And so it was, that in the year nineteen of the third millennium of the common era, King Hockey of Calgary, the All-Wise and Uncompromising, declared that Sir Maverick of the Lakelands and Lady Bonavista of the Peninsular Covenant were to be wed, thereby uniting the southern and northern realms of Eastern Fish Creek in hopes that good fortune might once again return to the barren trophy cases of young ice warriors throughout the region.
Though rumoured for years amongst the peasants gossiping in local markets, it was nonetheless a hasty union, fraught with uncertainty and mistrust. Loyalties were challenged; noble folk’s valour questioned. Tempers flared and tears were shed. There may even have been a slap across a face or two with a pair of gloves, I don’t know. But no sword fights. At least I don’t think there were. Though now that I think about it, there’s an assistant coach from my kid’s first year of Timbits I haven’t see for some time.
Shotgun weddings are never easy. Or smooth. This is especially true when the lustful antics that typically precipitate them have been avoided. Toss “hockey” into the equation, in Canada, no less, and suddenly Slap Shot looks like 70’s era Wonderful World of Disney by comparison.
Not that running the governing body for all of minor hockey in a city the size of Calgary is easy either. Hell, it wouldn’t be easy to oversee the dozen or so families in the cul-de-sac near my home. It’s an impossible task, but necessary. It’s also I am content to judge of from the comforts of my squeaky office chair rather than stepping up and helping with. Not all of us in the realms are noble.
Judging from a position of “knowing just enough to be dangerous” is precarious, but I’ll persist. I don’t know the “science” behind successfully functioning community organizations like Hockey Calgary. Overseeing multiple, competing, volunteer-run hockey associations that provide sporting pleasure to thousands upon thousands of kids from all ages, genders, backgrounds, and skill levels is undoubtedly daunting. What’s the best way to do that? What’s the best size for such associations? Is parity necessary? How do community demographics fit into it all? The variables are many and compounding.
In that context, merging Lake Bonavista Hockey Association (LBHA) with the Mavericks Hockey Association (MHA) has a logic to it, if cold. They were two of the smallest associations in the city and struggled to ice a full slate of teams in all divisions, particularly bantam. The competitiveness of these teams was also suspect and weighed heavily on the parents of kids enduring endless shellackings. Others pointed out that thin numbers inevitably impacted kids in the very top and very bottom skill divisions most.
With both of my kids firmly embedded in the middling divisions, whether we had a team in the very top division or not, didn’t much matter to me. My own hockey experience was small town anyway, so I was familiar with the trials of exceptional hockey players (not me!) stuck in associations where they did not play with, or against, entire teams of elite skill players. There are disadvantages to that, of course, but advantages as well. NHL folklore is full of fabled stories about small town hockey heroes making the bigs.
In my opinion, the difficulties that haunted LBHA had as much to do with proper slotting of teams as with being too small. If overall competitiveness was the goal, then fixating on having a top division team, come hell or high water, felt misguided to me. In an environment where everyone from Hockey Canada on down is trying to convince Canadian hockey families that “winning” isn’t everything, a message falling on many deaf ears, it was perhaps hypocritical, even.
Besides, there is more than one way to induce parity. If the largest associations were proving too powerful, splitting them up accomplishes just as much as joining small ones. Sure, that has its own set of issues, especially in the context of volunteers, but it would have levelled the competition just the same.
Nostalgia, too, has its place. We are creatures that struggle with change, looking back fondly on childhood memories and wanting the same for our kids. Yeah, it’s sappy, but there’s genuine joy in seeing your kid suit up in the same colours you once wore yourself. That shouldn’t be discounted.
Furthermore, in the case of Lake Bonavista specifically, multi-generational families were also very protective of the community-owned arena. A rare situation harkening back to a different time when suburbia was a little less sardine-canny, owning and operating their own arena is a point of pride for many. That they didn’t want to lose that plum should not be criticized. Balancing local benefits with sharing for the greater good is delicate.
