It seems unheard of, the fact that the Fort St. John Senior Flyers won’t be icing a team for the 2019-20 NPHL season. The news came sudden and fast on a Monday, October 7, causing disappointment, sadness, and uncertainty.
Except it’s not unheard of; the Flyers folded just prior to the playoffs during the 1996-97 SPHL season, and didn’t return until the 2004-05 season, this time in the NPHL. The captain of that Flyers team was Andrew Leriger, who stepped down as the team’s coach following the 2018-19 season. Leriger, who was captain of the team when it had to drop out of the league due to a lack of player availability, was also the coach of the team right before it would drop out of a league 22 years later for the same reason, and is the perfect analogy to sum up senior hockey.
On one hand, there are those who say that senior hockey is a dying brand, and that it will only get worse. On the other hand, this isn’t a new phenomenon. The Flyers themselves folded before coming back for the longest uninterrupted period for one team in the current iteration of the league. Every team currently in the NPHL has had times when it couldn’t ice a team due to lack of player availability or executive commitment.
“We have teams in our league that are on the bubble all the time. The same thing almost happened to the High Prairie Regals this year too. Small town Alberta and B.C. aren’t the places to be anymore,” said NPHL President Jack McAvoy, who just celebrated his 40th anniversary in the role.
While those with the Flyers will miss just one year and are hopeful the team will return next season, McAvoy isn’t so sure.
“I think they’ll have a hard time coming back, but I hope I’m wrong. Paul (van Nostrand) and Lee (Hartman) work really hard and are good people to work with, but if they ever quit, I think the team will go along with them,” McAvoy said.
Disappointing for all involved
While Van Nostrand is far from losing hope in the future of the team, the loss of the season was incredibly disappointing to the Flyers president, who, along with GM Hartman, put all they have into the team each year.
“We didn’t have any idea that this was going to be the case. The year-end wind-up was good, didn’t hear any rumblings, but maybe we should have had our ears to the ground a little bit more. It’s very unfortunate,” said van Nostrand. “A lot of people and fans have put a lot of time into this team and I feel really bad for them that it came to this.”
However, van Nostrand was quick to point out he doesn’t blame anyone for this happening.
“I don’t fault anyone for this or blame anyone who was unable to commit to the team for a handful of very legit reasons,” he said.
When asked what those reasons were, van Nostrand said some players were moving, some couldn’t commit until November, while others just became new dads. That’s not to mention the struggles of working a day job while going on the road to play hockey and sometimes not returning home until 3 a.m. on a Thursday night. Van Nostrand himself had to miss a couple seasons for similar reasons when he palyed for the team back in the 1970s.
Still hope for the Flyers
Still, just because the team couldn’t ice a full roster this year doesn’t mean it didn’t have any players.
There were six new players who attended the three tryouts, while a core group of players including Adam Horst, Jeff Shipton, Travis McLean, Joey Massingham, Reid Campbell, and Ty Gullickson were all committed. Horst and Shipton have been with the team for more than 10 years.
Some of those players are likely to play for the Dawson Creek Senior Canucks this year instead, or at least attend camp. Canucks General Manager Lincoln Carrier said he’s spoken with a couple former Flyers players about attending camp, but it remains to be seen which ones will be on the team once the 2019-20 NPHL season starts on November 2.
The Canucks side of things provides both cause for optimism and frustration. The Canucks, after missing a number of seasons returned for the 2013-14 season and have been the most-consistent team over the last two seasons, and are expected to be even better this year.
In fact, while the Flyers struggled to get 14 players out to camp, the Canucks had as many as 46 at one ice time this year.
“We were in a similar spot as the Flyers, and had to work really hard to bring the team back. We weren’t very good for a while, but now we’re in a place where guys want to play for us and be a part of this. Senior hockey tends to go in cycles,” Carrier said.
Just as important as needing players who want to play senior hockey is having a community and fan base that is passionate about the team. That’s one thing Fort St. John has, with room to spare, and one of the reasons for optimism about the future.
“Fort St. John loves the Flyers and I love the Flyers. This team means a lot to this town,” van Nostrand said.
Former Flyers player and current Fort St. John Huskies Head Coach Todd Alexander feels the same way.
“The Flyers have always been a strong community team that’s supported the community and has young and good fans.”
Alexander was saddened about the recent development.
“I played for the team, my grandpa, my uncle, my dad, and my brother all played for the Flyers. Maybe one day my son will play for this team, you never know. So when I look at it that way, it’s kind of sad for me because you have that many generations of hockey players going through our family,” Alexander said.
“Hopefully, going forward, the future generations, once they’ve gone off to play junior hockey or even pro hockey if they’re lucky, will have a place like the Flyers to come back to again and play competitively like I did.”
Email sports reporter Dillon Giancola at firstname.lastname@example.org.