ago they’re slashing another 1,000 jobs this year at the Oshawa plant.  Another tough blow to the gut for this city, but on this night,  everyone is feeling good.

A trip to the Memorial Cup is clearly in their sights, that’ll pickup everyone’s spirits in this town.

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Take the Brooms to the Fronts Front Office

 

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The little whimper you heard on Barrack Street a couple of weeks ago was the end of another season for the Kingston Frontenacs.  Going down 4-and-out to the North Bay Battalion, scoring a measly 4 goals doing it.   Sam Bennett turned out to be a real difference maker huh?

Kids in Kingston are graduating high school this year who weren’t born when the Fronts last won a playoff series.  That’s an entire generation that has no idea the OHL playoffs last more than one round.  My 7-year-old son, who loves Bennett, still keeps telling me that he wants an Oshawa Generals sweater.

What do you expect when your last playoff win was in 1998.   In a league where 16 of 20 teams make the flippin’ playoffs each year, that’s not easy to do.  Just look across town to the Kingston Voyageurs,  where they are enjoying another extended playoff run and have now won 18 playoff rounds (and counting) since 2009 – including a trip to the national finals.

When was Kingston’s last trip to a Memorial Cup?  Oh, that was in 1926.  How quickly we forget. The star of the team was George Patterson, the following season he scored the first goal in Maple Leafs history.  You can look it up.

The Frontenacs front office will tell you they are meeting or exceeding many of their goals.  Attendance is up, corporate sponsorships have increased,  they’ve done a good job helping local charities & engaging community groups, including minor hockey. Yep, they all deserve a pat on the back.

Best of all, they will tell you fans are just looking for a fun night out.  As long as they are entertained, who really cares if the home team wins?  I feel the same way when I watch my son play,  but it’s the Church Athletic League.

How has this dragged on for almost two decades?

Because we’ve allowed it.

Kingston’s core fans have continued to support their team despite broken promises, partially-executed long-term plans, short-term fixes, half-hearted efforts, hiring the wrong people, offering a long list of excuses and doing pretty much everything on the cheap.

We never demanded a winner. So we never got one.

We never held anybody accountable,  so that’s why nobody is.

See the problem here?

How can you change that culture, when those who created it are still in charge? You can’t.

When they renamed lower Barrack Street, with apologies to The Hip, they should have called it, ‘Easy Street’.

Come to Kingston. Summer camp for the  OHL.   No pressure.  Have fun.  Cut corners.  No one cares if you don’t win.  It won’t help your career, but what teenager doesn’t gravitate towards the path of least resistance.

If you play in Kingston and rise above all that, (here’s to you Erik Gudbranson) then you’re a pretty special player and you’ve got really good outside influences.

For the fans, the most loyal and patient in Canada,  you should expect every 3rd or 4th year the local side will win a playoff round or two. Seems to work that way most everywhere else.

Remember ‘Building the Blueprint’?  It’s what every good team does, they just don’t build a marketing campaign around it like it’s some brand new idea.  And Kingston’s execution of the ‘Blueprint’?  About the same as their power play versus the Battalion.

I was there the night the first puck was dropped in 1973,  like too many others I have been a witness to this train wreck ever since. I will go on record as saying there should only be one goal for this organization.

Win a friggin’ playoff series. It’s been 17 years.

I don’t need any catchy slogans, mascots, kiss-cams or silly races during the intermissions.  The real entertainment should be provided when the game clock is running.  Not when it’s stopped.

The one constant during the longest running gong show in the OHL is the ownership.  Some will say we’re fortunate to have local owners.  But most knowledgeable hockey fans will tell you nothing changes on the ice until there is a change in ownership

Would you rather have a team that never wins … or no team at all?  Let me ponder that one for a moment and I’ll get back to you.

Okay, doesn’t matter. This team is going nowhere and neither are the Springer’s.

What if we all agreed to make a pact; we won’t buy another ticket until they win a playoff round.  My guess is they’d still play 5 more years in an empty rink before putting up the For Sale sign.

Imagine Rockin’ Reid screaming “Rock Solid Hockey” to a sea of empty seats, clutching a fistful of coupons for free pizza slices.  That my friends is what is now called ‘in-game entertainment’. As for the slogan, ‘Rock Solid Hockey’,  let’s put that to bed until we’re playing for something meaningful.  Agreed?