Ultimately, compromise prevailed against the growing push towards changing the size of LBHA, or so we all thought. The status quo was not popular enough to rule the day, but a majority resisted a full merger with MHA. Finding nearby communities currently in larger associations willing to join the LBHA seemed a viable solution and thus became the focus. Then, Hockey Calgary, at the behest of a handful of mega-associations in the city, sideswiped everyone and decreed that a merger was the only option. The powerful got what they wanted.
The result of that declaration, over a frantic spring and summer of negotiation and back-of-napkin planning, was the creation of Knights Hockey Club. It was clearly too much too soon, but like an unpleasant bandage needing removal, quick was better than slow, no matter how much arm hair was sacrificed.
The tale of the tape
The Knights Hockey Club’s inaugural season is now complete. A bit more abruptly than anticipated, thanks to Covid 19, I might add. With a full year under our belts, I wanted to look back and compare to last season and see if this hastily arranged marriage accomplished what it aspired to. Did the kids of MHA and LBCA enjoy a better, more successful hockey experience together than they’d previously had as two separate hockey associations?
I am no statistician. This is a decidedly layman’s interpretation of the results. AI and Big Data are all the rage these days. Advanced statistics has turned professional sports on its head. I haven’t the care nor the intellect, never mind the data, to pull off Moneyball-worthy analysis. But basic stats still offer insight. Wins and losses, goals scored, and championships do mean something. They sometimes even tell a story. I tried to find out what the Knights story might be.
My analysis focused on atom, peewee, and bantam. Timbits and novice have different rules and gameplay, and they’ve changed dramatically in the past two seasons, leaving me no valid comparison year over year. In midget, a unique situation left the two associations unmerged at this age level, so there were no Knights midget teams to compare. Only the three, middle age groups had valid data.
I tallied wins, losses, ties, goals for, and goals against for each team iced by LBHA (Breakers) and MHA (Mavericks) in 2018/2019 and the combined Knights teams in 2019/2020. I tracked their finishing position in the standings for the seeding round and the league round. And I noted their records in both Esso Minor Hockey Week and City Championships. All this data is publicly available on Hockey Calgary’s website.
Having compiled these statistics into spreadsheets, I then compared the Knights results with same age group results for the individual LBCA and MHA teams from the preceding season. If the average wins for Breakers peewee teams was 4 in the 2018/2019 seeding round and the average wins for Knights peewee teams was 6 in 2019/2020, then that was considered an improvement for players from LBHA.
I also summarized how many teams lost 2 straight games and were thus eliminated in the City Championships. This tournament style playoff is a true double knockout, so I figured teams that lost two games and were done represented the weakest teams for a given association. If the Knights atom teams suffered fewer of these “two and outs” than the Mavericks atom teams did the year before, then I considered that an improvement for the MHA players.
At the other end of the spectrum is championships, of course, and I attempted to do that too. Except our lovely pandemic hit and cancelled the final week of hockey playoffs. There were 8 Knights teams still playing when the toilet paper panic hit, 3 of which were already slated to play in the championship game. 4 others were slotted into semi-final games and one team was still at the quarter-final stage.
All of them could have lost or all of them could have won, we will never know. As such, I was unable to definitively compare this season ending stat, year over year, though I did insert a “best case scenario” for perusal. Hockey Calgary has since declared all teams making it to the finals game undefeated as champion. That’s nice. My daughter was on one of the three Knights teams to benefit from this. She is happy, which makes me happy. But for the purposes of my analysis, I didn’t view such a declaration valid.
More detailed analysis is possible. One could, for example, compare Mavericks bantam 2 directly to Knights bantam 2. A histogram of where teams finished in the standings is also possible. Perhaps a bimodal regression on tachion clinoform attributes or other entirely fabricated jargon analyses based on Star Trek lingo could be performed. I’m already questioning the time I’ve spent on this, so I’ll pass on the deep dive and leave it to you and your god as to whether my methods are legit.
Here, then, are the hard numbers. Imagine them written in elaborate calligraphy on parchment scrolls and read aloud to the unwashed masses by an elaborately dressed Royal official from a raised platform in town square.
