While it wasn’t exactly the NFL’s Baltimore Colts March 29, 1984 midnight run out of that city, to local hockey fans it’s a close second.
In a move that has outraged many followers of the local franchise, the current owners of the Kingston Voyageurs, Deanna Oliver and Rob Zarichny, have sold the team to a group led by Howie Campbell, owner of the Ontario Hockey League’s Barrie Colts. Campbell will be moving the team to Collingwood after that city’s town council voted in favor of a lease for the local arena and renaming it the Colts.
It was a community organization that was started by a group of local businessmen who wanted to give young players a place to play junior hockey following their minor hockey days, and prior to leaving for university or college. In 1973, Bill Reason, Bill Darlington, Bruce Landon, Jack Cliff, and Sam Kay formed the organization. As for the team name, they were assisted by the ownership of the new OHA Major Junior A (now the Ontario Hockey League) franchise Kingston Canadiens.
“While we were negotiating with Sam Pollock, GM of the Montreal Canadiens, in purchasing the Junior Canadiens, we had to ask for permission to alter the logo. We had to replace the C-H with a C-K,” explained Peter Radley, who was a member of the local Canadians original ownership group.
“While we were at it, we asked if we could include the Voyageurs as part of the deal. Pollock and Jean Beliveau didn’t hesitate to say yes. They were true gentleman and a pleasure to deal with,” Radley explained a year ago while attending a Kingston Frontenacs game.
The team began playing in 1973 in the Kingston Industrial League, which had teams with players who had played minor pro, major junior, college and university hockey. At the end of the season, the team applied for, and were granted permission to play in the OHA Jr. C playdowns. They lost to the Cobourg Cougars in 7 games, with the home team winning every game. At the end of the season, the organization applied to join the Metro Junior B League and began playing in that league in the fall of 1974.
From there the team became an integral part of the local hockey community, despite the fact that they didn’t finish higher than fourth place in conference standings for the first 13 seasons. The results started to improve in the mid-1980s, which culminated with the team losing in the 1988-89 league final. The team certainly held the city’s attention that spring.
Over the years, many local players who played for the Vees went on to play in the NHL, such as Kirk Muller, Doug Gilmour, Gananoque native Alyn McCauley, Jay McKee, Jay McClement, Mike Smith, and a handful of others. Many local players went on to outstanding college and university careers, such as Dale Sandles, Chris DeRuiter, Kyle Whaley, Matt Pomeroy, Aaron Kenney, Ben Blasco, and many others. But perhaps the best player to perform as a Voyageur was Ryan Vince, who scored 221 points in 101 games. Honorable mention goes to Scott Martin.
The organization has also been an outstanding training ground for coaches, such as Jim Hulton who is now the General Manager and Head Coach of the Prince Edward Island Islanders, as well as a two-time Assistant Coach of Canada’s World Junior Program.
Under the original model, the team was run by tireless volunteers, such as Scott Martin Sr and Paul Watts, who put in thousands of hours running the team, and raising sponsorship dollars through countless bingos and reaching out to local businesses for financial support.
“We were running very lean by the mid-90s,” explained former team president (and de facto team historian) Paul Watts. “During those days we knew that we might have to start recruiting players from outside the area in order stay competitive.”
During the summer of 1993, then Head Coach and GM Kevin Abrams travelled to the Maritimes and recruited 15 year old Daniel Cleary, who would go onto play over 1,000 games (regular season plus playoffs) in the NHL, winning a Stanley Cup with Detroit in 2008.
By the early 2000s the team’s financial situation was dire, and thankfully local business owner Gregg Rosen stepped in as a major sponsor.
“It got to the point in 2005 that we didn’t have money to pay for a bus for a road trip,” said Watts. “It seemed that we were asking Gregg for money all the time. He was great. It seemed that whatever amount we asked for, he at least doubled it.”
In 2006, Rosen took over ownership of the team, which ended the era of it being community owned.
“I wanted to be in the hockey business so the timing was right. I also wanted to run it properly,” Rosen said.
Rosen quickly made major improvements to the team’s infrastructure, making it possible to compete at a high level.
“I have a passion for the sport and that is what you need to own a Junior A team. No one is getting into that business to make a quick buck,” explained Rosen.
“It also takes a solid organization of people and that is why we were successful. This young guy named Evan Robinson showed up in my office and asked for a sales job with us at Kimco. He was persistent beyond words” Rosen said with a laugh.
Rosen deflected the suggestion that he turned the team’s fortunes around and instead gave the credit to Robinson and Assistant Coach Peter Goulet.
“They were on the road scouting, coaching the team and had full-time jobs. They were the backbone of the team,” he said.
In 2009 the team won the Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey Championship and went on to win the Dudley Hewitt Cup, which qualified them for the Royal Bank Cup – the Junior A national championship. It was arguably the most successful junior team in local history.
Unfortunately, Rosen had to sell the team in 2011 due to a cancer diagnosis. A group that included recent owners took over the club. Since the purchase from Rosen, the ownership group had shrunk to just Oliver and Zarichny.
Under the current ownership, the team has had modest success on the ice, however not off. They failed to promote the team in order to attract fans, and the rumors of a sale have been the worst kept secret in the hockey community for some time now.
The current owners have claimed in the local media that no one in the area was interested in purchasing the club. One might suggest that no one was interested at the price they were able to get from the Campbell group. However, there was local interest.
“Look, they made a business decision and no one can blame them for that,” said Rosen. “The cost of running one of these teams if you run one the right way is massive. And if you were to obtain an expansion franchise, it would cost $500,000 just to get in the game.
What is sad – and what has upset local fans and hockey observers – is: What was the motivation for the recent owners in being in that position in the first place? It doesn’t take a Scotty Bowman to look at the roster and figure out why, in this writer’s opinion. Perhaps they were just delaying the inevitable. Yes, the realities of owning and running a junior franchise have changed and, as Gregg Rosen explained, it takes an owner or a group of owners with a passion for the game and the community. The way this deal went down stinks with the denials and hedging to other members of the local media.
Things rarely end well when a team leaves a community, however, this could have ended so much differently – and on a positive note, given that the cat had been out of the bag for a while. There could have been a formal event, saluting former players, executives, and support staff, an event that fans should have been given an opportunity to attend. Given the sheer number of Voyageurs alumni that still live in the area, and people who simply cared, an opportunity for a proper goodbye was not afforded. It was, however, deserved.
Tim “The Coach” Cunningham has played every sport ever. His inside knowledge can be heard and seen on radio, television and in print across Canada. Follow him on twitter at @TheCoachTC.