We could lobby the OHL Board of Governors to institute the new ‘ Kingston rule’. If you don’t win a single playoff series in a decade, the league revokes your franchise.

Look at what happened to the poor Belleville Bulls.  Packing up for Palookaville (Hamilton ON) after going to two Memorial Cups and most years playing pretty competitive hockey in the Friendly City.

Yes folks, a generation of ineptitude in Kingston needs to end.

It’s been 7 years in Kingston for Doug Gilmour. He didn’t last that long with the Leafs in the heyday of his NHL career. In junior hockey that’s a long time, when the ‘cycle’ is 3 years to go from worst to first.

If you charted it,  the ‘trajectory’ of the Gilmour-era makes a hard right turn and goes straight east.  In the medical profession it’s called ”flatlining”.  That leads to life support.  You know where this is headed right?

Gilmour came here as ‘favour’ to Larry Mavety. Prior coaching experience wasn’t a consideration. The OHL is a tough league when you are running a bench for the first time. You tend to get your head handed to you on a plate, which is exactly what happened. The cynics said maybe it was just a marketing ploy to put some extra bums in the seats (raise your hands). Or just a brief stopover on the way to an NHL assistant coaching gig.

I have never doubted Dougie’s good intentions. He wanted to help his hometown team. How much time and effort was he willing to put in? That’s another story.

After 3 years behind the bench Gilmour made himself the GM. It’s not a glamorous job if you do it right. Lots of bus trips and too many nights on the road watching minor hockey. It helps cut down on travel when you live in the GTA. It’s a little easier to get to those Marlies games. But it’s still not work most hockey icons want to do.

One of Gilmour’s contemporaries, Dale Hawerchuk, inherited a mess in Barrie 5 years ago. They only won 15 games that first year. But 2 years later they played in the OHL Final. Now its six playoff series wins in 4 years. Did I mention he also coached Tier 2 in Aurora before jumping to the OHL? Sounds like a guy who works at it and takes this stuff seriously.

We could also look at Dale Hunter’s record in London since 2002, but that just wouldn’t be fair.

There was a huge red flag in 2011 when Gilmour’s buddy, Tie Domi, refused to send his kid here to play. When Tie Domi doesn’t want to chance it,  your franchise has big problems.

Gilmour has done some good things. He rebuilt the scouting staff and its improved.  But it’s not rocket science when you’re picking in the top eight most years. Drafting your own kids Dougie? That never looks good.

Bringing in Todd Gill seemed like a smart move. He had success coaching Tier 2 in Brockville, but after 3 mediocre years and a stunning playoff collapse against Peterborough in 2014, Gill was fired. It was the right move.

Hiring a 28-year-old rookie head coach to replace Gill and not bothering to interview more experienced, interested candidates. That one is real questionable. Paul McFarland might turn out to be a good coach. But in the playoffs going up against Stan Butler he was clearly overmatched.

Who really is calling the shots in the Fronts front office? Is it Darren Keilly? Or is it Gilmour on his cell phone from Toronto? And if you’re not at practice everyday and on those road trips, what do you really know about your team? Do you think the players or the coaches ever ask the same question?  If they do, how can that be good for the organization?

So let’s just spitball a couple of ‘what if’s’.  What if we hired an experienced GM?  Someone who has built a winner in junior hockey.   What if he lived here, was around the team all the time at home and on the road. What if he really got his hands dirty and did everything you needed to do to win.

What if he told the owner this was no longer about giving the fans a nice night out. Success will now be measured by playoff wins. Nothing less is acceptable.

What if he raised the bar for the whole organization, rather than just coming in and stepping over it?

A new GM should know successful teams like North Bay and Oshawa are built with size, speed & skill.  Kingston has skill, but not enough size.  That was painfully obvious the past 2 playoff years when opponents took liberties with the under-sized Bennett.

Why couldn’t someone with Gilmour’s experience as a player not see it?

Like many before him, Gilmour is another example that great players don’t necessarily make great coaches or GM’s.  Sometimes the hardest part is just admitting it.

Don’t you think Gretzky would like those lost years back that he spent coaching in the desert?

Dougie always found a way to get it done as a player. But this requires a much different skillset.  And total commitment.

It’s best for everyone if we just turn the page. I’d rather have the extra wins in April, than the rock star GM.

Whoever said, “you can never go home”, I think he was on to something.

Mark Potter covered the Kingston Frontenacs as a broadcaster for 30 years.  The Fronts never cared much for his opinions  back then either.