I made one additional comparison, the only one of its type I could. Since kids move divisions annually, the kids playing peewee this past season are not the same exact kids that played peewee the previous year. Last year’s first year atom players were this year’s second year atom players and last year’s second year atoms players moved up to peewee this year. So, for a possibly more accurate comparison, I tallied the stats for atom from 2017/2018 to compare to this season’s peewee kids.
Growth and skill development obviously make such a comparison dicey as well, but I felt it offered some insight as to how the same kids playing “together” fared as Mavericks/Breakers vs Knights.
Using the compilations above, I then went about comparing individual Mavericks and Breakers teams to their Knights counterparts. The results of these comparisons are provided below.
(Note: green = Knights did better, pink = Knights did worse)
Since Peewee AA doesn’t play a seeding round, I compared them separately due to their longer season.
And here is the comparison of 2017/2018 Mavericks and Breakers atom kids versus their 2019/2020 Knights peewee counterparts. Presumably this is a comparison of the “same kids”.
So, what conclusions can we draw from all this spreadsheet mastery? Did the merger of LBHA and MHA save the kids from more on-ice humiliation? Hard to say. It certainly isn’t clear cut, in my opinion. On average, the Knights hockey teams won less, lost more, scored less, and were scored on more. But marginally so.
They had far fewer first place finishes and an additional last place finish. On the bright side, fewer teams were two and done in the playoffs, but there were also fewer ESSO champs. We’ll never know what the City Champs number would have been.
Based on nothing more than the number of better/worse metrics from one year to the next, one could easily argue that the Breakers kids did a bit better and the Mavericks kids did a bit worse.
Important people in the ranks of community hockey believed this to be a no-brainer. Many community members believed likewise. Passionately, so. And yet, when two separate hockey associations that iced 35 minor hockey teams one year, join forces and ice … 35 minor hockey teams the next, it’s hard to imagine where all this improvement was expected to come from.
Atom had two fewer teams and bantam had two additional teams, while peewee remained static. Ironically, it was peewee, and peewee alone, that witnessed marked improvement. On the other hand, those same peewee players performed worse than they did two years ago in atom.
I was an assistant coach in atom two years ago, but not in peewee this season. Perhaps it is my fault. I’m kind of a savant when it comes to motivating youth. Okay, that’s remarkably untrue, but my kids were reading over my shoulder as I was writing and I just had to trigger a guffaw.
What does it all mean
Was this merger worth it in the end? I suppose it doesn’t matter since going back is not an option. Only time will tell. One year isn’t statistically valid either. But as far as first impressions go, I’d find suspect anyone arguing that it was a rousing success as far as player/team results are concerned. It certainly shook things up, but I struggle to accept that most kids enjoyed greater success and competitiveness.
The cynic in me says this ended up being nothing more than a massive branding exercise. We retired two older brands and created a new one. One based on a two-year old NHL team located in a different city, in a different country, whose only ties to Calgary is as a favoured vacation destination to play with our oil dollars. Well it was when we still had a surplus of those. Such a lack of imagination and originality is disappointing.
We spent $140,000 on brand new jerseys to replace the $80,000-ish LBHA spent on new jerseys just a couple of years ago (I don’t know when MHA last upgraded). We purchased new socks and many teams ordered new, Knights Hockey Association branded practice jerseys (donated by generous parents with businesses).
The new association bought every player brand new Knights hockey bags to build comradery despite the fact that every single player already had a hockey bag. Coaches purchased new practice outfits and players and parents eagerly bought branded attire from hats to hoodies to track suits.
From a commerce standpoint, it was a phenomenal success. Good for the economy, I guess. But in my mind, it was such a frivolous waste of resources. All done under the backdrop of a 5 year oil slump which has now turned into crippling emergency and Hockey Canada actively seeking ways to make hockey more affordable. Your honour, I present exhibit A.
On the other hand, the strangers from Mavericks hockey turned out to be very much like the familiar faces from Breakers hockey. That may sound silly, but a lot of people were worried about this and the loss of “community”. Despite the changes, I ended up seeing many of the same people at the new arena that I saw at the old arena. The same neighbours and former teammates were still there talking, laughing, and sharing. And the new people? They were just as nice and friendly.
That’s the thing about community. You can find one anywhere, if you’re willing to look … or are forced to.