By Andrew Mitchell
The future of the World Hockey Association Corp., and all six teams in the fledgling Junior West Hockey League, is on thin ice after accusations of financial mismanagement and a lawsuit by a Vancouver investment firm. That includes the Squamish Cougars organization, which played its first home game at Brennan Park last September.
The WHAC, also based in Vancouver, is vigorously denying all allegations of mismanagement and denies owing any money to Global Developments Incorporated. Still, it’s clear the league is in financial difficulty, given the fact that its stock dropped to less than a penny, from $2 in June 2006. The town of Osoyoos also terminated its deal with the WHAC after the league failed to pay for $11,000 in ice time, according to The Globe and Mail.
The league also jump-started the playoffs by several weeks, pitting the New Westminster Whalers against the Lumby Saints. The Squamish Cougars, sitting in third place just points back of a playoff spot, were forced to concede the season last week.
Cougars coach Matt Samson has been told that the Cougars will be back next year, and has yet to hear otherwise.
“We’ll have to see what comes out of the stock market stuff, but I’m not involved in that,” he said.
As for the Cougars’ season ending early he said the team was disappointed but that his players should hold their heads high. “It’s always a disappointment to miss a few weeks of a season, but we had a really good run at it and some players got some good exposure this season and are in talks with Junior A coaches.”
The players being looked at are Ross Pattison and Nils Hanfstingli, while other players have been invited to participate in Junior A tryouts. Whistler’s Troy McLean, the captain and top scorer of the team, will be too old next year for Junior hockey but still has the option of playing varsity hockey in Canada or the U.S.
Squamish had a last chance of making the playoffs, meeting the Whalers in a best-of-three series, losing the first game after leading 3-1 in the first period and then by 4-2 in the second game. At press-time Lumby and the Whalers were tied at one game apiece.
According to Squamish Mayor Ian Sutherland, the Cougars are not behind in payments after paying for January’s ice time. February ice time will be billed in March.
As far as he is concerned, he would like to see the Cougars stay in town if the league makes it to next season.
“Overall it’s been a very positive experience with the Cougars,” he said. “Let me say that I hope the Cougars are back again next year. (League CEO and President) Ricky Smith has said the plan is to be back in Squamish again next year, that’s his hope and that’s his intent. In the next month or so we should know what’s happening in 2007-08 more clearly.”
If the WHAC is forced out of business, Sutherland says Squamish will pursue another minor hockey team.
“One of the reasons we wanted a team to come to town this past season is to show hockey leagues across the province that (Squamish) will support junior hockey. We had good crowds, there was good community support for the team, and good support for staff,” he said.
“If it does come down to looking for another team in the future, we now have a positive framework for that, I think we’ve proven that we’re a good town for a junior hockey franchise. That’s if worst comes to worst, we’ve had a good year with the Cougars in town and we’d like them to stay.”
The league itself is somewhat unusual. While conventional for-profit hockey teams are individually owned and managed through franchise agreements with the sanctioning association, the WHAC was centrally owned and managed. Each team was provided with the same general budget for team, staff and travel, and even recruited players from the same camps. The only way teams were autonomous was in recruiting and coaching players aged 16 to 20.
CEO and Company president Ricky Smith bought the rights to the World Hockey Association Corp. — formerly a rival league to the NHL — in 2005, and took the company public that summer to raise money to get the league off the ground. He also recruited several NHL players to help out with the league, including Bobby Hull who played with the original WHAC in the 1970s.
According to Global Developments Inc., the WHAC has violated a shareholders agreement and has not repaid a $277,000 loan. Their lawsuit names Smith, Hull, and WHAC director Peter Young. Global, which claims to own 40 per cent of the league, says company assets were “improperly co-mingled with the personal assets” of Smith.
Smith denies the allegations, and has fought back aggressively in the last week. Nobody at the WHAC or Global was available at press time to comment on the case, but Smith did issue a release stating that the WHAC is not party to any agreement or contract with Global. He further alleged that the WHAC stock has been manipulated by what he called “illicit trading activity coming from off-shore”, and promised to look into the matter.
The WHAC still intends to expand the western league by two teams this year, while adding eight teams in the east to create a 16-team league.