The Manitoba Junior Hockey League is just 30 days away from the regular season's opening puck drop. League commissioner Kevin Saurette says the offseason has sped by them as the league staff remained busy throughout the last few months.
"For the past month, it's just been planning and preparation. We're communicating with the teams to make sure that everything is in place for main camp and the preseason," Saurette explains. "It's a different busy. It's definitely a little more low-key without gameplay going on, but it's still an important part of the year. I think all of the teams, players, and communities are excited to have hockey sounds back in the rink shortly here."
At the league's annual general meeting after the season wrapped up, a large focus was put on their Player Education Program.
"We understand, as a league, the responsibility we have to try and educate players off the ice. That's just as important as the on-ice quality. With the initiatives we have in place, we're always looking to tweak or see if there's a better way to deliver them. Whether it's the anti-racism, cultural sensitivity training, inclusivity education program, or our mental health relationship with CMHA (Canadian Mental Health Association) to deliver suicide prevention and mental health awareness workshops, those are things that we take a lot of pride in. It's a major part of our planning process each summer."
One of the most significant changes the league made during this offseason was an incentive to have more local talent in the MJHL. The league will now be allowing drafted or auto-protected players to sign with a new team if the organization that drafted them doesn't sign them prior to their second season of eligibility.
"We just want to make sure that players and families are comfortable with which organization they're going to. We have the MJHL Draft, which is an important event to welcome those players into the league, but we also want to allow players to have different options. If one organization doesn't have the opportunity for them, but they are Junior A ready, potentially, there could be another opportunity to play with a different organization. It's just trying to find a balance between allowing teams to draft and create their prospect pool but still ensuring that players have options to play elite-level junior hockey. We want all of the top Manitoba kids, that do aspire to play in the MJHL, to have an opportunity to play in our league before they look elsewhere."
Reece Gault was the Portage Terriers' first-round pick in the 2023 MJHL Draft. If the Terriers don't sign him by August 1, 2024, he would be able to sign with any team in the MJHL.
Saurette says the league is ecstatic to have finished last season without COVID-19 hiccups and notes their first full season of normalcy in the 2020s saw a spike in fan support.
"In the playoffs, it was very competitive all the way through. The attendance was the highest we've had in the past 15 years for the playoffs, which is very exciting. It's a testament to the work that the teams are doing in their communities and the communities' understanding that those players are ambassadors and role models. They take pride in wearing that respective community's jersey and logo. We want to build off the positive momentum we had this past season."
The Portage Terriers will begin the 2023-24 regular season on September 23, and their preseason debut goes down on September 12.