General manager Johan Eriksson is adamant that the new Niagara-on-the-Lake Predators Junior A hockey squad will be a community team.
Having moved from Toronto, and scheduled to play in the Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League (GMHL), the Predators will be playing half of their 42-game regular season at the Meridian Credit Union Arena in Virgil. The other 21 games will take place on the road, mostly visiting their Southern Division opponents in towns such as Kingsville, Tottenham, Colborne, Oshawa and Durham. Locally, Port Colborne also has a team in the GMHL, the Niagara Whalers.
Eriksson says the move to NOTL is an exciting opportunity.
“For many reasons, we were looking elsewhere,” he explains. “It’s very difficult to run a junior team in Toronto. It’s hard to get fans, it’s hard to become more of a community team. It’s also hard to get billets, and the ice is very expensive.”
The native of Sweden says when they started to look for a new home, NOTL was the first priority on his list.
“Our owner really liked the place too,” he tells The Local. “In Niagara, you have so many players coming up in Junior B and Triple-A levels. Niagara is a stronghold for hockey, and Niagara-on-the-Lake didn’t have a Junior A team. For us, it worked out perfectly.”
And they love the facility in Virgil.
“The rink is in good shape, it’s on the newer side,” he says. “There are professional-level cameras already set up, a good room for a play-by-play announcer, good locker rooms. It will be one of the better rinks in this division in the league.”
Eriksson says the level of play in the Tier 2 GMHL compares nicely to the well-known Junior B loop, the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League, of which the St. Catharines Falcons and Thorold Blackhawks are members.
Eriksson feels the GOJHL actually should be designated as a Junior A league, which is something the owners of some of the clubs there have been pushing for. Players in the GMHL tend to get noticed more by scouts from the American colleges, which is a common goal for many.
Eriksson himself knows the scouting world. He moved to Canada three years ago as a scout for Swedish hockey teams. In that role he visited arenas in the American Hockey League and the East Coast Hockey League to report on players being eyed by teams in his homeland.
He began his affiliation with the GMHL as assistant general manager of the South Muskoka Shield of the league’s Northern Division, where he spent two seasons before moving to the Predators.
Besides managing the Predators, Eriksson also works as a European liaison, player advisor, amateur representative and consultant for Pursuit Hockey Development, a Niagara-based business focused on helping aspiring players reach their goals in the sport.
Eriksson’s Swedish connections mean that the NOTL Predators will most likely have up to eight players from that country, four of whom have already committed to the team. There are also a few players from Russia that are signed.
The rest of the roster will be filled out by elite hockey prospects mostly from Ontario. And Eriksson wants some local hockey players on the team as well.
“We are keeping a number of spots for local players,” he says. “A lot of local kids will get invitations to our prospect camp in August. And if local players born between 2000 and 2005, especially from ’03 to ’05, are interested, they can always reach out to me, night or day.”
The Predators finished their most recent season (2019-2020) in last place in the GMHL’s South Division, with a record of 8-32-2. But Eriksson is certain that won’t be the case once the league gets the go-ahead to begin in the fall.
“Every year for the Predators so far they’ve been a development team,” explains Eriksson. “That means they’ve had a roster that was two to three years younger than the other teams. This year we feel that we can go for the Russell Cup. We have some top talent coming in here now, and we’ve managed to raise the age level a little bit too.”
The team will be coached by Andrew Whalen. Hired in April, Whalen had a long career playing professionally in the Swedish pro league Hockeyettan. He also runs his own development program year-round for both junior and pro players.
To accommodate those international and out-of-region Predators, Eriksson is looking for billet families in town. He is hoping to find spots for about 15 players, depending on whether or not some of them coming from overseas may be barred from leaving due to border closures.
Billet families are expected to provide the players with housing, food, WiFi and utilities. The compensation for the billet host is $550 per month as well as family passes for regular season and the playoffs.
The organization is also hoping to line up volunteers to take on a number of important duties, including coordinating the billets and play-by-play announcing. The games will be streamed live on GMHL.tv. Adult tickets for the home games are expected to be about $7 to $8.
Barring any further COVID issues, the Predators are expected to start their main camp in the middle of September, which is when the billet families would be welcoming them into their homes. Eriksson remains optimistic that the 2021-2022 season will begin on schedule.
“We are so happy to be here,” enthuses Eriksson. “We really want it to become a community team. Our players are going to be out and about, we really want them to be out there. If people have tips as to what we can do in the community, we welcome them to reach out.”
For information about billeting or other volunteer opportunities, contact Eriksson by phone at 365-323-5789 or via email at email@example.com.