In an ending that satisfied no one, the Arborg Ice Dawgs were declared the winners of the Keystone Junior Hockey League's championship after the Norway House North Stars failed to show up for the third game of the series, which Arborg had led two games to none, as the Northern Manitoba team took a stand against what it felt was an unfair league decision to move the North Stars' scheduled home games to a neutral site.
"It was a disappointing ending this year, however, as the final series was not completed on the ice," Ice Dawgs president and manager Ivan Gulay told the Nickel Belt News. " The first two games were very competitive showing good hockey from both clubs, and we were looking forward to the remaining games."
Arborg came back from two third period deficits to defeat the North Stars 5-4 in the opening game of the series, then broke open a 1-1 tie with three straight goals en route to a 7-2 win and a 2-0 series lead.
The third game was scheduled to take place in Gimli on March 31 but the North Stars decided not to show up, angered by an early decision by the KJHL to not let the Norway House squad host any more home games after a rough match in a semifinal series against the Selkirk Fishermen, whom the North Stars ultimately eliminated from the playoffs.
"It's unfortunate for Arborg to win the series in a boardroom as opposed to on the ice," said Ron Evans, chief of Norway House Cree Nation, which owns the junior B North Stars. "It's not the way it should have been won."
As Evans points out, there was never any issue between Norway House and Arborg. Rather, it was the Fishermen who approached the league after several of their players were injured in a playoff game in the Northern Manitoba community. That prompted a meeting of the league's board of governors, with Norway House and Selkirk excluded, in which it was agreed to continue the series with games that had been scheduled for Norway House to be played at a neutral site instead.
However, says Evans, the North Stars' understanding was that all games would be played at a neutral site, not just the ones that had been scheduled for Norway House.
"We didn't understand it would be Norway House giving up home ice advantage," he says. Still, they decided to agree to the change for the sake of the players, some of whom are in their final year of eligibility for junior hockey.
"We didn't want to jeopardize the series or the team," Evans said.
Following the North Stars' series victory, the team asked the league to reconsider the ban on games in Norway House.
"We didn't see any reason why that should continue with the final series," says Evans. "We didn't think that was right."
Gulay says the Ice Dawgs supported the league's decision to let Norway House continue in the playoffs with their home games being played in Gimil. That said, he reported no problems in his team's earlier visits to the North Stars' home rink during regular season play.
"This year we were in Norway House once to play two games and both were played in good sportsmanship," he said in an e-mail. "The off-ice experience was a showing of great hospitality by Norway House with transportation being provided to games, meals, etc. Absolutely no complaints at all."
In last season's playoffs, when the same two teams met in the finals, with Arborg ultimately prevailing, it was a slightly different story.
"Last year during the final series there was one unfortunate incident where we had to be escorted off the ice to our waiting bus by the RCMP," he said. "However, concerning our team, the preceding games of last year did pass without incident."
Evans says the KJHL has been inconsistent in the reasons it gave for banning home games in Norway House, though he concedes that the North Stars made coaching changes earlier in the season after complaints about the team's rough play. If it was really related to on-ice discipline, he says, why were teams still willing to play Norway House in their own arenas or at neutral sites?
"If you want to penalize our team, why not impose a fine?" Evans asks. "The real reason why they don't want to come up here …_ they just don't like the eight-hour ride up here but nobody wants to say so."
The North Stars appealed the league's decision to Hockey Manitoba, but when or how that appeal will be resolved it currently uncertain.
"Hockey Manitoba is reviewing the situation," Brian Franklin, the president of Hockey Manitoba, told the Nickel Belt News on April 2. "No timeline has been established for this review."
The Nickel Belt News tried unsuccessfully to reach KJHL president Rick Olson, who is also the chair of junior B hockey with Hockey Manitoba, by e-mail and phone, for his take on the situation.
Evans says the North Stars' players were the bigger losers from the sequence of events, but that they felt it was important to take a stand.
"It was bad enough we had to compromise with the Selkirk series," he said. "[The players] wanted to play in Norway House for their home games. They wanted us to take a stand. We couldn't have it both ways."
Now, with the Ice Dawgs moving on to represent Manitoba at the Keystone Cup, the Western Canadian junior B hockey championship, from April 19-22 in Saskatoon, Evans says the North Stars must turn their attention to next season.
"Our next objective is to ensure that we can remain in the league next year," he said.